Follow up to: ‘Why Does Microsoft make it so hard?’

Firstly, I want to thank everybody who responded to my last blog post: From Mac to Windows: Why is Microsoft making it so hard? There is always a risk that any post dealing with a Mac versus Windows topic could descend into a flame war, so I was very appreciative of the intelligent thoughts and suggestions offered by everyone who commented on the blog.

Secondly, I will apologise for taking so long posting this follow up blog post. I have been sitting on this blog post for a couple of months waiting for permission to include a few quotes from Chris Bernard, a Chief Experience Evangelist at Microsoft, but after not hearing back, I have decided to publish the post without them.

In that time, Microsoft has abandoned the Metro name, but I will continue to use it here in lieu of a non-Wordy alternative.

Back in July, I spoke to Chris for an hour about the direction Microsoft is taking. I certainly wasn’t expecting to receive that kind of pro-active response. If we are still talking pros and cons between Apple and Microsoft, it seems unlikely that someone from Apple would have been as supportive in this way (again, I may be just as ignorant of the support channels Apple provides).

As a developer looking to move across to the Windows platform, there are two partially-related decisions I need to make:

  1. Which Windows platform should I target, and given the imminent release of Windows 8, should I make a Desktop or a Metro application?
  2. Which framework and language should I use to develop that application?

Since numerous people have asked me for a follow up, in this post I will discuss what I have drawn from my conversation with Chris, as well as my own experiences with Windows 8 to answer the first of these questions.

I will cover specific frameworks and technology choices in a separate post.

Windows 8 as a “touch first” device

Where Apple has maintained some separation between their touch (iOS) and desktop (Mac OS) devices, Microsoft is taking the gamble that merging the two is the correct approach, and is boldly proclaiming “Apple got it wrong.

While there are some great productivity apps on the iPad, I suspect that the majority of iPad users are playing games and consuming content. If Microsoft provides the option to have all of that in a touch friendly environment, and be able to dock a keyboard and switch into Desktop mode when required, that may be a sufficient selling point. It just depends whether consumers actually want to get more from these devices.

To be successful in this market, Microsoft are reliant on two things that may be largely out of their control:

  1. Third-party hardware vendors succeeding in launching the iPad killer that runs Windows 8.
  2. App developers adopting the Windows 8 platform in sufficient numbers to create a buzzing Windows 8 Store that can compete with Apple’s offering.

Windows 8 as a Desktop device

There is a strong risk that Windows 8 will alienate existing Desktop users. Touch doesn’t get used in a desktop environment – a mouse and keyboard are more comfortable than raising your arm to eye level all day.

Although Metro can function with a mouse, it is clearly first and foremost a touch device, and I got the feeling testing it on a standard laptop that I was missing out on a lot of its user experience.

Trying to use a laptop touch pad, in particular, where it doesn’t provide a scrolling mechanism, made the Metro interface awkward to use – it is tiring to perform the multiple actions required to scroll through the Metro interface (move mouse down to the scrollbar, drag the scrollbar left or right, then move mouse back up to interact with the content). Even with a plugged in mouse, the vertical mouse wheel has been borrowed to provide horizontal scrolling in some applications (but not all), which still violates my interface expectations after several weeks.

Windows 8 is still in beta, and perhaps with more feedback from Desktop-only users, some of these issues will be resolved, or perhaps with more exposure, everyone will adapt pretty quickly. Either way, there is a risk that businesses will not want to switch to an operating system that requires staff to be re-trained, and businesses form a large share of the Windows market.

Developing for Windows 8 Metro is a risk

There is no doubt that developing solely for Windows 8 is a risk, for all of the reasons mentioned above. Business and desktop users may shy away from an operating system that feels so unfamiliar when they see it demoed in a store. Tablet consumers may shy away if the hardware can’t match the design, build quality and ease of use of the iPad.

Developers may hang back to see what happens, and the only thing worse for Microsoft than no Windows 8 store may be an empty one.

I am coming across from the Mac platform, which traditionally has a healthy independent developer culture that encourages Mac users to third party apps more than Windows does. But this is offset by the size of the market. Even a lukewarm response to Windows 8 would still see more Windows 8 users than Mac users within the first half year.

Which is a pretty compelling argument to at least consider a Metro application as an option. The Windows 8 store is another, as it could provide an easy path to market to access those customers.

Windows 8 may turn out to be another Vista, but it will probably still be a stepping stone towards a more successful Windows 9 (many have recently made the same accusations about Mac OS Lion). If Metro survives through to Windows 9 – and it is hard to imagine a scenario where Microsoft will backpedal from the entire model – it will eventually drag the Windows 7 users with it.

Choosing between Desktop and Metro

Putting aside all of these business issues, the more important decision is whether Aeon Timeline is better suited to Desktop or Metro mode. Aeon Timeline could work in either. It is written as a desktop application for the Mac, and so creating a desktop application would be a more straightforward port, with fewer design decisions.

But it is a simple, clean, intuitive application that could be at home in a touch environment too. There is a lot to gain from having a tactile way to interact with the timeline. Using trackpad pinching and scrolling gestures on the Mac, it gets halfway there, but a genuine touch interface would take it one step further.

It would, however, have a steeper learning curve and require more work. Metro is a fundamentally different UI. It doesn’t have traditional menus and windows, and many parts of the application would need to be redesigned to match, much like they would moving from Mac to the iPad.

The development path for Aeon Timeline

Chris and I discussed specifics about Aeon Timeline and what it would mean to develop for either environment, and I have thought for several weeks to reach my current conclusions.

I am not relying on Aeon Timeline to pay my bills. Sure, I have started to make some money from it, and I am treating it like a business to devote sufficient time to further development and supporting customers, but I have another job as my primary source of income, which frees me from making decisions based solely on finance.

For me, my decision comes down to my motivation for developing a Windows version at all. There are three primary motivations:

  1. To make money
  2. To please people emailing me to ask for a Windows version
  3. Because I enjoy developing Aeon Timeline

I have decided to make the last of these options number one on my list.

Developing a Metro application will be a challenge. I will have to re-think and adapt the interface to work with touch devices as well as mouse/keyboard, and streamline the interface even further to fit in with Metro’s ideals. Provided the development tools are up to scratch and don’t lead to constant frustration, developing a Metro application should be fun. Right now, the majority of applications in the Windows 8 store are either games or consumption applications (twitter clients etc.) – it will be good to stretch the environment to production applications also, as I am sure many other developers are now starting to do.

If I do a good job, I will get enough money back to justify its existence, and it will provide a Windows option for customers asking for one, even if it does not please everyone right away. As a bonus, designing for Metro will also provide me with good experience and ideas if I want to make an iPad version down the track.

Importantly, if I do it right, I can revert back to building for Desktop at any time if it becomes clear that is a better way to go, or even build both versions if the timing works that way. With the right technology choices, the Metro or Desktop component is just an interface.

But I will discuss that further in a follow up post on the available technologies.

Comments are open for anyone wishing to discuss anything further. Just make sure you include less than 5 links so you don’t get thrown into the moderation queue by the spam filter.

20 thoughts on “Follow up to: ‘Why Does Microsoft make it so hard?’

  1. Great news! Good luck with your programming and I must say that I really look forward to the release of your windows-version of Aeon Timeline!

  2. Hi,

    I’d like to know how I could sign up for the newsletter which gives an rebate on the windows version.

    I’d be among the first to get it !

    Thanks in advance !

  3. If I were you, I would develop for Windows 7. I don’t know how much of an issue that is to you, though, or if you’ve already made up your mind.

    The majority of Windows users will not be switching to Win8. I’ve already talked to several tech consultants I know, and all of them are recommending to their customers to NOT switch. That being said, I personally predict (and I know I’m not alone) a mass rejection of Win8.

    I personally will not be switching to Win8, and, while I bear respect for those who take the time to learn to use the new interface, I do not think the new operating system is a good idea.

    When it comes down to it, Windows 8 is a fun toy. It works well for tablets, admittedly, but it still has its problems.

    I strongly recommend devving for Win7.

    • Forgot to mention: the point is not that you’ll be selling to more people. The point is that it will be appreciated more by the masses.

      Ultimately, though, if you’re doing it for fun, it’s your choice!

    • Hi Noah,
      At the moment, I am still writing all of the back end code, which I am making sure I write so that it will work for either approach.

      Depending on how Windows 8 goes over the next few months, I can easily change which one I develop for without wasting any effort. It would be possible to eventually develop for both.

      So mostly, I am going to wait and see, although I am leaning back towards a Desktop application at the moment (which would support Win7 and Win8).

      Regards,
      Matt

      • Awesome! That works too. A wait and see approach is definitely valid in this case.

        Hey, if you need a beta tester at any point, feel free to email me!

  4. I think it’s most important for you, to do what you get the most pleasure from, and is in keeping with the reason you started working on it in 2008….to help other writers. Just think how many more people will be singing your praises whichever version of Windows you do it in!!

    Touch screens are the future. Microsoft has a horrible history with the first new release of all new software and it’s far more practical for businesses to wait. That business offices are not immediately going to Windows 8 right now doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.

    HOWEVER, I doubt that Aeon Timeline will be used by a lot of businesses. Development you do for a touch screen is going to bear fruit sometime in the future. Home users often precede businesses in moving to new versions of operating systems. Fiction Writers are not a large percentage of any business or software market, but they are the majority of people who would relish a really good timeline program and Nanowrimo is an excellent advertisement for you.

    Alternatively, and this would not be my personal preference, you could develop it as an online browser based program that would run on any platform.

    You also might want to get PCMag, PCWorld, Wired etc to review it when you come out with the Windows version, as well as literary magazines. If as you mention elsewhere it is useful to lawyers a few strategic ads in law or law school publications might explode the number of users (but could you handle it??)

  5. I’ve just become aware of Aeontimeline today and would be interested in a Windows desktop version. While I’ve not used either the beta or release version of Windows 8, if and when I do acquire a copy of it, I’ll certainly be switching back to the Windows 7 and earlier, non-touch desktop and interface. Using a laptop and a desktop computer only, I have no desire to work with a touch interface and would not voluntarily use one for any application. My choice would be for a desktop version if you release a Windows version.

  6. I was quite disappointed to discover there was no windows version available, especially given how excited I was when I first read about the NaNoWriMo discount available. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months researching Win8 and exploring/experimenting with it when it was released. I hated it that much I resorted to purchasing Win7 for my new desktop build simply in order to retain the functionality I have come to expect from my desktop which is not in any shape a touchpad. Therefore I heartily add my voice to those asking for a genuine desktop version of Aeon Timeline. Keep up the excellent work!

  7. Great discussion. I am a .net developer by day, and I think a W8 version would be fantastic. The app store desperately needs more quality programs. Most of the complaints I’ve heard about W8 revolve around the start page and lack of the start orb. The underlying OS is solid by most accounts, so I agree that even if W8 flops much of it will be incorporated into W9. Personally I hope that significant usability tweaks arrive soon in the form of a service pack. And like you said, if your back-end is properly designed it shouldn’t be too difficult to create a WPF front-end.

  8. I am so looking forward to a Windows version. This is exactly the tool I am looking for to keep my story lines together (it’s driving me crazy right now).

    Think about the core users for this. Writers are generally going to sit down at a computer with a keyboard (and large monitor) to write, not a touch screen device.

    For at least the next two years the overwhelming majority of the installed base is Win 7. Target that with forward compatibility to Win 8 Desktop and you’ll not only be maximizing your market and revenue, but also your good karma 🙂

  9. Hi! Just wanted to mention that I’m really looking forward to when your Windows version comes out, and throw my two cents in. It’s awesome that you’ve put so much thought and consideration into this.

    Speaking for myself, I have a Windows 7 desktop computer (my own build), and WinXP laptop, and an iPad that I use regularly. For the most part, I tend to use my desktop and laptop for writing and heavy editing, and the iPad for reading and light editing (although I do have a keyboard now for the iPad in case I do have big chunks of text to write – it doesn’t get used as often though). I am hoping to upgrade my laptop to Windows 7 in the near-ish future, but I’m probably willing to wait to upgrade any further than that until Windows 9 comes out, at least. Even if Windows 8 does resolve the functionality issues for non-touch users (I tried Vista briefly on a laptop, and had SO many problems with it that I just returned the laptop and replaced it with an XP model that’s been serving me well). My preference would definitely be for a desktop application of Aeon. My understanding is that a desktop application would still be usable in Windows 8, correct? Under the desktop interface rather than the Metro one?

    That said, your application sounds like it would work well in both the desktop and touchscreen environment, with different possibilities for both. I’ll often use my iPad to pull up information or have a different version of what I’m working on, while working on one of the other computers (I find it’s less distracting for me to that than to open a browser on my computer). I don’t know how hard it would be to port a Metro app to iOS (I imagine the interface and design choices would be the same or similar, but the programming of the shell might be different – it’s been a LONG time since I’ve done even rudimentary programming, so I’m not an expert – this is just me guessing), but I could also see myself using Aeon on my iPad to reference information or make quick notes, while writing or editing on the regular computer. So while I would definitely prefer the desktop application, if the time and programming work your way, I can definitely see the advantages of a touchscreen version as well.

    Anyway, good luck with it! As long as it’s not Win8 only, I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it comes out!

  10. I just discovered this application and would like to say that I’d love to have the chance to use a Windows build! I’m currently in the middle of a personal project of mine, writing some short novels I’ve been wanting to put to print since high school and Aeon Timeline would be a very useful tool to achieve my goal in a consistent manner! As for which version of Windows, I actually run Win8 on a desktop I built a few months ago so I wouldn’t mind which Windows ends up having it as long as there’s a Windows version! For those thinking that I’m nuts by building a Win8 desktop, the truth is that I rarely even bother with Metro applications. Sure, the start menu is in Metro style but I just type the name of the app I want and run it when I hit the Start key or run it from the Win key+ R Run dialog. Performance is great and I’m having much better compatibility with Win8 than I did with Vista so no complaints from me there (of course, that was after I got over the first few days of resistance trying to use Metro apps – the answer if simple, if the tools I have – a mouse and keyboard – don’t handle Metro the best way possible, I just don’t use Metro).

  11. At the end of the day you just need to write for Windows XP upwards. XP is still installed on the widest number of machines and if you develop it right you will be able to run it on Vista, Seven and Eight.

    Forget the metro rubbish, after all would you wrote Aeon Timeline for iPAD? No, because it’s not well suited to such devices. Remember that real authors and writers are NOT USING tablets. There’s no decent office suite on them yet, and scrivener, storybook, ywriter etc are all desktop applications.

    You provide the only serious timeline software I’ve seen for writers that can sit along side scrivener for windows so forget the metro crap, forget windows 8’s touchy interface and just write a plain old desktop app that writers will actually use alongside MS office, LibreOffice, scrivener, ywriter or storybook.

    • Not yet ready to talk about dates, but I am making good progress on it.

      There is a thread on our forum that you can add your name to if you would like me to contact you when the beta is available.

      Matt

      • Where can I find this thread? And do you have any idea when Aeon will be available for Windows?

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