Saturday, April 6, 2013

Windows 8 Hate or How I Learned to Love the Bomb

I just have to take a (long) moment here to comment on Microsoft's new operating system. Just like I finally did buy a new car (and still regret it) I'm going back to school and so I decided to buy a new computer.

Before abandoning my old laptop, I had to make one more attempt to convince myself that it really couldn't be salvaged. You see, I'm driven by abhorrence of waste, by frugality and by the mandate to be self-made. I mean really driven, like my car had 333,333 miles on it (I made up the number because it was easier to type, but it's true in round terms) and I seemed also to hold a rough estimate in my head of how many dollars that saved me and how much easier on the environment than to buy a new Prius too frequently - I tally the total of resources and energy used, including in the manufacture.

This is a dangerous compulsion. I have to fix what's broken and I feel nearly sick spending money on frivolous returns. This doesn't help my own bottom line, you can be sure of that, maybe since I'm equally frugal on demanding returns for my own investments in my work, but that's another story.

Combined with this brand of eco-frugality is just plain old frugality, and so when Microsoft was offering me a $40 upgrade to Windows 8, I thought I could do a test drive on my really old and really wimpy little laptop before making my decision to buy a new one. I wanted to be sure I was going to like the new OS which would come with the new PC. 

Plus, I surely didn't want to spend good money on something basically identical to what I had except shinier and newer and speedier. You can see how that goes for me with cars and boats and things - I get attached. New to me has to be new, like getting a computer after no computer. I spent $5,000 on that once. Or getting a color monitor, or moving from ascii command-line DOS to graphics and Windows. I wasn't going to buy a new laptop unless it was substantially different from the old one.

Like a lot of people without much cash or with a pathological trash-conservation mentality, I'd harbored some iPad envy rather than to indulge it. So I wasn't sure I shouldn't shift to a Mac plus iPad strategy. Say the lightweight Air - the one about the same size as my little old laptop. I like the form factor and the weight, but what I really like about my old one is that I'd only paid $333 for it maybe 4 years ago. And like my car it is still perfectly serviceable. (Also like my car, I'll probably foist it on my sister who's even more frugal than I am, once I do manage to pry it from my own grip).

I've had the chance to slake my iPad envy with a little Kindle Fire, which I justify because of my fairly voracious reading appetite (It's hard to keep at bay the nearly panicked knowledge that it cost fully half of my full-blown computer budget - but I carry an iPhone, which costs more and so there really is no accounting for one's predilections . . . except that work paid for the iPhone).

Well, much to my amazement and contrary to my jaded certainties, the new OS actually did give new life to the old laptop! I deployed some of my lingering techie muscle to trim things running in the background, and I also know that a new installation to replace a never-refreshed 4-year old OEM installation of Windows 7 didn't hurt. But I was frankly astounded that the old machine worked better and more smoothly with the new OS. That simply never happens.

Apart from the strange pricing of IT machinery these days, here's what confuses us all: Why does a tablet or even a smartphone seem to have so much more immediacy in response as compared to a full computer OS?

Sure there's the fact that the more compact form-factors are always on and don't seem to require that incessant mind-erasing updating. But even when the laptop is up and up-dated and running and even though it has a way more powerful processor, what gives? Why does the tablet seem to render things more quickly? Why is it so much less burdensome to go to when you don't want or need to get down to work?

Of course I get that there's more going on in the background and during startup and that the video expectations are richer and more elaborate, but still it's annoying.

So with my old laptop and without touch and after the cheap loss-leader upgrade, I learned to master the new Windows 8 keystrokes which - though they're almost Mac-like in their arcane resistance to remembering - can replace the gestures you could if you did have touch. and decided I really really did like Windows 8.

The thing that Apple did with its mini-devices is to foreground what you're doing, and effectively prevent things in the background from detracting from that. They weren't focused on the geeky elegance of their OS so much as on the styling experience of it.

So I like what Microsoft did with memory - during startup they pull a cached rendition now of all that time-consuming hardware abstraction which has to happen before the OS loads. You know, the boot-up; first you have to shim the BIOS between the physical hardware and the more uniform hardware model, and then you load drivers and so on until you finally get your "desktop." Well, indeed why not assume that the hardware across those two levels hasn't changed since the last time you booted. One wants to say duh! right?

(oddly, they reserve the full legacy startup for a "restart" which might seem odd, but it makes sense in the same way that the now gone cntl-alt-delete made sense)

And the other thing they did - with their new app model - is to allow a (once again iOS-like) background suspend, to forestall those mysterious goings-on which have always made the foreground in Windows frustratingly subject to mysterious trudging. (And so the relentless hardware arms-race to keep ahead of the terminal frustration - see there's the "bomb" in my title).

Anyhow, refreshing my old laptop both brought it back to life and made me lust for speed. I was too tantalized on the old hardware by what the new software could do on an up-to-date machine. I figured that the sometimes unconscionably slow slog-to-readiness of the new apps and the occasional dysfunctional background seeming-death of what I'd left running would be solved by new hardware. Mostly, I was right.

Of course I wanted it all, so I opted for big-time compromise. I wanted touch and I wanted compact and I wanted tablet all in one. I wanted something substantially different in more than just speed. So I got a marginally bigger-than-the-Air, marginally heavier, and marginally too-big-to-be-a-tablet Lenovo Twist. Cheap enough (at $750 -  sale-priced because maybe no-one else thinks like I do, gracefully) considering I got touch and a few other bells and whistles I'd been missing.

It feels durable, and you already know that's my number one requirement.

Mostly I'm pleased, but here follows the substance of my review of Windows 8, and I can preface it by saying that while writing this I had a kind of virtual hang. Upon restart I discovered that indeed there were latent Windows updates chomping against my work. Nothing's poifect!

I'd been treating my computer like a tablet, leaving it suspended for the sake of instant return to where I was and that seems to create a kind of metaphor for all the compromises. The thing is neither here not there, quite.

So, you don't really have to leave it suspended since a start from shutdown is nearly as fast as a wake-up from sleep. Plus, as bonus, many of the apps, including IE 10 go right back to where you left them, even though you shut-down in between! Anyhow, tablet or smartphone-style always-on doesn't quite work. Maybe shut down at the end of each work session, but you're back to that burdensome cost of entry.

As regards the good stuff Microsoft cooked in, there's always a flip-side, and in this case it's the evident fact that sometimes IE 10, for instance, goes into suspend in the background and you lose your authentication which might matter if you're doing banking or email or social networking (which I never do!). If you didn't lose your authentication, that would be cause for a bigger sort of worry.

Some of the apps are seamless, and the background suspend is transparent the way it is in iOS.

But some really do need to run on the legacy desktop. I think that's why my new Office 2013 or 365 or whatever they call it still runs on the desktop. You'll think I've totally bent over for M$, but I actually do like the subscription model. I'm all in - it's cheap enough and perpetually updated and even the install was seamless. I could start using it while all sorts of detail was happening in the background and rest relatively confident that it would all work out and it has! No disks, no clicks beyond the initial ones nor pause between my credit card and up and running.

But it has to run on the [legacy] desktop (meaning that it doesn't run as a Windows 8 App) for the same reason that you should do your banking and blogging from the desktop (even though I don't) because for critical work you really do want to know that it's actually still running in the background and not subject to some foregrounding pre-emption. You need to know it will still be there when you get back around to it, and not have to wonder which of the now many states of save you left it in. Suspend? Autosave? How many caches?

OK, so onto the touch side, I confess I do convert my little twisty laptop into a way-heavy tablet and I like it. I really do. But it's not quite as responsive overall as my little Kindle Fire. The combination among the position sensor and the multi-direction hinge on the screen and the sheer bulk of the OS destroys just a tad of the immediacy I'm looking for.

And really the bulk of the laptop at 3.5 pounds pretty much destroys the pleasant reading/browsing experience of the iPad. But I can put it behind my cereal bowl in the morning with the keyboard as either tent-back or reversed behind the screen, and it's better than a tablet. Honest! I don't have to fumble, I just eat and poke and read.

My bottom line is that I think they're on to something. In laptop mode, this machine is nearly perfect for me (I actually bought it for the keyboard, plus I've already memorized the many new keystroke combos so I do fine on Windows 8 without the touch* which would require awkward reaching over the keyboard - the reason I didn't buy a touch-enabled non-convertible laptop) The tablet mode is enough of a bonus that I find it far preferable for reading/browsing, even when I'm lounging in a chair. Having the keyboard out of the way makes it so much more like reading a book or a paper. and bending it under means you can get the angle right while the machine is sitting on your lap.

But mostly what I really love is the disappearing windows. Gone are the buttons and controls and taskbar. You get the whole screen! All on all the time.

(Granted, you have to know some keystrokes or gestures to find out what time it is [which has made me late on more than one occasion, and I haven't either looked for or found a transparent hovering clock which might or might not be possible with the new OS model . . .] )

The big question is whether this all promises something that's less of a compromise at some unknown future date. Whether the "desktop" can and will morph to the Google Earth kind of geographic metaphor or, say Prezi-style where you can keep in your head where things are floating and what to foreground and they come wheeling in from some definite direction so you can retrace it. I want to zoom in zoom out and have my foreground click into position with some satisfying detent.

Can't you guys just do that!!?? Hello! Apple? Microsoft?

Of course this is where the patent process has become so dysfunctional. Or is it just that Microsoft is too stodgy in precisely the way that they are locked into the slide-model of PowerPoint and so all the incredible bells and whistles just beg the question of how and why not just get rid of the basic metaphor so you don't need all those bells and whistles. Because PowerPoint destroys rather than enhances face-on presentations no matter how clever you make it. It's too linear.

And Windows 8 is still too boxy. I think I should be able to lay-out my apps in some virtual space. I don't miss the start button and the hierarchal list of programs, but I still need some way to find them. I think I want style relational bubbles, and I want them more near or more far from my focal point according to how often I use them, with perhaps some automated and dynamic reconfiguration. And I want to be able to draw some kind of circle around the ones I need to stay awake and multitask with me without having to worry about them suspending in the background if I do too many other things.

But you will know that the metaphor I've now slid back into involves cars again.  It becomes political somehow, just in the sense that no-one knows how to solve our transportation issues. For me here in SoCal a car is an incredibly massive and expensive inconvenience because it's virtually impossible to get around with all the traffic and you spend all your time in the car instead of where you want to be.

No matter how incredibly comfortable and connected your car is it's just miserable. And I mean miserable, and scary to boot. How much more pleasant is Manhattan, and how much more pleasant would it be here if you really require the weather and the views and the now-mostly-clear air to breath if there were frequent fast trains and no traffic? How about monorails, if you need them both? Get on the train and then move to the car which will detach to your home destination and then relax. Hint: self-driving cars are the wrong metaphor too! They solve the traffic problem, maybe, but not so much the energy and cost problems.

Man, do I get distracted. But back to the main point, it's almost here, the perfect OS is. I think that Mac has been left behind unless they have the perfect machine I just described in the near-term works. Who knows whose patents I've been guessing at, or if someone will steal my idea and get rich off it because I'm too lazy to think it through myself.

I think I've described what I have going on in my own mind up against the reality of what Microsoft delivers. Name-based search is marginally better than hierarchal lists if the PC is quick enough. The tiles on the new start screen can approximate a mental geography. And the distinction between the legacy desktop and the new App model can draw a virtual line around those app(lication)s you want Windows to handle for you, and the ones you want control of.

And I can still hope that Microsoft will perpetually update what I have until it really does work. They only need to change the wrapper and expand the zoom metaphor for the start screen to something less boxy and more fluid. To where I have a near-bodily understanding of how distant I left that app - where the foreground is a zoom function and everything really does stay where I can find it easily and off is just a state of mind. We need to sleep and we need to be away from our devices, which is why I can't quite get into social networking . . . .

So I have a virtual machine in my mind against which the hardware reality falls slightly short. But it's not bad. I see the vision. It changes the way I use the machine. Let's see what Apple comes up with and when I get rich I'll think about it, but for now I'd say advantage Microsoft.

*  a side note on the keystroke combos - they are a massive kludge between preservation of legacy Windows keystrokes and new approximations of what you can do with the touch-screen. That, combined with a touchpad which wants to emulate touching the screen can lead to some mis-cues which can become almost terminally distracting. The touch-pad is infinitely configurable, so that you can do away with the touch-screen emulation, but that particular kind of infinite makes it a perfect toss-up as to whether you want to devote your time to practicing keystrokes and padstrokes the way you might practice the piano, or whether you want to invest the time in testing all the configuration options. For instance, I swipe in from the left a lot, and am annoyed, distracted and surprised by the scroll-through of running apps when all I wanted was to get the cursor back from over there. And scrolling does a back and forth kind of dance between pulling down the way you would touching the screen and mousing down to make the screen move up. You can actually do both or either depending on two fingers or one along the edge, and in almost precise analog with the control key versus the Windows key and the combinations to go with it - for my mind at least - there's a near guarantee of miscue. But I guess solving that problem is like getting rid of the QWERTY keyboard, or the automobile. There's nothing quite attractive enough as an alternative to let go of what works and satisfies well-enough and what the body remembers.