Microsoft Dresses Up as Apple for Halloween: Get Ready for Windows 8

The last time Microsoft gave me something to talk about that wasn’t a wisecrack was back in 2007. The technological climate was begging for a revolution. The iPhone was on the brink of release and iPads were barely a rumor. Microsoft began to release promo videos for their new prototype, the “Surface.”

Microsoft engineers boasted about multi-touch computing, a new wave of interaction which would bring users a more (quite literally) hands-on approach to interacting with hardware. The surface promised a whole new set of tools, and a whole new way to interact with them. Surface was essentially an oversized table-top version of today’s popular tablet computers such as Apple’s iPad or Samsung’s Galaxy.

Microsoft tackles design

Since 2007, the focus of Microsoft’s computing revolution has shifted, from the Surface’s hardware to it’s latest operating system software, Windows 8 (due October 26th.) The Surface has been downsized from the table-top prototype into what many are calling the PC’s answer to the iPad. Windows 8 however, is an operating system that will run on both the Surface tablet and Windows desktops. Sam Moreau, the director of user experience at Microsoft tells FastCompany that Windows 8 is tackling the OS wars from a design-centric perspective, a field previously dominated by Apple. They call the interface “Metro,” and it’s a re-design of the Windows platform from a world of organizational toolbars and framed windows to a full-screen experience painted in grids of vibrantly colored tiles, each leading the user into a different digital space (see: games, weather, messaging, mail.)


This re-design is going to fundamentally change the way PC users interact with and consume their technologies. This is not simply a face-lift, but something more like an organ transplant. When PC users find their muscle memory directing their mice towards the ever-present Start Toolbar, they’ll come up empty-clicked. Instead, Internet Explorer is a square blue-tile sitting between a picture of your girlfriend and another tile showing  real-time updates of the weather in your town. This is the type of organization familiar to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. It’s sleek. It’s clean. It’s simplified. It’s totally not Windows.

Isn’t design Apple’s territory?

It remains to be seen though whether PC users like developers, and data analysts will flock to or run from a Windows 8 operating system. The preference for PCs often comes from 1) The open ecosystem of software development in the Windows world which allows for the types of tools and software that developers and analysts prefer. 2) The highly transparent nature of the Windows environment that allows users to find, edit, and configure almost anything. Apple on the other hand, appeals to a fluid and aesthetically-appealing user experience ideal for designers. An operating system where many files are hidden so as to minimize a user’s chances of “messing up” anything. I often hear from Apple-haters, “I have work to do, I can’t just be looking at a pretty screen all day.” If Apple is the place where desktops bloom in flowers and morning dew, Microsoft is where cogs turn and command lines are bred.

It feels like Microsoft is trying to pick up where it left off when Apple re-joined the personal computing game as a competitor in 2002 with its OSX operating system (the sleek interface Mac users today have grown to love.) Back then, Apple held only a 2.9% of the personal computing market share under their belt. To re-invent the entire system would not off-put that many users, and felt more like a last resort move to either go big or go home. Today, Microsoft owns around 92% of the operating system market share. A number that is important when considering not only how many users have held out on the switch to Mac despite its cleaner, more modern interface, but also how many will be affected by Windows 8.

Apple & Microsoft share a common enemy: Google 

Microsoft has maintained a sense of consistency in that its audience is loyal to its offerings. Gamers and developers use Microsoft, artists and designers use Apple. It feels like a sort of left-brain right-brain distinction we’ve made about the two brands over the years. But as the rise of Google as a common enemy has proven, both Microsoft and Apple are getting their toes stepped on. Google Maps has dominated a market Microsoft used to own, one that Apple is only beginning to respond to now (without much success.) Google’s free tools such as Gmail, Drive (formerly Docs) and Calendar are eliminating the need for and cost of Microsoft Office. Google’s Android platform for smartphones is constantly competing for a majority market share against Apple’s iPhone. It’s no secret that each of these huge companies have had their fair share of flops (Google+, Microsoft’s Zune, Apple’s iTunes Ping) which means nobody is safe from failure, and it could be anyone’s chance to step up and revolutionize the digital game once again. At least this is what Microsoft is hoping for.

Adapting to a New Windows

When any seemingly ubiquitous piece of software or platform changes, many users are up in arms. I remember the day Facebook introduced its signature “Newsfeed” feature as the summer of 2006 came to a close. My peers and I were furious, “What are these statuses about? We have away messages for that. I couldn’t care less about the shopping spree my best friend from third grade went on today.” But Facebook was about 10 steps ahead of us. They weren’t simply trying to replace the away message, they were elevating the facebook status to an interactive forum for conversation. They were changing the face of digital self-expression, where our personalities are often interpreted through our facebook activity, the camera always recording. They were developing a new environment in which we’ve all become voyeurs and exhibitionists, constantly viewing content (many times in silence) or narcissistically boasting our own activities and whereabouts. Facebook literally reinvented how we interact with our social networks from the digital realm to our real lives.

This seems to be the re-invention challenge Microsoft is looking to tackle with the release of Windows 8. They are well aware of the risks they are taking, as Moreau calls it “the ultimate design challenge. You’ve got 24 years of Windows behind you. There’s a responsibility to preserve it, but also to evolve–knowing that when you change something, you’re changing how computing works.” To me, this feels less like a computing revolution, and more like Microsoft’s attempt to “go big” and join the rest of us. The real question is what will happen to the toolbar-loving users they leave behind?

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Only the Good Die Young: Grieving a Hard Drive Crash

I woke up groggy last Wednesday after a series of vividly convoluted dreams. My toes stumbled upon my Macbook at the edge of my bed. Ah, yes–this again. Hulu dreams: the condition of falling asleep with your laptop open, while Hulu broadcasts an infinite playlist of suggested shows all night long, inspiring seemingly strange yet perfectly-narrated dreams. I skillfully shut the laptop with my lower appendages and hug my pillow tighter; 15 more minutes.

When I do eventually wake up, I do what I do every morning. 1) Reach for phone 2) check personal e-mail 3) check work e-mail 4) check facebook notifications 5) skim public twitter account stream 6) skim private twitter account stream 7) write down bullet notes about dream in my Momento diary app. Then, and only then, have I sufficiently briefed myself for the day ahead of me.

If you want to give me a heart attack, set this image as my background when I'm not looking.

This morning, at some point between checking e-mail and type-scribbling details about my dream, I decided to reach for my laptop and go in for “the real thing” (iPhone, do not cry from under-utilization, I will return to you soon enough on my elevator ride or while in line for a coffee.) I open my laptop to a familiar start-up tone, paired with an awful clicking sound. I know that sound well, and the little optimist living somewhere buried in the folds of my brain says, “don’t worry, it’s nothing.” But alas, it is something. The entire screen is grayscale, aesthetics reminiscent of pre-OS X days, and a flashing folder dawns a single symbol: one giant question mark. Oh, how many questions that punctuation mark included: what the hell happened? Is my hard drive really gone-zo? When’s the last time I backed up? Why me? Is this some kind of karma? Did I not hold the door for the couple with groceries behind me last week?

It’s a terrible feeling when you lose your data. It’s not just inconvenient, it’s literally a tugging sensation at the emotional level of your internal organs. Your stomach wretches. You walk around all day with that inexplicable feeling of confusion and self-loathing, a tragedy has occurred. And how could you not? It’s not just your computer, it’s a part of you. You identify in some way with the songs you listen to in your iTunes library. You hold onto memories of a trip to Europe with a folder of 900 pictures and 35 videos. You store literary accomplishments like that 45 page thesis that nearly took your sanity the last semester of college. Your data exists on your computer as pockets and piles of information that make up who you are. Suddenly, one day without warning your computer crashes and you lose a huge part of yourself. You remember the melodies of your favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, but you can no longer elicit the feeling of any of their hits at any given moment. You’ll never forget how amazing EuroTrip 2010 was, but the image of that sheep meat you almost had to eat in Spain, and the look on your roommate’s face after she actually did–gone. Any memory of the tone of your voice and point of view from college, exists solely in your head, forever re-written as most of our memories eventually become as we age.

In a recent NYTimes article, Carina Chocano speaks on The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg, and points out that these types of data losses do not mimic the natural human process of forgetting. “It happens all at once, not gradually or imperceptibly, so it feels less like an unburdening than like a mugging.” But this is what happens when we rely on technology for needs that were previously filled by our natural biology. I tend to look at technological tools as an enhancement to human capability, not a replacement. Though I am beginning to see this as myself re-branding the implications of my technologies’ capabilities, the way you would excuse the subpar behavior of a love interest you’ve romanticized. Sure, I see it as a +1 that my iPhone will remind me to grab post-its on my lunch break today. I don’t think it negates my ability to remember something extremely important if I need to. But what about the ability to remember the wide-eyed, adrenaline-overloaded thoughts on my first day of college 20 years from now? Or the first words I ever spoke to someone who’d go on to change the course of my life?

I don’t remember emotional details the way I used to. These days, I journal as a form of therapy. There are thoughts clouding my vision, and I must wrestle them out of my skull and onto a word document. Once the pieces are put onto my screen, I can read them clearly analyze them, and evaluate my sanity on said subject. Then I click save and put them away. I’m comforted by the fact that if I need them again, I know they’re there in my “Thoughts” folder, but I don’t carry them around with me at all times. When my hard drive crashed, the first thing I thought was, “My journal!” All these thoughts I’d untangled–the progressive pits and peaks of a young 20-something, elaborately spilled into my MacBook–gone. I knew I would go on to read these in the future, a sort of checking in on the past. But now, there’s no record of this huge part of my self work. It’s impossible to recreate the musings of a moment, too emotional to navigate the jungles of the past, and too disappointing to know that I won’t have the vivid memories of this time.

But alas, c’est la vie. It’s the trade-off we make when we rely on our technological counterparts as an extended 6th sense, as a part of our self, an external brain. Do we attempt to live presently, without the necessity of documenting our past performances? Or simply accept that our digital extensions are imperfect, sometimes failing us the way our own bodies do. Luckily, I get to postpone my decision a bit longer. My 15-inch portal of glory has pulled through in a miraculous recovery, allowing me to keep straddling my nostalgic and present selves. Oh, and I’ve also updated the back ups of my data on two separate external hard drives. Just as the morning I woke up to that awful question mark, there’s no real good answer why or how it happened. I guess my digital karma kicked in this time.