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Windows 7: Simple vs. Easy

I'd like to expand on something I wrote last week in the SuperSite Blog and discussed in the most recent episode of the Windows Weekly podcast, taking into account feedback I received from both readers of the blog and from some Microsoft employees who wish to remain anonymous. I'm referring of course to Microsoft's decision to finely tune every nook and cranny in its upcoming Windows 7 operating system in a bid to dramatically simplify the system. This work is valuable and necessary. But I'm worried that Microsoft is turning Windows into an OS that is far more like the Mac than previous Windows versions. And that's not necessarily a good thing. That's because Windows 7 is turning into something that is simple, but not easy.

OK, let's step back a bit.

When I think of words that are overused in the computer industry, "intuitive" is the first one that comes to mind. In fact, the word intuitive is tossed around so frequently these days that we've lost sight of what that word actually means. Let me be clear: There is no such thing as an intuitive computer user interface. Instead, today's OSes rely on a certain level of familiarity on the part of the user. Most people have now grown up in a world where computers are commonplace or at least available, and babies are taught to map the motions of a computer mouse to the onscreen cursor at the same time they're learning to speak and walk. But we don't come out of the womb computer-ready. It's a skill that's learned, not something innate or obvious.

Early attempts at making computer UIs more intuitive resulted in the desktop metaphor we still use today, leading me to tangentially wonder if all imagination left this industry back in the early 1980s. But as this metaphor has succumbed to ever-increasing computing power--faster processors and PCs, never-ending storage allotments, pervasive online connectivity, and the like--it's buckled under the need to adapt. With Windows, Microsoft has evolved its desktop over the years, and with each release of the OS. Some updates, like Windows 95, offered fairly dramatic changes, but while keeping the traditional desktop metaphor intact. Today, we take it for granted, and while the details may change, the desktop UIs used by systems as supposedly diverse as Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux are all in fact very similar. But they're "intuitive" only in the sense that if you've used one you should be able to adapt to the others.

Today's pre-release versions of Windows 7 represent the state of art, such as it is, in this ancient desktop metaphor that we can't seem to shake. But it's still very much of the same generation of GUI that first debuted with the Xerox Star, first made it to truly personal computers with the Mac, and then finally rose to prominence with Windows 3. Users of any of those old-time systems would look with marvel at the colorful and powerful Windows 7 UI. But they would also immediately recognize it for what it was: An evolution of what they were already using.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Microsoft should chart new territory with a brand new UI. But with Windows 7, the software giant is very definitely cruising into territory that Apple, again, pioneered when it rearchitected its own OS from its humble "classic Mac OS" systems to the UNIX-based Mac OS X of today. That is, in a bid to make Windows easier to use, Microsoft has in fact just made Windows simpler. But Windows 7 is not, in fact, easier to use than its predecessors, because all Microsoft is really doing is hiding complexity, not removing it. That distinction is, I feel, important.

Simple vs. Easy (to use)

It may seem like I'm being overly pedantic here. After all, "simple" and "easy" are roughly identical terms. But they're not, not really.

Consider this. A device like the iPhone is "simple" because it only has a few hardware buttons. That's part of the Apple/Steve Jobs design aesthetic. But the iPhone is not "easy" (and it's certainly not intuitive), especially if you've come to expect certain niceties that are available on other phones.

For example, if you're reading an email using the iPhone Mail application and click on a link to a Web page, the Safari Web browser appears and navigates to that page. Once you're done with that and want to get back to your email you ... hm. What? There's no "Back" button on the device because Jobs hates buttons. And there's no global Back function in the iPhone software because Jobs hates clutter and loves simplicity. So. You have to hit Home, find the Mail button on your home screen (and hope it's on the first of what could be many home screens). The iPhone UI is simple. But it's not easy. It's something you can become familiar with. But it's not obvious. In fact, every one of my friends who tried the device almost immediately asked, "where's the back button?"

To be clear, an easy UI would provide some method of going back to a previous task (or of switching between running tasks). My Windows Mobile phone and most other phones offer a hardware Back button for this purpose. It's logical (and thus somewhat intuitive given that you're using the device to begin with) and easily remembered. It came to be one of the most-often pressed buttons on that phone. But such a UI is also more complicated. The back button is another "thing" to deal with, another hardware button to clutter the phone's form factor. It's easy, but it's not necessarily simple.

Apple and other companies that develop simple products should be admired, by the way. Taking something complex like a computer or smart phone UI and making it simple is difficult. But the reality is, these things are seldom easy to use, especially for those who are not familiar with them. That's because simple systems hide both complexity and functionality. Finding the right mix of simple and easy is even more difficult that simply stripping away features. And it becomes next to impossible over time, because companies tend to improve products over time--by adding features--and those features need to be exposed in some way in the product's UI.

Consider the iPod, another Apple product. The first version of that device had a drop dead simple UI, but also a convoluted and difficult-to-use scroll wheel (until you got used to it; it certainly wasn't intuitive nor similar to other navigation tools of the day). Over time, Apple sold millions of iPods, and two things happened. First, users got used to the scroll wheel, so that was no longer an issue. But Apple added a ton of functionality to the iPod. Today's iPod UI is very much like the original, but all built out with a crazy number of options. Those who have stuck with the device over time can make the transition to newer versions pretty easily. But newer iPods are a bit complex for new users (if there are any left). There's a lot going on there.

Windows, of course, is just like the iPod in this way. Today, users take the whole mouse/keyboard interface for granted, and we all get that applications appear in floating windows on a desktop. But the Windows of today is a mountain of functionality built on top of the shaky foundations of a GUI that dates back to the early 1980's. So like the iPod, like Microsoft Office, like Windows Media Player, and like so many other computer-based UIs that have been around for a long, long time and have been updated repeatedly, we've actually reached a point where it's time to hide things in order to make these products retroactively simpler. It's sort of perverse when you think about it.

By the way, there is an alternative to this process. You can simply start over from scratch. Zune's break with Windows Media Player is a good example of this. The current generation of WMP products dates back to WMP 7, which debuted in 2000. There have been several updates to WMP since then, including WMP 8, WMP 9, WMP 10, WMP 11, and now WMP 12 in Windows 7. But Microsoft also based the original version of its Zune software on WMP. However, the Zune team found that software base to be too complex and complicated. So with Zune 2, they started over from scratch. The result was a simple and elegant product. But it also lost some key functionality users had come to expect. Most of that has been added back in subsequent releases (Zune is now up to version 3.1) but the new generation Zune software is still in an early enough state that it's in a sweet spot of sorts: It's simple but capable. It may even be easy to use, but then that's true only if you're familiar with other digital media management software. Which I guess you would be.

Windows 7: Simple but not easy

So, what about Windows 7? We know that Microsoft is not starting over from scratch. So with this release, the company is instead taking the decades-old, convoluted, and complicated Windows UI and giving it a spit shine. It is literally hiding functionality in order to make the system appear more simple and streamlined to users. It is even removing applications like Windows Mail, Windows Calendar, and others to cut down on the "bloat," which is more perceived than anything, but whatever. The people behind the Windows 7 UI have one simple goal: Make it familiar, but make it simpler. And they've applied this thinking to virtually every possible visible UI element in the entire system.

The result, predictably, is a cleaner, simpler-looking system. So one might argue that hiding things can make an OS simpler. This appears to be the case. I'm just not sure that doing such a thing actually makes it easier. And perhaps it will take a future Windows revision to achieve the loftier goal of an OS that is both simple and easy. You know, something that works like the Zune software.

I've identified a number of areas in the Windows 7 UI where Microsoft has pushed simplicity over all else. Let's take a look at a few of the more obvious examples, which, not surprisingly, are among the key new features the company most often touts when discussing Windows 7.


The Windows 7 taskbar is an evolved version of the taskbar from Windows Vista, which itself can be dated back to the original taskbar from Windows 95. With that system, Microsoft sought to fix a problem common to GUIs: Users would "lose" open windows on the desktop. The taskbar was initially designed to house buttons representing those open windows. So even when windows were visually hidden behind other windows, the user could find them in the taskbar.

(The Windows 95 taskbar exhibited other "firsts" that continue to this day: It provided a single button for accessing common system functions like help and shutdown. And it could optionally display the time.)

Despite the presence of a Start Menu for launching programs, Microsoft has quietly extended the taskbar over the years to support, yes, the launching of applications. It added toolbars, like the Quick Launch toolbar, where users could add shortcuts. It added an IE-like Address Bar so users could type in the names of applications and Web sites to launch. It also provided a tray notification area so applications could provide their own secondary icons and transmit notifications to users. Each addition, I'm sure, was well-intentioned. But in the sense that the taskbar is a microcosm of the wider problems and power of Windows, the taskbar eventually became overloaded. It was highly functional but complex. It was not simple.

In Windows 7, the taskbar has been evolved to be simpler. The Quick Launch toolbar is gone, and now users can simply mix and match shortcuts (for applications, documents and folder locations) with buttons that represent open windows. This confusing mix of functionality was pioneered in the Mac OS X Dock, a UI element that was infamously ripped apart by UI expert Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini in his essay, Top Ten Reasons the Apple Dock Sucks. Oddly, the Dock replaced a Start Menu-like system in older Mac OS versions. Tog said at the time that the mixture of app shortcuts and running windows was "just one big jumble ... in the very configuration least conducive to computing." I happen to agree with that sentiment, but opinions aside, what's really happening here? The taskbar has been simplified into a single panel that does multiple things. So it's simpler. But comingling shortcuts with window buttons is confusing. And visually, it can get pretty hectic. Explain to me what's going on here, for example:

Quick: Which icons are shortcuts? And which are running applications? Why are they comingled?

It's not obvious. Some of those icons are "shortcuts"--i.e. icons representing applications that are not, in fact, open (i.e. "running"). Some of them, however, are buttons representing open windows. And some of those even have multiple windows, even though they're represented by a single icon. Simple? Sure. Obvious? No.

It gets worse. One of the most hyped new features in Windows 7 is the Jump List. This little marvel of technology provides "easy access to several different tasks." According to Microsoft, this UI element reduces clutter and takes you where you want to go faster. So they must be really obvious. In the Start Menu, they are: As you mouse over items in the left of the Start Menu, a Jump List that is specific to each item opens on the right.

Jump Lists in the Start Menu make sense and work well.

In the taskbar, Jump Lists are not obvious, let alone intuitive, easy, or simple. The thing is, you can make a Jump List appear for any icon that's in the taskbar. Learning how to do it, however, is impossible. It's something you'd only stumble on by mistake.

Here are the two ways you can make a Jump List appear in the taskbar:

Right click. While right-clicking has been a fairly common task since Windows 95, it's also something that most computer users rarely ever do. (The act of opening the Start Menu and right-clicking on a shortcut there remains one of the hardest conceptual issues for users I've observed.) The primary way to make a Jump List appear in the taskbar, however, is to right-click one of the buttons.

Click, hold, and drag up. Yes, you read that right. You can click on a taskbar button and, while holding down the primary mouse button, drag up. When you do so, a Jump List appears. This is a hugely unnatural action, even for experienced computer users. Update: This option is actually designed for touch screen users, which makes some sense. Of course, that means that there is, in fact, only one non-inutitive way to view a Jump List from the taskbar.

Click, hold and drag doesn't make any sense at all. But you do get a cool "appear" animation.

More important, why are Jump Lists so inconsistent? As I write this, I see the following options attached to the Jump Lists for the following shortcuts in my Windows 7 taskbar:

Internet Explorer 7 (running): History (with 9 items), Internet Explorer (for opening a new window), Unpin this program from taskbar, Close window.

Mozilla Firefox (running): Mozilla Firefox (for opening a new window), Unpin this program from taskbar, Close window.

Windows Explorer (running, with two windows open): Frequent (with 19 items), Windows Explorer (for opening a new window), Unpin this program from taskbar, Close all windows.

Zune (running): Zune (for opening a new window), Unpin this program from taskbar, Close window.

Windows Media Player (not running): Play all music shuffled, Windows Media Player (for opening a new window), Unpin this program from taskbar.

Google Chrome (running): Close window.

Microsoft Word (running): Recent (with 16 items, one of which is a template file I've never explicitly opened), Microsoft Office Word 2007 (for opening a new window), Pin this program from taskbar, Close window.

Windows Picture Viewer (part of Windows 7, running): Close window.

Adobe Reader (running): Recent (with 3 items), Adobe Reader (for opening a new window), Pin this program from taskbar, Close window.

See anything consistent about this? Nope. The reasons are two-fold. First, Microsoft apparently can't make consistent UI: One of the built-in Windows 7 applications doesn't even include "standard" Jump List items. Second, because applications can modify their Jump List, each Jump List can and will look different. This makes it hard to find things. In fact, combined with the fact that Jump Lists almost always will appear by mistake the first time a user sees them, I'd argue that Jump Lists are neither simple nor easy.

But it gets worse. Much worse.

What about when you want to open a new window in, say, Microsoft Word or Mozilla Firefox? To do that from the shell in Windows Vista, all you need to do is click the shortcut for that application, whether it appears in the taskbar's Quick Launch toolbar or in the Most Recently Used (MRU) list in the Start Menu. So it should work the same way in Windows 7, right?

Wrong. When you pin a shortcut to the new Windows 7 taskbar, two things happen. First, you lose the ability to open a new window by clicking that shortcut if another window is already open. So if you have a Word window open and you click the Word icon in the taskbar, it just minimizes (or shows) the currently running window. And if you mouse over that icon, you'll see a taskbar preview of the open window(s) but no way to open a new one.

Second, once you've pinned an item to the taskbar, that item disappears from the MRU in the Start Menu. That's right. Even if Word is your most frequently used application, it will now never appear in the Start Menu again. (Well, in the MRU that displays when you open the Start Menu; you could still spelunk into the All Program mess--not simple or easy--and find it that way).

Folks, the only way to open a new window for an application that is pinned to the taskbar and currently running is to either right-click or click, hold, and drag that button. It's unbelievable.

Tip: You can get around this, of course, but the very nature of this tip proves this change has made Windows 7 simpler but not easier. You can also pin an item to the Start Menu, which forces it to appear at the top of the Start Menu MRU, but at least it's there. Doing so, of course, requires you to manually navigate into the All Programs list first. Hey, at least the taskbar is nice and clean.

OK, I won't beat the next two examples to death as I did with the taskbar, but they're worth mentioning.

Tray notification area

The tray notification area has grown to be the bane of many a window users' existence. The problem is that application developers have responded to this capability by clogging the tray area thick with unnecessary mini notification icons. The typical Windows system probably has a ton of them.

Over the years, Microsoft sought to address this problem first by hiding unused tray icons, which simply masks the issue, and later by implementing a new system-wide notification scheme. That latter bit of functionality was originally part of Longhorn, but it was dropped and does not appear in Windows Vista. So in Windows 7, Microsoft is back to its old hiding scheme, and this time its taken things to their logical conclusion: By default, all tray icons are hidden in Windows 7, and you need to manually enable them if you actually want to see them. (Notifications are still enabled by default, however.)

Neat, right? I mean, the Windows 7 tray notification area is absolutely cleaner looking and thus simpler than its predecessor. But by hiding functionality, Microsoft has also made the system less easy to use. In previous Windows versions, at least you knew they were there, running and taking up valuable system resources. And then you could take action, say, with the System Explorer tool in Windows Defender (part of Windows Vista) or the Turn off unused programs functionality in Windows Live OneCare. At least there was a way.

Well, the joke's on all of us. Microsoft has removed System Explorer from Windows Defender in Windows 7, so now there's no way for users to easily prevent things from running at boot time and add unnecessary icons to the tray. And did I tell you the joke about how Microsoft is retiring Windows Live OneCare? No, seriously. They are.

The end result is that the Windows 7 tray notification area is open to any and every icon that your applications want to throw at it. Windows 7 will hide them from you, but what it won't do is provide you with the very obvious and very valuable ability to simply stop them from loading in the first place. Simple? Yes. But useless.


I always thought that virtual folders were a good idea, but now that I'm actually using them in Windows 7 I realize that regular users are going to be really confused. The idea is a good one ... if you're a computer scientist: Just create visual database queries that look like real folders but actually aggregate content from any number of physical locations on the disk, abstracting that view so that it's unclear where the content is really stored. Let the fun begin!

These virtual folders, called Libraries in Windows 7, are emblematic of the simple vs. easy debate: They create a system in which you have fewer places to look for information. That's simple. But the system is complex because it's so abstracted from the way people really do think about their content. Worse yet, you need backup tools that understand this system. Otherwise, users will be shocked to discover they missed some crucial file, all because the tool they use doesn't "get" how Libraries work. Oops.

You get the idea

I could go on and on if I wanted, but I think you get the idea. Windows 7 basically takes Windows one step closer to the design aesthetic of the Mac, where form is valued over function. I'm not sure this is the right strategy. Simplicity, taken in isolation, may seem like a good idea. But I'm afraid that in Windows 7, Microsoft is sacrificing too much in its bid to be more like Apple. And it's the users of Windows who will pay the price.

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, I'm a huge fan of Windows 7 and I like most of what Microsoft's doing with this product. I just think that some of the changes they're making should be rethought, or at least actually tested with a broad audience before they're unleashed on an unsuspecting public. This is my attempt, at least, to air some of these concerns.

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