The unified Windows 8 experience

I recently attended a talk from Microsoft on creating Windows Phone and Windows 8 apps. The talk started off with a speech about Microsoft’s aim to unify the Windows experience over all devices – desktop, tablet and phone. This has of course been Microsoft’s main talking point ever since the release of Windows 8 and related tablets and smartphones. I’ve opined about my problems with Windows 8 before, but I’ve only just now had this thought: does anyone actually want a unified experience across all their devices? And now that there’s one available, is anyone actually using it?

I own a laptop and an Android smartphone. Here are the things I do on both platforms:

  • Browse the web
  • Check my email

My desktop (well, desktop-replacement notebook) is for heavy-duty stuff where I need programs with lots of features and a keyboard for typing fast and comfortably. It’s for involved and immersive games and fully-featured IDEs and graphics editors.

My phone is for when I’m away from the computer, for keeping track of appointments and setting alarms and jotting down notes and playing a quick game of 2048 or Flappy Bird. Even with the draggy Samsung keyboard thing it’s slow to type on, but it fits in my pocket and doesn’t need external power.

Even the two tasks my phone and PC have in common are substantively different in practice. K-9 Mail suffices for checking and reading my email on my phone, but I usually use Thunderbird on my PC to reply to it and send new messages. And although I use Google Chrome on both devices, the one on my PC has capabilities – extensions and so on – that I don’t need or really want on my phone.

So, to reiterate, the only program common to both devices is significantly different on each. The Windows version of Chrome does have some baffling, ugly touch optimisations I’m not a fan of – the fat menus and screen-width address bar dropdown box – but largely it’s a desktop application designed with desktop use in mind, just as the mobile version is a mobile application designed with mobile and touch use in mind, from the different tab layout to the minimised set of options.

Windows 8 apps are very much mobile, touch-oriented applications that have been grafted onto the desktop environment with the misguided notion that someone will want to use them there just because they already use them on their phone. They are massively simplified, awful to manipulate with a mouse and use all these swishing and flashing effects that make me sick on such a large screen. I really don’t think anyone asked for this.


I don’t own a tablet, nor do I have any plans to. When the iPad was released in 2010, I joined the choruses mocking the name and wondering aloud who would want such an odd half-and-half device – what could possibly be the application of something less portable than a phone, less capable than a laptop or netbook and with less battery life than an ereader?

I still have that opinion, but time has shown the appeal of tablets to people who aren’t me. For plenty of normal people, the question isn’t “why should I get a dinky, underfeatured tablet when I have a perfectly good laptop and smartphone?” but “why should I get a complicated, bulky laptop when I can get an easy-to-use, lightweight tablet?” If you don’t have to do a lot of typing or use heavy software, suddenly a tablet starts making a lot of sense as a primary computing platform.

And wouldn’t it be nice if your primary Facebook machine worked in the same way as the Facebook machine you keep in your pocket? That, I think, was the rationale for Windows 8. I’ve never seen anyone giggling with delight over how smoothly their Surface integrates with their Windows Phone, but maybe they’re out there somewhere. The desktop interface was always just a marketing gimmick for Microsoft’s tablets and phones, because mobile touch devices are the future and apparently there’s more money in consumer electronics than business software.1

In fairness, Microsoft is slowly backpedalling from the disastrous effects of this marketing ploy. With the (slightly petulant) reintroduction of the start button in 8.1 and the creation of sane modern interface right-click menus2, things are slowly improving for desktop users. I’ve got my fingers crossed that they’ll send the desktop implementation of the modern interface the way of desktop widgets, Clippy and the Zune.

If it doesn’t, well, more and more programs and games are being released for Linux – I only keep my Windows install for those that haven’t, to be entirely honest. And the big advantage Linux has is that if you don’t like a UI (I’m sure there are people out there who hate Gnome 3 and Unity more than Windows 8) you can just install a different one.


  1. I mean, there must be, right? That’s gotta be it. Microsoft’s certainly not just jealous of Apple, are they?
  2. The mini toolbar was apparently added to MS Office 2007 because formatting was giving people RSI, but Microsoft must have just forgotten about that when they made Windows 8.

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