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Windows 10

Last week, I deleted the Windows 8.1 bootcamp partition off my MacBook. Not so long ago, I was running Windows 7 are my primary OS on my old MacBook Pro. Then I upgraded to a retina machine and installed Windows 8. The horrible desktop experience and inability to handle a mix of high and low DPI screens meant I soon abandoned Windows to work almost exclusively in OS X. Later, I installed Windows 8.1, which was supposed to address these problems, but the improvements were marginal. The DPI problems remained the most egregious. OS X handles moving applications between the primary, retina screen and attached, low-DPI monitors almost seamlessly. In Windows 8.1 it is a nightmare of mismatched font sizes, tiny and minuscule UI elements, and ugly pixelation. I really cannot understand why Apple can do this so well and Microsoft cannot.

This week I installed the technical preview of Windows 10 in Parallels and gave it a try. Tech journalists seems to be impressed with it, lauding it as the Windows 7 to Windows 8’s Vista, but my impression was somewhat different. There are improvements to the desktop experience, mostly achieved by regressing some of 8’s most aggressive touch-favouring UI changes, but the DPI problems remain, and the overall feeling is still of an OS with a split personality, or perhaps multiple personalities. This manifests most strongly in the look and feel, which is an ugly, inconsistent mess, straining under the legacy of Microsoft’s various design shifts over the years, and their inability to comprehensively unify the UI of all the sprawling parts of their OS.

The first install screen seen in Windows 10 demonstrates this problem perfectly:


In this one screen, we are presented with the Modern UI colours and logo, Windows 7 style window chrome, and Windows 95 style drop-downs.

Now, this screen may just be an artefact of the technical preview, hopefully the final install experience will be a lot slicker, but such clashes in look and feel are present throughout the OS. Over the years, Microsoft have reinvented the look and feel of Windows several times, but without ever dragging all of the OS into each new style. The result is a patchwork of UI styles from various eras, inevitably regressing to the ugly rectangles and grey hues of Windows 9* as you delve into the more obscure applications, utilities and options screens.

The introduction of Metro/Modern UI in Windows 8 was by far the biggest shift in look and feel Microsoft have ever made in Windows. Opinion may vary over how usable and aesthetically pleasing it is, but what is certain is that mixing it haphazardly with the old-school appearance does neither any favours, yet this mix is primary motif of contemporary Windows. The result is discordant, and this discordancy makes the whole OS unpleasant to look at and to use. Windows 10’s concession to allow Modern UI apps to run in the desktop is welcome, but they still look strikingly wrong sitting alongside traditional applications on big, low-DPI screens, and do not feel optimised for mouse and keyboard interaction. Just being able to run applications like Windows’ “People” or “Weather” in a desktop window can’t disguise that their UI is designed for small, high-DPI touch-screens. On a desktop PC, their massive UI elements and copious horizontal scrolling makes them unpleasant to use, but Windows 10 as yet shows no intention by Microsoft to adapt these applications properly for bigger screens.

Despite the acclaim they receive for their design chops, Apple are far from perfect at UI work. Many things in OS X are unintuitive and hard to fathom. For example, I am still regularly baffled using Finder to navigate around my hard disk. But Apple do get the basics right. Their OS look and feel evolves gradually, and even when some parts lag behind others, they always feel like they belong to the same piece of software. The same cannot be said for the modern Windows experience, which instead gives you visual whiplash.

Microsoft should do one of two things: First, admit defeat on unifying desktop and mobile Windows and re-bifurcate them, getting rid of the Modern UI apps on desktop Windows and replacing them with a new set using a unified, traditional desktop style look and field. Second, go all in on Modern UI, get every part of the operating system using it, with no exceptions, and deal properly with the need to adapt to different screen sizes and DPIs. This means taking a leaf out of the Responsive Web Design book and creating interfaces that make the best use of the screen real estate and input devices available on the host machine. Although it is only a preview, Windows 10 does not look to be going down either route, and is instead continues being an uncomfortable halfway house between the old world and the new.

How I Met Your Mother’s Corpse

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the finale of How I Met Your Mother.

Warning: This post also contains me taking a mediocre TV show far, far too seriously, and writing way more about it than is sensible or healthy.

I thought I was done being affected by sitcoms. I still enjoy them, but I’ve not really felt moved by one since I binged on season 2 and 3 of The Office USA, years ago. Nevertheless, the final episode of How I Met Your Mother managed to move me, albeit not  in the way I expected, or it seemed to intend. The reaction elsewhere on the web has been… mixed, to say the least, and while I’d love to offer a contrarian opinion and say it was a triumph, I can’t. Frankly, I hated it.

Now, there are already people saying that the very fact that it was controversial proves it was a success. It’s better to inspire love and hate than indifference, right? Well, maybe, but to end nine years of television with a show that most of your fans loathe seems a pyrrhic victory at best. I watched the finale with an unpleasant mixture of cringing discomfort and accumulating mortification, and unfortunately that’s likely to be my lasting memory of the show, not the often decent laughs it provided on the journey there.

Despite its hour long running time, the finale felt rushed and incoherent. Having spent an entire season dragging-out Barney and Robin’s wedding, the show dispensed with their marriage in a matter of minutes, before charging through the next few years with indecent haste. By the time the divorced Robin was getting weepy over Ted at a Halloween party, it was painfully obvious where the story was going, and it was just a matter of watching it play out through gritted teeth.

Instead of a sweet send-off, high drama, or a bittersweet farewell, the episode had the feeling of a death march. Of a show lurching step by step towards an ending creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays decided long ago, and refused to budge from no matter what. And as it lurched, it stepped over the corpse of its own fans goodwill. Over the corpse of several seasons’ worth of character development for Barney, Robin and Ted. And finally, most offensively of all, over the corpse of the Mother herself, who had to die so Ted could realise his enduring desire for his best friend’s ex-wife. Ick.

The decision to make the Mother a semi-regular character for the final season was a brave one, and well rewarded by the casting of Cristin Milioti who did a wonderful job of making solid a character who for years had only been a plot device. But Tracey McConnell was not well served by what should have been her story as much as Ted’s. In the end she was just another road bump in Ted’s journey to reenact the ending of Definitely Maybe. Six years deceased, and her widowed husband can’t even tell their children the story of how they met without making it all about his ex-girlfriend. Not they seem to mourn her any more than he does, choosing only to encourage him to get out there and start hitting on his ex again.

And that was where How I Met Your Mother Ended, with Ted back at Robin’s window, just as in the pilot, clutching a blue french horn. Circularity can be a powerful theme in fiction, but here it felt like arrested development. Like hack writers trying to wrap things up with meaning, only to end up squandering what meaning they had managed to accrue over the years. The show seemed to want to be about the highs and lows of lives well-lived, but instead it ended like a ghoulish, nihilist nightmare: People fall in love and get married, but then they settle into miserable middle age in jobs they hate, or get divorced and impregnate nameless women. People have careers and become famous and leave behind their husbands and friends, but are never happy. People get sick and die, and nobody cares, not their children, and not their husband, who is more interested in jumping back into bed with his ex.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. I didn’t like this episode of television. Not in a love-to-hate way. Not in a let-debate-its-merits-forever way. But in the way that it was gross, offensive nonsense, horribly misjudged in every respect. The only silver lining is that I’m not alone in this opinion, and so the creators are likely to spend the next few years having to try and defend and justify it to all and sundry. If that’s the kind of controversial finale they were going for, then mission accomplished, I suppose.

Anyway, Game of Thrones is back next week. I suspect a disappointing end to an average sitcom will be long forgotten by the time first bars of that theme music blare out. Hell yeah.

Facebookulus Rift

I was as surprised by Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, and so was everybody else, it seems. That somebody bought them isn’t a surprise, especially with Sony stepping up its competitive consumer VR efforts, but Facebook probably wasn’t anybody’s most expected suitor. They weren’t anybody’s favoured suitor either, judging by the apoplectic reaction to  the announcement amongst many (most?) gamers and VR enthusiasts. Myself, I’m ambivalent. I can understand concerns about Facebook’s policies towards its users and third-party developers, but I also think that if you put that aside, then Oculus stands to gain a lot from the deal (beyond the immediate pay day for the founders and investors, obviously). And I also think consumer VR in general stands to gain, regardless of what happens to Oculus and the Rift in the long term.

It’s easy to imagine a nightmare “Facebooked” VR where you have to sign-in to FB to use the Rift, and your experience is repeatedly interrupted by inducements to ‘like’ and ‘share’ your current activity, and invitations to go play Candy Crush VR with a guy you met once at a work conference eight years ago. In fact, there’s probably an amateur film-maker or two working on viral videos that portray this ‘Facebook VR’ doomsday scenario right now. Similarly, restrictions on the Oculus platform could place onerous demands on third party developers to use and integrate Facebook’s services, hampering their ability to innovate or build truly independent products.

However, as cynical as Facebook’s policies towards their users and their platform are, I don’t think their management is so stupid as to immediately ruin a nascent and potentially highly lucrative new platform. Remember, Facebook beat Myspace because, when it first appeared, it was a far, far better experience, with a lot less bullshit. Just like Twitter didn’t include promoted tweets until they got big, and YouTube was ads-free for years. The management of these companies know that intrusive branding, advertisements and tie-ins are toxic to the initial experience. Once the platform has achieved critical mass, then they start to introduce these elements gradually, but not before.

In the short to medium term, I don’t think Facebook will mess too much with the Rift. They’ll be smart enough to remain mostly hands-off until consumer VR really takes off, but during that time Oculus will get some huge benefits that would not have been available to them if they remained independent. Most importantly, they will have a basically infinite supply of cash with which to hire talent and build custom hardware components. The latter is of particular importance. The new wave of VR was bootstrapped as much by the mobile phone industry as it was by crowdfunded cash, but relying on the vagaries of a separate, fast-moving industry is a dangerous situation to be in. Mobile phone screen sizes and technologies are constantly changing, and not necessarily in a direction that fits with the needs of VR. Likewise components such as cameras and accelerometers.

Oculus now have the scope to order their own components to their own specifications, such as ultra-high-resolution screens. That’s good for them, but also for other, smaller VR companies. Because once there is an established manufacturing base, other VR startups may be able to piggy-back on Oculus’ suppliers, in the same way that they piggy-backed on those of the mobile manufacturers. If consumer VR became a success, specialist manufacturing would have appeared eventually, but this means it could happen far sooner than it otherwise would have.

The second benefit is that Facebook’s infrastructure also presents a great opportunity for Oculus to experiment with large-scale VR experiences. John Carmack has long talked about his dreams of a “Metaverse” – an immersive, massively-multi-user alternative world. VR hardware can provide the immersion, but you will also need some serious computing power to host the servers themselves and make them accessible worldwide, and Facebook’s experience with data-centres and large-scale availability could be very beneficial there.

Finally, Facebook’s deep pockets should allow Oculus to price their initial products more aggressively, in order to quickly build a mass market. The sooner consumer VR is a proven technology, the sooner more companies will get serious about competing, and the faster the industry will progress. The eventual winners out of all of this may be Facebook/Oculus, Sony, Microsoft, Google, Apple, or someone else entirely. The first movers are rarely the ones who dominate an industry, but they’re necessary to get things started, and the more capable their initial product, the better, because it sets the standard that their competitors have to meet.