A little nervous about Microsoft's "unified" Metro future
Everybody seems to be excited about Microsoft's phone and tablet operating systems aligning with a unified experience using Metro, but as a person who's been using a Windows Phone and a Windows 8 tablet for a few months now I have my doubts about this whole thing coming together.
I know that Windows 8 is unfinished, and Windows Phone 8 will probably help a little when that arrives later this year, but I just keep getting the feeling that phone and tablet Metro are similar in appearance only. Actually using them daily reveals that the similarities are only skin deep, and the interaction models are so fundamentally different that very little you learn on one platform will carry over to the other. They feel at least as different in use as iOS and Android. Instead of feeling unified, they feel like they were made by completely different companies that both had a similar idea.
The differences start out small, but they add up to something that just doesn't feel the same. A good example to start with is the very similar looking Live Tile start screens on the two platforms. On the phone your start screen is a manually curated list of pinned shortcuts and a quick swipe to the right takes you to your full apps list, while the full apps list on a tablet is a little more hidden and not as easy to skim through so it's clearly not meant to be one of the primary ways you launch apps like it is on the phone. Installing a new app on a tablet automatically pins a tile on the start screen, but on the phone it just goes into your app list and you can pin it yourself if you want. The real difference here is that tablet users are expected to have *everything* they may ever use pinned to their start screen while phone users are only meant to pin their most frequently used apps with the full app list remaining a viable option for everyday launching. Minor difference, yes, but it points to an inconsistency in Microsoft's approach to two interfaces that look extremely similar. Because they look the same my instinct is to use them the same, but I really can't. This is an issue that I don't expect to change with WP8 because forcing everything to be pinned on a phone form-factor would be pretty terrible, and the argument can be made that the larger screen of a tablet makes the two separate lists unnecessary. For that reason maybe this difference is okay, but it still makes the two devices feel very different when using their most similar-looking feature.
Another little difference is the system's built in search button. On the phone it's a button and on the tablet it's a charm, but for all practical purposes they're the same thing. Why, then, does the tablet use it to kick off contextual search in apps and to do a universal search of your tablet, while the phone only uses it to launch the Bing app? They trained me on the phone to never press it unless I want to do a web search, then the tablet uses it for all searches and I never think to press it. This one I'm really counting on WP8 fixing, because the Mango Bing-launching feature is a total waste of a button and I'd like to see Windows 8's contracts API carried over to the phone. I'm cautiously optimistic on this one.
The app bar is weirdly different between the two platforms as well. It looks pretty much the same from a distance, but on the phone it was painstakingly designed so that it's always visible at the bottom of the screen if the current app happens to use it. I thought it was a huge improvement over the guesswork of the menu button on Android. The Windows 8 design is pretty much the exact opposite, choosing to completely hide it from view during regular use of the app until you edge swipe to conjure it up. If the current app doesn't use an app bar, the edge swipe does nothing. This difference makes absolutely no sense to me, because the tablet has a much larger screen to work with so there should be plenty of room to keep it open all the time or at least give a visual indicator when it's available. The difference basically amounts to the app bar being used for completely different types of actions on Windows 8 compared to Windows Phone, which creates a usability issue regarding where to look for action commands in addition to the differences in physically finding them. I don't expect this to change in Windows 8 before its release, and I really hope that WP8 doesn't adopt Windows 8's approach because it's just a whole lot worse.
A bunch more random observations that have popped up while trying to use these platforms as my daily drivers:
Why does the start button exit the start screen on the tablet but not on the phone? Why does the tablet do app switching with a vertical stack of tiny thumbnails when the phone uses a horizontal row of large thumbnails? Why does the phone filter your games into a dedicated folder but the tablet dumps them directly into your regular app list? Why does copy-paste work completely differently? Why do phone apps start over when you launch them from the start screen but tablet apps pick up where you left off? Why can I set background and accent colors independently on the phone but only as bundled pairs on a tablet? And why do those theme colors seem to have far less effect on the look of your apps compared to the phone where they permeate almost everywhere? Why are Windows Phone's all-uppercase and all-lowercase label design rules ignored on Windows 8? Why does Windows 8's Snap view have the dimensions of a phone screen but doesn't support the Pivot and Panorama views from Windows Phone to make Snap view for a given app identical to its phone version?
I don't think that the phone and tablet interfaces should be identical (you could argue that the iPad is consistent with the iPhone to a fault and it fails to take advantage of some of the possibilities that a larger screen affords) but many of the differences in Microsoft's platforms feel like they're arbitrarily different just because they were designed by different people. I think Windows Phone 8 may even things out at least a little bit, but considering how much more polished and complete WP7's interface feels compared to Windows 8's I hope they don't just blindly carry everything over resulting in a usability downgrade for the phone. I wish I could believe that Windows 8 will adopt more of WP7's interaction models before its release so they could meet somewhere in the middle, but the fact that they haven't done it by now probably means that they don't intend to.
Like I said, these are mostly minor differences, but when virtually every aspect of the system looks the same but works differently it creates some serious problems trying to move between them. Microsoft should be striving to create an ecosystem where these platforms create a familiar environment for users to take with them instead of reinventing the wheel on every single feature to force everyone to relearn what they thought they already knew. This is one of the biggest advantages of the iPhone / iPad ecosystem, and one of the reasons why people really love owning both devices, but Microsoft seems to be going out of their way to make Windows Phone and Windows 8 feel like distinctly separate systems and hoping that visual similarities are all that's needed to create a family of platforms. I think they're mistaken and they might be completely missing the huge opportunity for consistency that their Metro makeover affords them.