By Jared Newman | Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 3:00 pm
I’m optimistic about Microsoft’s tablet plans for Windows 8. The idea of combining a touch-optimized layer for tablet apps with the familiar mouse-and-keyboard interface for legacy software seems to me like the best of both worlds, at least in theory.
But Microsoft might run into trouble by trying to shoehorn touch screen support into the traditional version of Windows, which will remain accessible on tablets even though it’s not designed primarily for them. Exhibit A: Windows 8’s redesigned Windows Explorer, which will bring the ribbon interface of products like Office and Paint into the operating system’s file manager.
The ribbon is a controversial feature, because although it bubbles lots of options to the surface, it also takes up a lot of space and looks daunting at a glance. Still, Microsoft is using the ribbon, in part, because it’s good for tablets. “As it so happens, while not primarily a touch interface, the ribbon also provides a much more reliable and usable touch-only interface than pull-down menus and context menus,” Microsoft’s Alex Simons wrote on the Building Windows 8 blog.
Thing is, pull-down menus and context menus are part of what makes Windows an effective tool for productivity. By hiding the operating system’s more obscure options behind these layers, the OS gets out of the way, allowing the user to concentrate on the task at hand.
I’m worried that Microsoft will cripple the mouse-and-keyboard version of Windows 8 by trying to make it work on tablets. In my mind, Microsoft should be providing this side of Windows to tablet users “as is,” with little effort spent on making them comfortable. Or better yet, find a way to make those pull-downs and pop-up menus easier to manipulate with fingers. Don’t cram in alternatives that tablet users probably won’t want to touch anyway. Otherwise, Windows 8 risks becoming the worst of both worlds.