A few notes after the Windows 11 preview, and on Windows in general | Riccardo Mori

The other day I watched the Windows 11 introduction event and I liked what I saw. The following observations are scattered, won’t probably be very cohesive, and are mostly meant to be bits of thinking-aloud I want to put out there.

Regarding my notes on the features of Windows 11 that were presented on 24 June, I will assume you know what I’m talking about. Here’s the reference page (at the time of writing) on Microsoft’s website. For a lengthier reference, you can read Introducing Windows 11 on the Windows Experience Blog.

The elephant in the room

Both during the event and in the aforementioned blog post Introducing Windows 11, there’s a patently false statement:

The web was born and grew up on Windows.

It was not. I was almost chastised for not having scrambled to point this out on Twitter. Yes, I had noticed that statement. Yes, I know it’s not true. The reason I didn’t run to Twitter and shout Impostors! Shame on you! is that other people in my timeline had noticed it and were talking about it. See for example this thread by Benj Edwards on Twitter, with several interesting responses. Read the Wikipedia entry for World Wide Web for a detailed historical perspective.

Fun bit of trivia: the father of a high school friend of mine was friends with someone working at CERN around 1990. The first time I heard about the World Wide Web was one Sunday in early 1991 when I was having lunch at my friend’s house and his dad mentioned what he had heard about the project. This will have a considerable impact, was his comment. Indeed.

In an exchange with a friend on Twitter, I said: [Panay] could have just written: “For many, the web was discovered through Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook” — not as dramatic a statement, but certainly truer. And I added: It’s a big blob of bullshit that was added to the narrative sauce according to which “Windows has always been an innovative platform”. It hasn’t.

It’s strange how some people have interpreted my words and thought I was trying to downplay the enormity of the original lie (The web was born and grew up on Windows). In my book, I usually don’t say that something is a big blob of bullshit if I want to minimise or downplay it.

Anyway, now that we got the elephant out of the way — hopefully? — let’s talk user interface, et cetera.

Window management

Snap Layouts is a very nice and direct way to spatially organise windows in your workspace. On the Mac I’ve seen something similar only in third-party utilities such as Moom or Divvy. It’s good to have such a versatile feature built into the system, especially if your operating system is called Windows.

For me it’s interesting to note how, on the Mac, I’ve never really felt the need to use such utilities for window management. I tend to just arrange windows manually and if I need to create different workspaces, I just group windows in different Desktops via Mission Control. When using Windows, however, I often find myself wanting some tool to automatically arrange the various windows I have open on the desktop. Which is a bit strange, since I don’t really have a different workflow than what I have on the Mac. In any case, with Windows 11 I shall take advantage of this feature without a doubt.

Snap Groups are an interesting addition to handle complex multitasking. Having Windows remember the layout of a bunch of apps and projects, and being able to access them directly from the taskbar is undoubtedly handy; especially when you end up having a lot of application and document windows open for each project you’re working on.

The ‘docking/undocking experience’, where Windows remembers the window layout of all the apps/documents you were using as you disconnect and reconnect your laptop to an external display, is another feature I really like. From 2002 to 2018, my main work machine has always been a Mac laptop (iBook and PowerBook at first, MacBook Pro later on) in desktop configuration attached to an external display. And I can’t believe the docking/undocking experience over the years has actually been degrading rather than improving. Before finally switching to a retina iMac in 2018, when disconnecting and reconnecting my MacBook Pro to my external LG monitor, not only was I forced to manually rearrange several windows and spaces, but I even had to constantly enter the Displays preference pane in System Preferences to re-select the correct colour profile for the display.

I wish Apple prioritised these very same features instead of focusing on how to change the look and feel of Safari (for the worse), or rethinking certain user interface elements or certain user interactions in ways that end up creating friction and hiccups in Mac workflows, in areas where there wasn’t really anything wrong previously.

Dead Tiles

I’m not a long-time Windows user. At least, I haven’t been using Windows continually since its inception. I started in the early 1990s with Windows 3.0, then went through 3.1 and Windows 95; then there was a period with Windows 98, and that was it for a few years. I knew my way around Windows XP, Vista and 7 mostly because during certain work collaborations I had to use Windows PCs.

I rediscovered Windows around 2017 by way of Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 10 Mobile when I wanted to study the Metro interface on a few Nokia Lumia smartphones I’d been acquiring. And I was more impressed than I had anticipated (you can read my reflections here and here).

One of the features of the Metro user interface I really love are Live Tiles. I think they are a good, efficient concept. They merge together different user interface layers — an app, an updated status within the app, a shortcut to launch the app, and a widget — in a single element that is also visually customisable. After my rediscovery of Windows on mobile devices, I had the opportunity of acquiring a ThinkPad T400 with Windows 7 preinstalled for a very low price, and immediately updated it to Windows 8.1 Pro. Because I wanted the same experience on a PC. It’s perhaps for this reason that — unlike many long-time Windows users — I really like and enjoy Windows 8.1 and its user interface (well, most of it). And I’m probably one of the few who likes Windows 8.1’s full-screen Start menu:

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Sure, maybe its being full-screen is a hindrance or an interruption when you’re doing something and have to access it, and it takes up all your screen. But Live Tiles are much better here than crammed together in a column of Windows 10’s Start menu, and the list of apps in Windows 8.1’s Start menu is much more legible than under Windows 10, at least for my ageing eyesight.

Which brings me to Windows 11, where Live Tiles are definitely gone. As a consequence, its Start menu has become utilitarian, but in a bland, boring, aseptic, business way. The Live Tile has been dissected and divided into its main components, and now you have apps on one side (the Start menu) and Windows Widgets on the other (the Widget expandable glass pane). The fun, the whimsy in the Windows interface has been neutered and now it’s all clean, calm, and played safely.

Old code, many UI layers

John Gruber linked to this certainly fascinating piece: State of the Windows: How many layers of UI inconsistencies are in Windows 10? — And it has truly been an interesting read. Many critics of Windows have been pointing out the same things over and over again: it’s a bloated system which has never really got rid of layers and layers of old code, and layers upon layers of past UIs. And for sure, after Windows 11 was presented, they all came out of the woodwork pointing out the same old stuff, that Windows 11 is yet another layer of paint splashed over this tall, Tower-of-Babel-like building that is supposedly getting more and more unmanageable, version after version.

I’m not a developer, so I can’t make insightful comments on Microsoft’s decision to retain so much legacy code over the years. From a pragmatic standpoint, I’m inclined to say that if doing so is good for backward compatibility and it doesn’t have a meaningful impact on a machine’s performance, then what’s the problem?

I’m running the latest Windows 10 Pro on a 2013 ThinkPad X240 with 4 GB of RAM. It has a 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-4200U CPU (2.6 GHz Turbo boost) with a 500 GB 5400rpm hard drive. I could make things a bit faster by swapping the hard drive with an SSD, but since I use this laptop occasionally at the moment, it’s not a priority. Still, I have no complaints about Windows 10 performance on this ThinkPad. It’s not the right machine for CPU-intensive pro applications, sure, but it handles everyday tasks to moderate workloads very well.

I also have Windows 10 running on my iMac via BootCamp, and in many situations the iMac feels much more responsive than under Mac OS. So, once again, I don’t see (empirically) the presence of strata of old code as a particular hindrance in day-to-day use. I have been running Windows 10 on this iMac for five months now, and I never ran into a problem (conflicts, freezes, crashes, app instabilities, driver incompatibilities, etc. — nothing of the sort).

But I am also inclined to say that even the various layers of past Windows UIs aren’t problematic. Because their differences are, in most cases, purely visual. Yes, sometimes the æsthetic mismatch is indeed a bit jarring, but the inconsistencies stop there. In the way certain windows or buttons or controls look, not in the way they work. If they also worked differently, then I would agree that it becomes a serious UI issue.

We can look at Windows as if it were a hotel that gains two or three more floors every time a new Windows version is released, and guests are always accommodated in the newer floors at the top of the building. There, the environment looks fresh, clean, modern; and there is where usually guests stay 90% of the time. When guests need to access a few facilities on the lower, older levels, they may find furniture that looks dated, or doors and windows finished in a previous style, but none of these elements will work differently. They may pause for a moment in mild bemusement, but there is no severe usability impact. It’s mostly a superficial annoyance.

Am I excusing this? Not exactly. Homogeneity in user interfaces is important, and for some users, loading the older-looking Control Panel by clicking on certain advanced options within the Settings app (which is the Control Panel’s modern equivalent) can be confusing. I would certainly prefer for Windows to have the exact same visual style everywhere. But in the meantime, do this little experiment: take a look at the various examples of visual inconsistencies listed in the aforementioned article, then ask yourself if you’d really be able to tell that certain windows or controls come from a previous version of Windows without external guidance. Sure, certain icons can be easily spotted. But most of the times you’re presented with windows with more subtle differences.

Something I’ve always noticed with Windows applications is that, since there was never a strict enforcement of Human Interface Guidelines in the Windows world, third-party developers have often been more creative with their applications’ interfaces. When I was on Windows more frequently, I remember using several third-party apps whose UI, windows, controls, looked completely different from the system UI. This has been quite the different situation on the Mac front, where the majority of third-party developers have always stuck to Mac OS’s Human Interface Guidelines, in order to offer a ‘Mac-like’ app as much as possible. Still today, several third-party Mac apps look and behave as if they were built into Mac OS — some behave even better than first-party apps.

All this to say that visual inconsistency has always been part of Windows in a way or another, and that’s why a lot of Windows users — especially non-nerds — don’t seem particularly bothered by these inconsistencies. Again, I’m guessing they would be if these inconsistencies were more than just cosmetic.

And to anticipate a possible objection: yes, I tend to be much stricter in my criticism of Apple’s UI inconsistencies exactly because Apple has always been better at user interfaces and user interaction, it has established a higher standard since the early days of the Macintosh, and it’s extremely jarring when you notice that in recent years the company hasn’t maintained that higher standard as consistently as before. UI consistency has always been a big deal — rightfully so — when it comes to Mac OS, and when you find UI elements that are inconsistent not only in the way they look but also in the way they behave (see for example the Move to… element in Big Sur’s Mail, that looks either like a button or a text field, and it’s actually a menu), then it is problematic.

What needs rethinking: the Ribbon

Something that’s been unavoidable for me over the years has been Microsoft Office. Whether on Macs or PCs, I’ve always had to deal with it, usually because my clients worked with Office files and requested total compatibility in our file exchange. But in my days using Windows 3.1 to Windows 98, I actually liked to use the first versions of Microsoft Word. Despite its complexity, its UI wasn’t that bad, and over time I had learnt to master it. That is, until the dreadful Ribbon UI appeared in Office 2007.

I remember opening Word 2007 on my wife’s PC one day and being utterly dumbfounded by the drastic overhaul of its interface and controls. So drastic that it took me minutes to find where even the basic stuff had been reassigned. The user interface shock was so strong I kept using earlier versions of Word (and Office) on PCs and Macs for years. And whenever I had some free time, I would dedicate it to calmly explore the Ribbon UI to find my way around that mess. I’ve come to tolerate it in the latest versions of Word for Mac, but my proficiency in this application has severely diminished since the Ribbon revolution.

But where I find the Ribbon to be particularly intolerable and unnecessary is in Windows’ File Explorer (what would be the Finder on a Mac). Let’s have a look at a File Explorer window in Windows 10:

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(1) This element looks like an icon that does nothing. No, if you click it, you invoke a menu with commands to handle the window, including (redundantly) the controls to minimise, maximise, and close the window.

(2) These two other mysterious-looking elements at first glance suggest they’re tied together. The first time I saw this, I thought that the downward triangle served to indicate that the document icon on its left had a drop-down menu, as opposed to the element I marked as (1) here. But no, these are actually two separate clickable elements that invoke two different things: one opens a panel, the other a menu. Also of note: these three elements on the top left of the window all invoke items with completely different styles and UIs from one another.

(3) File, Home, Share, View, Picture Tools — all these look like menu commands, and you’d expect them to behave like such, especially if you normally keep the Ribbon UI hidden when not in use. Instead, only the File command displays a menu. The others will invoke the messy Ribbon UI. (At least the File command is coloured differently). While we’re here, something I’ve never understood in this window design is why, when every colour and styling is so subtle, do we have this Manage label screaming at you in such a prominent position?

(4) The Ribbon itself: on a theoretical level, I understand the reasoning behind it. Instead of having a hierarchy of controls that is revealed only when a menu is invoked, here you have everything laid out in front of you. You should have quicker access to certain functions and controls. In theory. In practice there’s such a high amount of visual clutter that it defeats the purpose. The various elements inside the Ribbon do retain a hierarchy, but it’s often laid out both horizontally and vertically.

In parts of the Ribbon your eye is invited to follow horizontally — see the various macro-sections Panes, Layout, Current View, Show/Hide. But then you have elements inside these sections that invoke menus and submenus, and so you’re back to selecting things vertically. Also, have you noticed just how tiny are those triangles indicating the presence of a menu? Everything is certainly discoverable here, but the level of visual complexity is just off-putting, and the end result is that all these elements and controls, despite being ordered inside different sections, give an impression of utter general disorder.

(5) Again, the navigation arrows and the location bar here are just too small and not as visually prominent as they should and as they used to be in previous versions of Windows.

(6) Same goes for the Search field. Just crammed there, almost an afterthought.

(7) And what do we have here? Two more elements that essentially replicate a couple of View options. On the one hand, I’ll admit they’re handy, as they mostly avoid having to deal with View options from inside the Ribbon. On the other hand, they’re sooo tiny… And why put them there? Why not group all these icons together with the ones at (1) and (2) above?

Or better yet, why not get rid of the Ribbon UI altogether and go back to previous designs and refine them with a modern look?

In Windows 8.1, the Ribbon was already there, but at least the various UI elements in a window were more clearly defined via the use of more contrasty colours:

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In Windows 7 things were better. No Ribbon, just menus, and the fact that each window resembled a Web browser window, navigation was more intuitive, as navigation controls were more prominent.

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If we go back even further, in Windows 2000 Professional, all the UI elements and controls in a File Explorer window were possibly even clearer:

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Look at it. There is nothing ambiguous in this window. Menus look like menus, buttons look like buttons, information is clearly laid out.

I’d really like for this Ribbon UI to disappear from Windows. I don’t know if Microsoft has something planned about it for Windows 11 or in the future, but in my opinion they should really rethink it and at least streamline it if they don’t want to remove it altogether. Elements are too scattershot: I would either stick to simple menus or a well-designed toolbar with a row of icons. And, while maintaining a clean, glassy look for windows in general, I would use colour and contrast to make the various components (title bar, status bar, navigation bar, etc.) stand out, something we already saw above in Windows 7 and 8.

I think this is more of a UI issue rather than some windows and buttons found in remote parts of the operating system that still look like they looked in Windows 7 or XP or whatever.

Conclusion: fanboyism? I’m past that.

As I said at the beginning, I like where Windows is going, visually, and (in part) from a UI standpoint. There is nothing particularly groundbreaking in Windows 11 — though if they really keep Windows updates 40% smaller and faster to install, as Panay said in the presentation, this could be groundbreaking enough, given Windows’ history in this department. But I liked certain details: Microsoft’s focus on offering advanced and efficient options to handle complex multitasking, the redesigned user interaction when using Windows in tablet mode, and the company’s willingness to be more open towards developers. (I’m not naïve, I know this is a strategic move to appear like ‘the good guys’ in contrast with Apple’s policies and attitude towards developers; but still).

In general, I had the impression that Microsoft seems to know their users and understand their needs better than Apple does with their (Mac) users. At least at its point in time. I still return to Safari 15 and ask myself, Do designers at Apple think people like to browse the Web this way? Do they think that shuffling tabs and the browser address bar around help or facilitate the use of the browser?

And I already know someone will email or message me asking if I’m becoming a kind of Windows fanboy all of a sudden. The point — if you haven’t understood it yet — is that I’m past any type of fanboyism. I observe, and talk about what I like and what I don’t like. These are not the times to be anyone’s fanboy. These are times to look at what big technology companies put in our plates, and ponder everything before happily shoving it down our throats. People need to get their work done with tools and solutions that respect their work and their workflows. That respect the users themselves. And if these tools and solutions come from different companies, then so be it. The ‘Us versus Them’ mentality should shift from thinking in terms of Apple vs Microsoft, iOS vs Android, Linux vs everyone else, My Favourite Platform vs Your Favourite Platform, and turn into Us, the users, versus Them, the big technology companies.