It is too early to praise Windows 8. It’s also too early to pan it. But it’s never too early to have an opinion. Mine is, “The one-size-fits-all UX paradigm doesn’t scale.”

I’m a fan of the mobile Metro user experience – excuse me, the Windows Store app user experience. Since its release with Windows Phone 7, the new user interface paradigm has been outstanding on phones and tablets. Live Tiles represent a genuine breakthrough. Microsoft has demonstrated through the original Zune music player software design, the Xbox Kinect, and now with Live Tiles, true creativity that rivals anything from Apple or Google.

The idea behind the Metro, ahem, Windows Store app is, and let me selectively quote from Microsoft’s documentation:

Apps have one window that supports multiple views. Unlike traditional desktop apps, a Windows Store app has a single, chromeless window that fills the entire screen by default, so there are no distractions.

On a phone or a tablet, that is perfect, as the tiny amount of screen real estate lends itself to full-screen apps. Not only that, but given the environment where phone or tablet apps are being run, the user is probably focused on a specific task: I want to check my calendar. I want to send a text message. I want to update Facebook. I want to get driving directions. I want to answer a phone call. I want to play Angry Birds for a few minutes. I want to update my to-do list. I want to read 50 Shades of Gray with a glass of wine.

This is a different use case than when a worker is sitting in front of a desktop computer for eight hours, or when a laptop is connected to a 27-inch monitor while the college student does her homework.

The Metro, err, Windows Store app design does not lend itself to immersive multitasking uses of the computer as a workstation. In my (admittedly limited) experience, it is not designed to help the user efficiently multitask without requiring context-switching.

To use a focus group of one: My environment right now consists of a 13” notebook connected to a 30” display. I have currently open Microsoft Word (in which I’m writing this essay), several browser windows using two separate browsers (Chrome and Firefox), an email client, and several chat windows – and I have switched my mouse over to each of them many times while still writing the column. I’m not swiping from side to side; the windows are all visible, all present, providing me with both information and interrupts. I almost never expand any app to full screen on either display.

One could argue that my windowing style is distracting, and that I would be more productive if the OS encouraged me to focus on a single app or task. Maybe. But when I switched many years ago from a small screen to multiple screen to a very large screen, my productivity increased significantly.

I look forward to spending more time with Windows 8, and in using it on a large touchscreen. Perhaps my view will change. For now, I believe that  new Windows 8 UX may be today’s best for mobile devices that being used in a single-mode context – but that it decreases productivity in a multi-app working environment. In other words, it does not scale.

What do you think?

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

It’s hard to get away from mobile development. Yes, not every organization is building apps for mobile devices. Yes, only a small number of developers within a typical organization are likely focused on mobility. The others are doing stuff like websites, databases, desktop apps, server apps, integration…

That said, mobile development trends are fascinating, and not only because many of us not only use mobile devices ourselves, but because in many businesses, the subject keeps coming up. Over and over again.

I’d like to share a few data points from Evans Data Corp., an analyst firm that covers mobile development. Below are some abridged quotes from recent documents from Evans:

The vast majority of mobile developers are hedging their bets in the mobile ecosphere by designing at least some of their apps to target multiple platforms according to a survey of over 400 mobile developers conducted by Evans Data Corp. 

The new survey shows 94% design at least some of their apps to run on multiple platforms, though only 13.5% target all of their apps for multiple platforms.  The largest plurality, 58%, design from 1 to 50% of their apps to run on multiple platforms.

Mobile developers are overwhelmingly embracing the tablet form factor according to Evans Data’s Mobile Development Survey, a worldwide survey of developers who target mobile devices.  Seventy-three percent said they either are currently writing apps for mobile devices (34.7%) or plan to within six months time (38.7%). Only 8% said they had no plans at all to write apps for tablets, with the rest planning to begin sometime after six months.

The independent syndicated survey of over 400 mobile software developers found significantly higher numbers of developers in North America planning to target tablets within the next six months than mobile developers in the APAC or EMEA regions.  Android tablets were cited most frequently as the type of tablet that would be targeted, with Samsung as the preferred Android device type.

In North America 35% of mobile developers are currently targeting tablets, but an additional 46% plan to within six months.  The APAC region is second in adoption with 37% currently targeting tablets and an additional 37% planning to within 6 months.  The EMEA region trails.

Regarding specific platforms: On Thursday, Oct. 18, I visited the Microsoft Store at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, Calif. There was a big display of Windows Phone 7.5, featuring the Nokia Lumia 900. It was a sad display; the phones were discounted down to $49.95, if someone signing up for a two-year contract with a carrier. (Non-US readers: That’s the common deal for smartphone in the United States.) Why the heck would anyone do that, when the Windows Phone 8 devices, including the superior Nokia Lumia 920, will be out in only a few weeks?

The store manager admitted that they’re not selling many phones.

And what about the BlackBerry? The talk of the town is an article published by the New York Times on Monday, Oct. 15, “The BlackBerry as Black Sheep.” The story is light on data and heavy on anecdote, but it seems fundamentally accurate to me.

The folks at Research in Motion disagree, though. Read the rebuttal by Thorsten Heins, president of RIM.

What do you think of the smartphone and tablet market?

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

When you have billions of dollars in your piggy bank, you can go on a big shopping spree and hoover up some decent technology.

According to BerkeryNoyes, an investment bank, there were 4,151 mergers and acquisitions in the online/mobile market between 2010 and the first half of 2012 – and the biggest shopper was Google, which had 49 transactions.

Did you know that there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to the list of mergers and acquisitions by Google? According to the page, which lists 119 transactions from February 2001 through October 2012, the largest was of course Motorola Mobility. This deal happened in August 2011, and cost US$12.5 billion.

That’s a lot of piggy banks. 

Google has a justly deserved reputation as a hotbed of innovation, but the company’s success is due just as much to smart shopping as pure technical prowess. The Motorola deal, of course, gave Google a huge patent portfolio. But look at who else Google has bought lately: The DealMap daily deal service, the Zagat restaurant reviews, the Meebo instant messaging platform, Apture instantaneous search, RightsFlow digital right management, Wildfire social-media marketing, the Quickoffice productivity suite, Frommer’s travel guides… the incredibly diverse list goes on and on.

Google is not alone by pursuing checkbook innovation (as well as checkbook market share). Every big tech company makes acquisitions, some huge, some tiny. Think about Apple, CA, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft or Oracle.

In some cases, these firms are buying patents. In others, the value is in source code or customer lists to milk for upgrades or migrations. Some of these deals buy out competitors (which are then shut down); some grab companies to settle lawsuits (by buying the opposing party); sometimes it’s a way to recruit some technology talent. Think of, for example, Apple’s buying Steve Jobs’ NeXT Computer in 1996, or Microsoft buying Ray Ozzie’s Groove Networks in 2005.

At these companies, the best and brightest computer scientists refine algorithms, tune source code, conduct basic research and invent the future. Their financial success and market position certainly owe a lot to prowess with an IDE. The firms, though, deserve as much credit for their deal savvy – buying the tech just as much as inventing it.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

Skeuomorph. I learned this word a few weeks ago, after a flurry of stories broke on various mass-media websites about an apparent kerfuffle within Apple about user interface design.

A skeuomorph is a design element that looks functional, but is actually purely ornamental. The automotive world is rife with skeuomorphs. Fake hood scoops on sports cars, plastic tire covers that imitate wire wheels, plastic that’s textured and painted to look like wood.

Check out the Wikipedia page and you’ll see several examples, including the program that sparked a number of articles. That’s Apple’s iCal calendaring application on the company’s iPhone and iPad devices, or Calendar on a Mac.

Look at the calener on an iPad. See how the app is designed to resemble an old printed calendar, and the top of the app looks like embossed leather, complete with stitching? See how there’s even a little graphic detail that make it look like pages have been torn out.

Some find that kitschy or distracting. Some find it cute. Some people, like me, never particularly noticed those elements. Some people, apparently like the late Steve Job, believe that faux-reality designs like the leather calendar, or like the wooden bookshelves in iBooks, enhance the experience. Some people, apparently, are infuriated by the notion of foisting an outdated analog user-interface model on a digital device.

A number of those infuriated people are quoted in a story in Fast Company, “Will Apple’s Tacky Software-Design Philosophy Cause a Revolt?”

Some of these designs may be nostalgic to older customers, but may be increasingly meaningless to most consumers of digital products. I’ve seen phone-dialer apps that look like the old rotary telephone dial – and they’re stupid, in my humble opinion. So are address-book apps that look like an old Rolodex, or calendar programs that resemble the Pocket Day-Timer I carried around in the 1980s and 1990s.

If you (or your young coworkers) never used a rotary phone, or owned a Rolodex, or carried a Day-Timer, those user interface metaphors make little sense. They don’t enhance productivity, they detract from it.

Worse, the strictures of the old UI metaphors may constrain the creativity of both developers and end users. If you want to innovate and reinvent productivity tools or business applications, you may not want to force your visual design or workflow to conform to old analog models. Microsoft’s Windows 8, in fact, is being held up as the new paradigm – simple colorful squares, no drop shadows or eye candy, and no skeuomorph. See another article from Fast Company, “Windows 8: The Boldest, Biggest Redesign in Microsoft’s History.”