Why Can’t PC Be Simple?

The creation of Metro style experience for Windows 8 triggered controversies within the blogosphere. Microsoft officially called it “Windows 8 Style Experience”, I suppose. Metro style experience represents consumption-based computing experience, which can be found in other computing devices, such as smartphone and tablet alike.

I never saw what computer was like in 1960s in the real life, in an era when I was not even born yet. But before computer became a commodity in every household, (which still did not happen in some places), the very idea of having of computer is to get the work done, more specifically, to process data. The basic definition of computer does not change today but its role in people’s life, however, becomes unique to each individual.

Personal Computer (PC) became a commodity since the release of Windows 95. It was designed for productivity for both businesses and households. Given the functionality and complexity of PC, it can be used for a variety of purposes with large flexibility and rich customization options. The usage scenarios largely depend on how the PC is being set up. Often time, most users are generally lack of in-depth knowledge of the Information Technology (IT) in general; their experience would be affected by their own level of knowledge as well as the setting up by their IT administrators, who could be the member of their family, the employee of their companies, the support staff of the PC retailers, etc. To summarize it, the PC is powerful and useful but complicated. To play safe, most people, who are only aware of limited usage scenarios of the PC, use their PC in certain ways, effectively a safe realm, if you will, as messing up the PC setting, software or hardware could be ugly or terrible. In fact, to prevent things from going wrong, it’s commonly seen in businesses that PCs are being “locked-up” so that they are to be ascertained to be used in certain ways.

You can begin to use your PC with the information limited to particular usage scenarios, without paying significant efforts to learn more about the fundamentals of IT or more information. Minimize the efforts to get the best results; that is efficiency, is it not? In outcome-based and exam-oriented education system, we tend to think of knowledge or information as a means to reach the goal; in another way to put it, learning is not deemed as a goal. Thus, it will not be surprising to learn that people failed to learn the lessons within the syllabus or information that is not included but nevertheless related to what was written in the textbooks. The most extreme example would be the application of some knowledge is limited only in exams to achieve good results. Failure to appreciate the knowledge itself almost guarantees the forgetting of the important lessons that they are supposed to learn or the willingness and ability to learn more deeply about anything. The truth is that the usage scenarios or the interrelationship between seemingly different kinds of knowledge are actually bound by human perception, rather than the actual boundary that exists within the knowledge itself.

What is also true, however, is that to make a case for why certain field of knowledge is important, we would take already-known or relevant usage scenarios for example. The highlight of applications is meant to encourage the learning process itself. But what is often being ignored is that we do not have all the answers for our problems. Assuming that we have a system of knowledge which is effectively complete, we can pick and choose the field of knowledge that is relevant to our problems. But we do not. Sometimes we think we have the answers but that particular solution is not necessarily the best answer that exists. Sometimes we simply do not have the answers. That is why scientists and mathematicians exist. Again, the boundary between a scientist, particularly theoretical physicist, and mathematician, is not always clear. A mathematician may play the role as scientist and vice versa.

Lifetime learning is sustainable by human lasting curiosity and desire for solutions. But when the problems are deemed to be “too big”, some people tend to turn away; some people will try to make a difference. Learning curve and persistency for learning contribute to shape the PC user experience. It’s no wonder we do not have universal user experience across all PC users. We customize it, either by ourselves or with the help of others, to suit our needs. It’s not surprising that many of the usage scenarios remain largely unknown to large number of PC users.

PC as an entertainment device or a consumption-based device in general is not a new idea, contrary to some people’s believe. When you had a PC at home or at the office, you might not be able to use PC as a consumption-based device because of how it was set up; you might not be aware of how to do it yourself because of your limited knowledge. In some cases, as a typical chicken-and-egg problem, businesspeople did not provide relevant services because of the seemingly lack of demand.

The consumerization of IT is the emergence and popularization of consumption-based computing devices for consumers. Such devices, such as iOS and Android devices, were designed to be easy to be used, i.e. much lower learning curve, for consumption / entertainment purposes. From the technical perspective, they are considerably less versatile yet highly mobile and consumer-friendly. App store was introduced for the search for apps or applications, which are considerably less complex than traditional applications that exist in desktop PC. Regardless of their design principles, their popularization also gives rise to a question: the usability of these devices in productivity that traditionally requires full-fledged PC. While these devices may be attractive to less advanced users, the fundamentals of IT make these devices ultimately less suitable or practical compared with PCs. Hence, some people would keep their PC as work machine while having tablets or smartphones for consumption-based computing need; even though, technically, PC is versatile enough to handle consumption-based computing needs as well.

As less sophisticated PC users being exposed to consumption-based computing devices, a question naturally arises, which was often being asked in blogosphere: Why can’t PC be simple? Or, another way to ask: these seemingly easy-to-use devices become the successor of PC, in an era known as post-PC era? If you paid attention to what I wrote about what PC was meant to be, the perceived difficulty or user-friendliness is highly subjective, which did answer why PC was not simple to many people.

In Build Conference 2011, Microsoft publicly revealed the Developer Preview of Windows 8, which was available for public download during the testing period. As Microsoft put it, Windows 8 featured a touch-first user experience but works with mouse and keyboard as well. The “Metro” user experience, first debuted for Windows Phone 7, now made its way to Windows as well. As I said right in the beginning of this blog post, represents consumption-based computing experience, which can be found in other computing devices, such as smartphone and tablet alike. Microsoft did say one thing: you stay in the “immersive experience” without ever getting to the Desktop if you want; another way to put it: The Metro user experience represents the consumption-based computing user experience which you may stay into it if you do not need to use productivity tools that exist in Desktop.

There are some people who claimed that Metro is the future; or at least it is what Microsoft wants Windows to be eventually by phasing out the desktop. It’s not, however, clear that Microsoft can ever pull it through, given that the large number of usage scenarios only exist in desktop currently. Another point to ponder: Metro is supposed to be consumer-friendly but not necessarily meant for highest efficiency for productivity. For the veteran power PC users, they mostly stay in desktop even for consumption-based computing needs as they already know how or can do a lot more that simply cannot be done in Metro currently. For many more less-sophisticated PC users, one would imagine Metro would make sense for tablet form factors. Perhaps Microsoft, Adobe, Autodesk, etc. can have their apps in Windows Store?

User interface does depend on usage scenarios. Command-line tools are proven to be useful today for power users, IT administrators, programmers but not known to people outside those fields. There are some who pointed out that while Metro-style apps or Windows Store Apps as Microsoft call them today are generally touch-friendly, touch in desktop environment may be functional but not optimized or require some practices from the users. Surely, Microsoft would continue to improve the “Metro” to be more suitable for productivity but it has its limit.

Metro” is Microsoft’s vision to make PC simple. Given the underlying design principles for productivity, I seriously doubt we will be able to see the phasing-out or replacement of Desktop anytime soon, thus realizing the goal to make PC simple.

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30 Responses to Why Can’t PC Be Simple?

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    Recently, in the context of web development, many developers or IT companies have talked about the use of HTML, JavaScript, and other related web technologies in developing native application software that will run in the operating system. Over the years, clearly the web development technologies in general has evolved significantly from the early days of mere simple texts. You can see the crossover of web development technologies and traditional application development technologies clearly in Windows 7 and Windows. The idea of pinned shortcuts on the taskbar or Start Screen represents this crossover. Some web sites, such as outlook.com or SkyDrive, behave almost like an always-connected application.
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