Until last week I had always thought Steve Jobs referred to the supernatural when he said that “engaging the iPad is magical.” I took his comment to mean that the iPad was perfect in its nature, appearing out of the mystical ether and into the hands of a grateful public. In reality I think that he really meant that the iPad was magical in the sense street magic: illusion. Using the iPad, I forget that I take for granted that everything I might want to do with is little more than a touch away. Computers have been doing this for a long time, of course, but the iPad took the illusion to the next level by providing a stable system that (in my limited experience) just works.
I don’t want to talk about the iPad too much, though. In fact, I want to talk a little about my experience with Windows 8 and how Microsoft’s latest OS incorporates sleight of hand into its operating system. This is not meant to be a review of any kind, rather, a reflection on a particular set of features that work together to give the lumbering golem that has become Windows a little bit of life.
I don’t usually go out of my for product launches but, living in Seattle, I couldn’t help but find my way to the nearest Microsoft Store October 26th to try the flagship Surface RT tablet. After wading through the crowds and waiting diligently for an empty seat to try one out, I was surprised how quickly time passed after I got the hang of the new interface. Even my daughter, not even a year old, sat on my lap with – relatively – rapt attention, enchanted by the nice colors and pretty pictures. After a few minutes of looking through the apps and seeing what was available, I found the picture app to see how the device managed photos.
I selected an album and waited. And waited some more. Maybe thirty seconds passed before an error message appeared in the upper-left hand corner telling me the picture I requested couldn’t be found. Shortly after that, I left the store. I wasn’t upset or disgusted by the advice, and I didn’t realize what had actually happened until later. I had been sucked in by the device for just a little while, brought under the illusion that my data was only a finger-tip away, simple as that. Seeing the error exposed the trick like a street magician exposing a palmed coin to her audience.
While I don’t feel compelled to buy the device for any number of reasons I was still very impressed by the Surface RT. I admit that I am a little disappointed that Microsoft was not able to perpetuate the illusion for the entire length of my demo, if only because Apple has done just that when I sampled the device for the same amount of time. It can be done. I think that is the real reason the iPad Mini sold – roughly – eleventy-billion units since going on sale last week. Again, I digress.
In my week with Windows 8 I’ve come to see it as a system conflicted with itself. At times I forget that I’m using a laptop at all. For the first time, I don’t feel like I’m struggling against my machine to get it to do what I want. I can Snap apps to hug one side of my screen which is great for chatting and listening to music while doing other work. I can always devote as much (or as little) screen real estate to whatever program I happen to be running. I especially love the new Start Menu because it allows me to put everything I want to access quickly front and center and get back to it no matter what I’m doing. In short, I love using Windows 8.
Sometimes, however, I have found that the illusion goes too far. Instead of giving me notifications when a program is ready to install, Windows 8 will instead stop the program and never allow me to see the notification. If an app is downloaded through Chrome and I open it from the browser in Start Menu mode, the freshly downloaded program won’t open, and so on. There seem to be many disconnects, so that when I try and do certain things I have to follow through and make sure they get done. Windows 8 does a wonderful job making me forget that I’m interacting with ’0′s and ’1′s but every time I encounter a little error like this, the illusion is broken.
I recognize that I’m picking nits. I’m not going to say ‘Microsoft better get its act together, or else!’ In truth, Windows 8 is a great product. I think people will like it, and I think it will the de facto way to interact with tablets very soon. On the other hand, I do hope that Microsoft can manage the Hecatean task of smoothing the seams, tightening the loose bolts and pulling the whole set together. They’re very close to pure magic, and that’s an act I’d like to see.