Sunday, December 9, 2012



I doubt very much that it is possible for someone who hasn’t been through a World War to appreciate both its immediate impact and its consequences. I was alive for only one year of the European War—I was born in May 1944—but my early years were spent living with the truly disastrous consequences. Europe was wrecked, drained and exhausted; and Britain, and its fast fading empire, were scarcely in better shape.

We lived in Britain for much of the first six years of my life—and I went to boarding school there from the age of nine. Primarily, I recall extensive bomb and missile damage in London, and shortages of just about all the basics—rationing was still very much in force—and consumer goods were practically non existent. Then, when the latter did appear, the quality was awful. British manufactured goods seemed to be particularly bad. Whatever about Britain’s pioneering role in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, its design and manufacturing expertise had largely been replaced by myth in the mid 20th. It all added up to an impressive lack of choice—and there were even fewer good choices. Indeed, not infrequently, there were none.

I have been thinking about that period while familiarizing myself with Windows 8. While I’m impressed with it in many ways, I cannot help thinking that Microsoft’s consistent habit of presenting the user with numerous different ways of doing the same thing is choice carried to excess. It is as if its designers lack faith in their own instincts and judgment, so are adding complexity instead of clarity—and have never heard of simplicity.

Such an approach also creates false choice. Here I am reminded of breakfast cereals or financial products where endless variations on a theme disguise both poor quality, and the lack of any genuine consumer concern.

Microsoft could bring genuine choice to the marketplace by introducing a completely new computer operating system free of the tortuous inner workings of Windows (which means that it can never be as innately reliable as it needs to be). Instead, it worships at the altar of backward compatibility, and eschews vision, clarity, simplicity and reliability.

This is the classic behavior of a corporate monopolist.

UX, by the way, is an acronym for ‘User Experience,’ and Microsoft prides itself on its investment in this area. The results have been excellent in some areas—such as in relation to Hotmail/Outlook and SkyDrive—and decidedly erratic in others, such as Windows 8.

The lack of direction, and of a clear and consistent vision, is palpable.

There is lack of choice—which few of us would wish for—real choice, where one can select between competing visions of quality—and the illusion of choice, where near monopolistic corporations offer endless variety of the mediocre backed by a permanent barrage of advertising.

Real choice would be a fine thing.



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