Windows: it’s always the next version

This hit the news yesterday.

Microsoft released Windows 10 four weeks ago today, and now the company is providing a fresh update on its upgrade figures. 14 million machines had been upgraded to Windows 10 within 24 hours of the operating system release last month, and that figure has now risen to more than 75 million in just four weeks.

As somebody who uses Windows every day, and who upgraded to Windows 10 a few weeks before it was released, let me make a statement about all the positive Windows 10 reviews that not everyone is going to like. There are only two reasons Windows 10 is getting positive reviews. First, because it’s free. This one’s a given. Second, and more importantly: Windows 10 is getting positive reviews because none of the reviewers have forced themselves to use nothing but Metro applications.

Here’s the cold and harsh truth as I see it: despite all the promises, Metro applications are still complete and utter garbage. Let me explain why.

I was going to write a detailed review of Windows 10, but as I started using it, I realised I didn’t really have a whole lot to say – because quite honestly, Windows 10 isn’t nearly as big an update as they want you to believe. It’s still a desperate attempt at merging the Windows of old – Win32, if you will – and the Windows of supposedly tomorrow (which I still call Metro). If you were already okay with Win32 in Windows 7 and Windows 8, you’ll still be okay with Win32 in Windows 10. Little has improved in this regard. Consequently, this also means that if you’re happy with Windows 7 or Windows 8 with a Start menu replacement, there really is no need to upgrade to Windows 10 – other than that it’s free.

On the Metro side of things, however, a lot has changed from Windows 8.x, it’s just that the changes haven’t resulted in Metro applications actually being any good.

Windows 8 was released three years ago. This means that after three years of Metro, we still have no high-quality, delightful, killer Metro applications, despite – I presume – Microsoft’s brightest minds working on them for 5-6 years now (if you include Windows 8’s development cycle). One word keeps popping up in my mind when I think about Metro: pathetic.

I’m going to give you a whole lot of examples of things that are wrong with Metro in Windows 10, and I want to start with a specific example that really illustrates everything that is wrong with Windows today.

Currently, in Windows 10, there are, at least (I stopped counting), 12 differently styled and designed context menus. I’m not joking. This is no hyperbole. I’m not talking about merely the contents of the menus being different, but their actual design, style, and in some cases, even the way they function. There are applications in Windows 10 that have classic Win32 context menus while also having several differently designed context menus within the same application window.

In my view, nothing illustrates the current state of Windows better than Windows 10’s context menus: chaotic, unfocussed, willy-nilly, a complete and utter lack of attention to detail. This lack of attention to detail is the big red thread running through Metro in Windows 10, and it makes Metro applications – which are now clearly the future, pinky-swear – frustrating to use.

Let’s take Microsoft’s new browser, Edge.

Can you spot the URL input field? Neither can I, because it’s hidden. For some reason, Microsoft disables and hides the URL input field, forcing you to use the search bar in the middle of the page instead. The problem is: when you open a new tab, said search field is not activated. You have to click it first before you can start typing. After hitting enter, the page loads, and the actual URL field appears. You can actually click inside the area where the URL input field eventually appears, but you need to click twice to actually be able to use it; first to ‘unhide’ it, and then to actually activate it so you can input text.

Then there’s the URL input field’s dropdown. This dropdown, which appears with suggestions as you type, is white. Without borders. Without shadows. If you’re on a website with a white background, it effectively vanishes. If you’re on a white website with lots of black text, like, say, Wikipedia, and, well, it’d be hilarious if it wasn’t so incredibly frustrating and sad.

The URL input field has another problem. Like other browsers, Edge hides the HTTP prefix of the URL for a cleaner look. So far, so good – I don’t see the point but I’m not bothered by it either. When you click on the URL input field, the prefix will reappear, and in order to make room for it, the rest of the URL shifts to the right.

The problem is that – like so many other things Windows – the hiding is only skin-deep; it’s purely visual. So, when you want to select part of the URL or place the input cursor somewhere specific in the URL to, say, fix a typo, the URL will shift to the right to make way for the prefix, and you will misclick, and your cursor will end up somewhere to the left of where you originally wanted it to be.

In other words, if you want to fix the typo “www.osnews.cor”, and you click right of the “r”, the cursor will actually appear somewhere around the “w” in “news” instead, because the entire URL shifted to the right to make way for the prefix. Infuriating doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Moving on, Edge’s implementation of tabs is so utterly broken it should never have shipped in a final release. The user interface of tabbed browsing in Edge is such a giant – excusez le mot – clusterfuck, I just cannot believe somebody looked at this a few months ago and said, with a straight face, “yup, ship it!”. This thing must be some sort of cosmic joke.

Let’s start with the big one: Edge has no titlebar. Tabs on top, which I think Chrome introduced first (although it might have been configurable as such on Opera before, I don’t remember), is a great idea and universally adopted now, but tabs on top or no, you need a titlebar – even more so on Windows, where clicks inside inactive windows are always passed on to the window. Take a look at the screenshot below, and try to figure out how you would go about switching to Edge without performing some sort of action like clicking a bookmark, a button, or switching tabs.

Exactly: it’s pretty much impossible (only clicking the red area will not perform any action). Only a small part of the titlebar is always visible (all the way to the right), but because the titlebar buttons have no borders, you’ll end up clicking them (or the new tab button) more often than not (they are much, much larger than their icons seem to imply).

Tabs themselves have a number of issues, too. Dragging the last and only tab from window A to window B will spawn a new, empty tab in windows A; in other words, it won’t close, and just sit there until you manually close it. So, every now and then, you’ll be wondering where all those empty Edge windows are coming from. In addition, because the tab you’re dragging is – you guessed it – white, it’s easy to lose track of it when dragging across sites that are predominantly white.

The second application I want to talk about specifically, is Mail. This one is getting a lot of accolades in reviews, but in my few months of using it every day, it has proven itself to be a dreadful email client.

First and foremost, it has major issues actually, you know, receiving email. More often than not, emails will arrive 5, 10, 15 minutes late, and on my Windows 10 machine, notifications are incredibly unreliable and they have stopped working for Mail altogether, so I just can’t trust Mail. Considering virtually all contact with my clients takes place via e-mail, this could potentially cost me work.

Attachments are another problem with receiving mail. Often, e-mail that’s supposed to have attachments, will not have attachments in Windows 10’s Mail. They simply won’t show up. Attachments also sometimes do not download automatically, and said downloading also tends to take a very, very long time – and Mail will throw up an error message if you try to reply while it’s taking its sweet time downloading a 25kB attachment.

Then there’s the user interface. Since Mail is just an application designed for Windows Phone but scaled up, it doesn’t support multiple windows. What does this mean? Well, the reading pane is also the new mail pane; so if you reply or want to create a new email, the editor will take the place of the reading pane. Typing up an email but need to check something in an email you received? Tough luck, you’ll have to close your draft, browse to the email in question, find the draft you just closed, and open it again. It’s a terrible workflow, forced upon desktop users because of limitations on smartphones.

Much like in Edge, the sparseness and whiteness of Mail also leads to usability issues, such as threading being difficult to follow, as well as it being unclear where clickable areas begin and end – a running theme in Metro on the desktop for three years now.

Aside from these two specific applications I decided to pick on, there’s myriad other problems all across the Metro parts of the user interface in Windows 10. One of my favourites is that Metro applications can have two different types of fullscreens, and thus, two different fullscreen buttons. One of them is the traditional, Win32-esque fullscreen button that still shows you the titlebar chrome and taskbar, while the other is a Metro fullscreen button that hides the titlebar and taskbar (similar to the fullscreen mode in OS X).

Some applications, like Tweetium, get utterly confused by this. You enter Metro fullscreen with the double arrow button, after which the double arrow button disappears, and you have to leave Metro fullscreen with the Win32 fullscreen button. I wish I was making this stuff up.

One more version

Many people will argue these are just bugs, tiny problems that will go away over time. Windows 10 is new! It will work itself out!

And here’s whet I get agitated, because that’s utter hogwash. This is the perpetual Windows Phone hypecycle all over again – it’s always one more version, it’s always the next release that will fix everything, it’s always next month’s set of updates that finally make Metro not suck. Windows’ Metro has been in our hands for three years now, and Microsoft has been working on it for far longer than that. Why are we giving them a free pass every time they repackage this crap?

When I take a step back, when I take a look at the greater picture that is Windows 10, I see disinterest. A lack of focus. Lack of vision. Randomness. A complete lack of attention to detail. Too many cooks in a kitchen so big they can’t even see each other. Windows 10’s Metro is a hodgepodge, a messy assortment of disparate ideas about user interface design slapped on top of buggy and unreliable application backends.

Windows 10, like Windows 8 and 8.1 before it on the desktop, and Windows Phone 7.x and 8.x on smartphones, is nothing more than yet another beta release. Another unfinished product that, like the others, will supposedly one day be really good, I promise, just wait for the next update! The next version! It’ll finally get good!

Just… No. Stop it. We’ve been promised enough when it comes to Metro, either on phones or on desktops. I’m done, I’m through, I’m fed up, this is bananas. We’re three years in, and Win32 applications are still universally better than their Metro counterparts, despite all the promises. I’ve opened myself up to try Metro applications at every release, and every time, it’s been a disaster.

No more.

Much like Windows 8.x before it, I advise you to ignore this Metro nonsense, and just focus on the traditional desktop side of Windows. It’ll be a little harder this time around because of the superficial, skin-deep Metro layer atop the taskbar and its applets (any action that requires more than two braincells to perform require Win32 applets anyway), but it’s still very much possible to use Windows 10 without ever having to endure or waddle through its Metro nonsense.

Well, there’s always the next batch of updates.


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