A Future of Simplicity

The trend is as obvious as it is overdue. And you can see signs of it everywhere in the software we use, whether it's a web-based service or a native application running in Windows or a mobile device. Developers, finally, have gotten the word that users cherish simplicity above all else. And while we will chug forward into this simpler future in fits and starts, and with much gnashing of teeth from the digerati elite, make no mistake. This future is as inescapable as gravity. You can fight it all you want, but it's never going to let go.

For a topic so, well, simple, my mind races with ideas. I've argued in the past that life should be easy for users and difficult for developers, since the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few; and honestly simple computer and device interfaces are hard work—very hard work. I've argued about the difference between simple and easy, and how these things are not the synonyms that many believe them to be when it comes to UI. And that just taking things out of a UI doesn't equate to good design—as Apple and its many fans repeatedly claim—but rather that good design is instead a balance between give and take.

Design matters, and thus simplicity matters. And though virtually anyone reading this would probably agree wholeheartedly that simplicity of design in the interfaces we interact with regularly is always a good thing, I think it's equally true that many of you do and will openly rebel when confronted by new UIs that do, in fact, correspond to that former statement.

There are many examples of this. The most recent, perhaps, is the Windows 8 Start screen, which Microsoft first previewed about a month ago. At the time, Microsoft president Steve Sinofsky noted that users now "expect a broader range of usage interaction," so Microsoft "reimagined [Windows] all the way up to the user interface and ... [rethought] about how you interact with Windows." People have incorrectly described this new UI as "touch-centric" when in fact Sinofsky was very clear that it was instead "touch-first," meaning that it was designed with touch in mind, yes, but would also work with other interaction techniques, including mouse and keyboard, Tablet PC stylus, remote controls, hand controllers, Kinect gestures and voice commands, and so on. That Microsoft is using this same interface across its various product lines, including Windows Phone and Xbox 360, is the icing on the cake, a situation I wrote about previously in Three Screens: Celebrating Microsoft's Cohesive New User Experience Strategy.

Not everyone sees it that way. And despite the fact that our understanding of this new UI is still very limited, the visceral reactions I've seen online to Microsoft's new UI simplification strategy are predictably over the top. Now, I've been around long enough to know that we collectively faced similar Luddite reactions to such things as the move from DOS to Windows, the consumerization of IT, and even the change from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone. (Yes, there really are Windows Mobile defenders out there. Still.) But time marches on, as does progress, and as I noted previously, you can fight it all you want. You won't change a thing.

Want a server example? I was a long-time proponent of Microsoft's Small Business Server line because it took the software giant's rock-solid server products and made them simpler, cheaper, and more approachable to a mass market. In fact, I was an SBS fan all the way through the previous version of the product when it suddenly dawned on me that the world was moving quickly to cloud services and that Microsoft's then-current offering, SBS 2008, didn't really address this market at all. When, I asked, would Microsoft offer a version that decoupled the complexity of on-premises Exchange, SharePoint, and SQL Server and let its small business customers use the parts of SBS locally that made sense (file and printer sharing, user management, and so on), and other parts up in the cloud?

You just wait, I was told at the time. And today we now have that exact choice in the form of Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials, which is almost exactly as described above, with an Office 365 add-on waiting in the wings for those that want enterprise class email and PIM, collaboration and document storage and sharing, and integrated presence and communications capabilities for a reasonable subscription fee. SBS 2011 Essentials is so simple, in fact, that even I find it somewhat disarming. Is that really a full-featured Active Directory infrastructure hiding under this Fisher Price-like UI? Why yes it is. I keep pinching myself because it just doesn't seem possible.

But SBS 2011 Essentials, like those earlier SBS versions, generates the same guffaws from the hard core server crowd, guys who apparently can't believe that the power and flexibility of the products they manage—one imagines them in white lab coats in an ivory tower somewhere—could possibly be made available to, let alone work for, the unwashed masses. It's heretical.

Right. That's the point.

And don't believe that we're unique to this fear of change on the Windows side. This week or next, Apple will release its next Mac OS X release, Lion, and begin its own delicate tip-toe away from the power user crowd that still represents its core user base. You see, Apple is seeing more and more success with a mainstream audience these days, thanks to selling hundreds of millions of iOS devices (iPhones, iPods, and iPads). And to those people, Apple's obviously false claims of ease of use and simplicity in Mac OS X will simply ring hollow. So it has reengineered Lion to utilize a ton of user experience ideas from iOS, providing what the company believes is a simpler and better UI for one and all.

They're on the right path, but Mac power users are going howl. And while they are certainly in good company, the future for them is inexorably moving down the same path as it is for us. There's just no stopping it.

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