And another thing 55

by Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball ponders the future of Windows 8 in the light of what he saw and heard at this year’s CES.

HardCopy Issue: 55 | Published: February 1, 2012

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas in early January was truly epic. Everything about it boggled the mind – the sizes of the halls, the 150,000 attendees, the time taken to move from one meeting to another. The queues for the buses. Some of the stands were the size of small market towns, while the queues to see the best bits just ruined any sort of scheduling. But there were some important themes going on. Firstly, almost nothing was being said about Windows 8. Normally, such silence this close to the release of a major Microsoft operating system would be a significant worry, verging on panic. But the alignment of the planets is different this time around. For starters, you have to understand that most of the big PC manufacturers are on a six month cycle, or thereabouts. So devices shown in January at CES will be fading stars in their ranges by the Autumn. Because of this, no-one would be prepared to show anything which was truly Windows 8 supporting because it would be nearly gone by the time the OS arrives. So everybody has been keeping their secrets very close to their chest. No-one demonstrated any meaningful Windows 8 ARM tablets. Again, if they announced them at CES, then they would be out of date by the time Windows 8 ARM actually ships.

Problems with Android

A rather sad prediction for you. I took the opportunity at CES to talk to a number of vendors who make Android based slates. Some of them are deeply worried about the fragmentation of the platform, the poor updating cycle, and other problems that the platform has acquired. When asked what their future Android plans were, one even went as far as to say “Windows 8!” Maybe there is some truth in these rumours that putting Android onto a device actually costs more than deploying Windows, due to the licensing fees that Microsoft charges on its patent libraries. If so, it will be a sad day when a strong potential competitor for Windows starts to fade away on the larger tablet market space. We need the competition here, and there is no doubt that Microsoft is working at a furious pace because it recognises just how far it is trailing both iOS and Android.

And Microsoft itself was saying nothing about nothing. While I would concede that a keynote from Steve Ballmer is rarely an eye-opening or educational event, this time it was even worse. The phrase ‘content free’ would be generous. Even Microsoft knows this, which is why it has abandoned the CES keynote slot for 2013. It just doesn’t fit into their news cycle.

Windows 8 Beta 1 will hopefully be in our hands by the time you read this. It is due late February, and is now called a Customer Preview Experience or some such nonsense. In the past, a beta was a beta – you knew where you stood. It was put out for software and hardware companies to start checking for bugs and compatibility issues. Today, it is just a PowerPoint slide on a timeline of the marketing team.

Of course, much rides on the quality of this beta. If it is stunning, then Microsoft is on a solid flight path to launch in the early Autumn. If it is a dog, then all bets are off. And the paranoid silence surrounding the team means we have no idea whether the ARM version will ship at the same time as the Intel version.

A few vendors did poke their head above the parade and demonstrate interesting ideas. A laptop with a full-width touch pad was interesting, and something we will see much more of in the future – especially when customers start using the Metro interface. Another showed an early implementation of Thunderbolt on Windows, which is very heartening to see. But driver support might be a little weak for the time being, although LaCie showed a Thunderbolt to ESATA interface box specifically designed for Intel/Windows boxes (not Macs).

So we are in the calm before the storm. Everyone is storing up their innovative ideas for the Windows 8 launch. Some are being cunning and keeping the really interesting stuff for the months after Windows 8 launch, fearful that being part of the main party will only ensure that they get lost in the noise.

Disability support

Given that we are in 2012, you might be somewhat stunned to learn that there are applications out there which do not support the disability features which have been carefully designed into our operating systems. Windows has a huge array of them, from large fonts to high-contrast designs to tools which can read directly from the screen. Imagine my shock at finding a world-class vendor who supplies software on their platform for Windows which uses a cutesy re-skinning library for Windows. Everything looks like Windows, but its subtly different. It’s like a Windows app, but not as we know it, Jim.

Personally I abhor such re-skinning. I have no problems with radical user interface design – I normally applaud the free thinking involved. But there has to be a benefit, a purpose to the skinning which makes the result better than a standard Windows application. When you are dealing with a bog standard application that does boring day to day things, such re-skinning seems somewhat stupid.

It is especially stupid when you discover that all of the disability features of Windows are rendered useless when using such an app. The high contrast tools fail, the reading technology cannot make sense of the self-drawn buttons: it has become an opaque black hole of an app to the disabled user.

I cannot believe that I have to write that every development team should have at least one test environment configured for such settings, and that this should be part of the QA sign-off procedure. But when a multi-billion dollar company makes such a goof simply because it thought the re-skinning was “cool”, you have to despair.

Please check code this way, and really ask yourself if any failures are acceptable. Of course, there are some combinations which are logical. For example, if you are writing a tool for very precise image editing and colour balancing, then supporting the black and white high contrast facilities might seem a bit daft, and you would be right. But the number of applications which have a legitimate ‘Get out of jail free card’ here is really quite tiny.

What is clear though is that this is a time for radical solutions and crazy thinking. The move to a touch interface which is coupled to a full-power OS is something we have not seen before. iOS devices like the iPad are exceptional multi-touch devices, but the underlying OS is deliberately reduced in functionality. You might want to call Android well featured, but few would disagree that it lacks the depth of a full Windows release.

One of the technologies which Windows 8 will help enable is very high resolution displays. I have seen some 300dpi panels and they simply blow you sideways. Yes, it is some nine times sharper than a conventional Windows desktop (which is normally 96 pixels to the logical inch in both dimensions), but nothing prepares you for the shock of looking at a display which is truly print quality. This is the breakthrough that we have been waiting for, both on tablets and on desktops/laptops. It reduces eyestrain; it stops you having to zoom in and out all the time; it is going to be absolutely huge.

Because of this, as developers be prepared to go much richer in terms of the content that you display to users. We will be able to display more on the screen, of course, but do not be tempted to just cram in more stuff for the sake of looking busy. Far better to reconsider the UI features and really ensure that they are making best use of this new resource.

And it goes without saying that your code really should have a good makeover to ensure that there are no nasty depends or start-up assumptions about LPI. We have been used to checking for orientation, increased screen sizes and so forth for years, but changing LPI/DPI is going to require careful thinking, especially as a window is dragged from a 300dpi display to a 96lpi display. Do we keep the same layout and just “go soft”? Or will good apps recognise the change and assist the user appropriately?

There is much to think about here. The new eBook technologies which are appearing from companies such as Apple are going to blow open the entire marketplace for educational books, for example. Whilst it is easy to see how this benefits Little Johnny doing his physics homework, think for a moment how this will affect something as humble as the help file and other interactive training material. A lot of this stuff has lurked around for years, and a 300dpi Windows 8 environment might come as somewhat of a rude shock.

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