Microsoft and the Dumbening of Technology

This week, I'll finish the main writing phase of a book called Windows 8 Secrets. But don’t worry, I’m not trying to sell you anything. Instead, I’m reflecting on an issue that was driven home during the writing of this book, an issue that will dog anyone who supports technology products for a living in the years to come.

See, I happen to believe that names are important in technology. Sadly, Microsoft doesn’t agree. And in Windows 8, especially, the software giant is trying move away from giving things specific names. For example, when you type WINDOWS KEY + C in Windows 8, or swipe in from the right edge of the screen on an all-too-rare multi-touch device, a new overlay comes up. Many people, myself included, call this overlay the “Charms bar,” because it contains the Charms (a set of new Windows 8 features) and is, well, a bar of sorts. But it’s not called the Charms bar. Not officially.

Likewise, Windows 8 features a new task-switching user interface, which appears on the left edge of the screen and is invoked with the WINDOWS KEY + TAB shortcut, or by swiping in from the left edge of the screen and performing a fairly complex finger contortion. I call this “Switcher” because I was told early on that there was a “switcher” on the left edge of the screen; this new interface lets you “switch between apps.” But it’s not really called Switcher. I just call it that because it needs a name.

This and many other related areas of vagueness in Windows are part of a wider trend that I think of, sarcastically, as the “dumbening” of technology. The theory here is that customers don’t need to fill their pretty little heads with complicated names. These products are just so intuitive and easy to use that we’ll just be able to use them, no discussion required.

Yeah, right.

Microsoft isn’t the only company participating in the dumbening. Apple’s latest iPad isn’t called the iPad 3 because that would be too logical and obvious for customers. Instead, it’s “the all-new iPad.” Which will be a fun name when it’s no longer the all new iPad and has been replaced by the iPad 4, which no doubt will be called “no seriously, this is the all-new iPad.”

I would love to get to a place where some names weren’t required. But all around us is complexity that requires explanation.

Quick: Which exact Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8 product editions support BitLocker Drive Encryption? And wouldn’t it be better if there were just a single product -- let’s call it “the all-new Windows” -- in which there were no product editions, just something called Windows? Then there’d be no doubt, because BitLocker would just be “a feature of Windows.”

The dumbening isn’t just about refusing to name basic features. It also includes the obfuscation or outright redefining of terms that have been with us for a long time. I have two examples that I find particularly annoying.

The first is apps. Previous to Windows 8, Windows ran applications. This is a very formal sounding name that suggests all kinds of things. For Windows in particular, it means a fairly complex piece of software, architecturally, that typically lives in a directory of its own but also relies on shared files (that can reside in other directories) and, worse, uses the Registry for configuration information. Installing and uninstalling applications can be a messy affair, but on the good news front, correctly written applications can be managed by corporations.

Applications were a big deal for a long time. But then the iPhone came around, with its cuter-sounding apps. These apps are many things, but they are above all else simple. Which means architecturally simple as well as functionally simple. They can’t really be managed, they can’t really be trusted, and they certainly can’t replace real applications, though for many people, that just doesn’t matter. Apps are like the red-headed stepchild of the application world, or at least they would be if consumers -- those utter simpletons -- didn’t embrace them and their single-tasking work style so wholeheartedly.

Apps are so popular that Microsoft has jumped on the apps bandwagon. And I don’t just mean in mobile platforms like Windows Phone. In Windows 8, Metro-styled apps are those simpleton apps that run in a new Fisher Price-like environment that power users are already disavowing. But applications that run on the Windows desktop? They’re still called applications, right? You know, to differentiate them?

Nope. Microsoft is calling them apps now too.

This is a bad decision. It’s not just about dumbing down the conversation, like we do when we speak to young children. It’s about actually changing the meaning of what we’re talking about. Applications are not apps. And being able to easily differentiate between apps and applications isn’t just desirable, it’s pretty much required. Apps and applications aren't the same thing and they’re not managed in the same way. They just aren’t.

My second pet peeve involves PCs and devices, another area where Microsoft is trying to blur the lines and in the process is only confusing matters. PCs are powerful but complex and error-prone. Devices, by contrast, are powerful enough, but are simple and more reliable. For a while Microsoft would use the term “Windows-based PCs” to refer to Intel/compatible PCs and “devices” for those based on the iPad-like ARM chipsets. But with the ramp up to the final version of Windows 8, the company has begun mixing and matching. It’s now referring to ARM-based Windows RT systems as “PCs,” for example. These things are not PCs.

They aren't PCs because ARM-based devices can't run any existing Windows applications (or any that have yet to be created) and they can't sign in to a domain. They aren't managed through Active Directory and Group Policy; instead, Windows RT-based devices -- and, yes, they're just devices -- are managed with Exchange ActiveSync (EAS). You know, the technology Microsoft created for managing ... wait for it ... mobile devices.

Would you like some obfuscation with your redefinition?

Blurring the lines in a way that's almost diabolical, Microsoft recently announced that it's introducing yet another form of PC/device management that will somewhat straddle the line between device-based management through EAS and full PC management with Active Directory/Group Policy. It’s called ... actually, I don’t know what it’s called because Microsoft has yet to provide a name for this technology! But it consists of a System Center-based “management infrastructure” in the cloud, a Windows RT/ARM-based agent, and a Metro-styled “self-service portal” by which enterprises will be able to securely deploy Metro-based apps to these clients. Sounds complex. And redundant. Just saying.

Folks, this situation is insane. And while Microsoft isn’t the only culprit, I live, breath, and work in a Microsoft world so I’m pretty much only concerned with what this company is doing. And from what I can see, there’s not a lot of clarity coming out of Redmond these days. And I think Microsoft's customers deserve better than that.

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