What Google Could Learn From Windows 8 About User Experience

Windows 8 is built on the idea that the web has great functions but a lousy user experience — and it uses apps to pull everything into a bright, clean parallel world. FastCo Design's Austin Carr shows how Windows 8 will make using the web a better, more pleasant experience.

"What we are trying to do is make an operating system and a computer more like a web service." That's the vision Caesar Sengupta, product strategy lead for Google Chrome OS, laid out for me last year, as the company was gearing up to launch its own cloud-based operating system to compete with Microsoft and Apple. It was a big bet at the time, and one the search giant is still banking on: that consumers want the desktop to feel more like the web.

But lacklustre sales signal that perhaps Google is taking the wrong approach, or at least that it's too soon for such a radical change. Chrome OS is in the process of a major redesign — with a new interface called Aura. So perhaps it's high time Google takes a few notes from Microsoft, maker of the world's most widely used operating system, which is taking a decidedly different bet on its latest entry, Windows 8: that consumers actually want the web to feel more like a desktop.

In Windows 8, apps give you web access, while keeping out the web's chaos.

That might sound like a subtle distinction, but the user experience is night and day. If you've had the chance to play around with a Windows 8 laptop and Chrome OS netbook like we have, though, here's the difference. Google's mantra is "the web is what you make it". It's based on a philosophy that says that anything you need to do — read the news, watch a movie, check your email, open a file — can be done, and done better, in the cloud by using Google News, YouTube, Gmail or Google Drive. Most Chrome OS apps aren't so much "apps" as they are web bookmarks: for example, Google's own YouTube "app" is just a link to YouTube.com.

Microsoft, on the other hand, aims to press the power of the web into its desktop experience. Things we'd traditionally always pull up a browser to do — follow social feeds, check stocks or the weather, look up directions — have now been upgraded to lightweight desktop apps: more efficient than widgets, more practical than traditionally installed programs. Sure, they arguably perform the same functions, but the desktop experience is superior to the web: it's integrated with the interface, it runs smoother, it's easily accessible with other apps, it's more beautiful in full screen, it's refined. Rather than click an "app" on Chrome OS to go to Weather.com, the Weather app on Windows 8 tells me everything I need to do — more quickly and cleanly. The same is true for the Finance and Maps tile, as well as the People app, which integrates many social networks — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn — into one experience.

Or, to crystallise the two company approaches in a different way, just look at Google Docs and Microsoft Office. Google believes it can take what have traditionally been desktop applications — office productivity programs — and convert them into web apps, so you'd write a text document online just as you would an email. Microsoft, inversely, envisions building the advantages of the web right into Office, so, for example, you can store all your documents in the cloud and still edit them offline. At present, if you had to write an important document for school, or fill out a complex spreadsheet for work, would you choose Google Docs or Microsoft Word and Excel? Your answer to that question should indicate how comfortable you feel not only about each product's user experience, design and stability, but about each company's long-term goals.

To be fair, Chrome OS does offer some decent and real web apps. NPR and the New York Times have created interesting experiences, and there are a few tolerable examples from independent developers such as Weather Underground. But all in all, the web-based apps are simply too slow and too clunky to compete with apps we've seen already on smartphones, tablets and now on desktops. No theme unites them. That might change over time, but right now, they just don't play well together.

Chrome's fake apps promises an ecosystem, then just send you out to the web.

Essentially, it's the difference between running Twitter's app on your iPhone, or pulling up Twitter.com in your mobile Safari browser: you'd prefer the former to the latter. And while Twitter and DropBox look and feel and run dramatically different on the web, when ported to the iPhone in app form, they appear to be born of the same experience, with the same design language, principles and DNA — thanks to Apple's high standards.

Microsoft has clearly learnt this lesson from Apple and is now approaching the design for Windows 8 in the same way Apple did for iOS. Interestingly enough, Microsoft almost once went down the same road as Google in seeking to make the desktop feel more like the web. Back in 2010, when the company was showing off Internet Explorer 9, it imagined a world where you'd simply pin a web app to your taskbar. The problem was, like on Chrome OS, these "apps" for eBay and Facebook were just links to their respective homepages.

Thankfully, Microsoft pursued a different approach. Now, when a third-party developer like Box.net wants on Windows 8, it builds a Metro-style app that is well integrated with the platform's user experience. Compare that to Box's Chrome OS "app", which, as you might guess, is just a link to Box.net.

Chrome simply takes you to Google Maps…

…while Windows 8 creates a beautiful app experience.

This speaks to the larger issue of how Google thinks about product and design. Products from Google always feel as if they're built in silos. No one is doubting that Google is capable of great or popular products: Search, Gmail, Chrome (the browser), YouTube, Android, Maps. But they feel disparate. So while Microsoft and Apple have long worked to provide a common thread across their product lines, it feels like an afterthought for Google to decide, only recently, that Google+ should be the "social spine" that unites all its products; that Google Play should be its sole media centre; and that Android and Chrome OS should be the software it all runs on.

It seems complicated, slipshod even. How will its desktop experience, Chrome OS, merge with its foreign mobile software, Android? What happens to the company's "social spine" if Google+ fails? Where does the Chrome Web Store fit into Google Play, already a messy experience that Google sloppily jammed together with the Android Marketplace, Google Music and Google Play Books?

Apple has long tied its products together well into straight-forward families of software and hardware: iPhones and iPads and iMacs; iOS and Mac OS X; the app store and iTunes. Microsoft, of course, has had trouble with this process before, but it's certainly worked hard to make Windows, especially now with its fresh Metro design, the unifying force across products like Bing, Office, Xbox and Windows Phone.

Google ought to take cues from both companies on this front. And judging from the initial designs of Chrome OS' latest build, Google does seem to be doing so. Its new Aura interface looks remarkably like Windows 7 taskbar or the Mac OS docking bay.

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Comments

    What Google Could Learn From Windows 8 About User Experience?

    That a united user experience across multiple platforms is a lazy and quite frankly horrible design approach. Granted Win8 tablets seem to work well, but the metro interface on a desktop pc or laptop it an absolute disaster.

      How would you know? There are no Windows 8 tablets yet. More importantly, "the Metro experience on a desktop pc or laptop" is perfectly viable. In fact, I quite like it and find myself using Metro apps over desktop applications for some things. e.g. The Reader app is the best PDF viewer I've ever used - it has the things you need and no clutter. I also like the email app, although it seems to have broken itself somehow and can no longer find my account (its just a preview app). I also like the Start Screen as a simple and effective way to get to your applications and apps. It is a huge improvement over the Start Menu. In fact, I cannot think of a single area in which Metro is not perfectly usable on my laptop with keyboard and mouse. Can you give us some examples?

    This article fails to take into account the one thing that makes the browser experience better than the desktop experience a lot of the time - tabs. I can be middle-clicking left, right and centre as I read something, then easily go and read the new tabs later, but apps on my phone never provide this functionality and neither do apps or applications in Windows 8. e.g. Neither Zune nor iTunes lets me explore 4 or 5 artists at a time in the same way I can on amazon.com in my browser. I have to follow one thread, then back out of it via the back button and head off in another direction. I don't like it.

    Sorry, I don't get it. If I want to see something on the Web, I just type it into the browser and I get what I want. I don't use Facebook or twitter. How can windows make that any simpler for me. I have tabs and history on my phones browser.??? Am I missing something

    A couple of points on the article- Google did NOT come out with youtube. They bought it up and hardly changed it at all, it was already a super popular finished item.
    The Apple approach of requiring unified aesthetic standards on all Aps does not necessarily equal "high", they're just forcing everyone into the same mould regardless, which is generally a sign of corporate paranoia and insecurity.

    Usability and speed are important, but we don't need everything hammered into the same aesthetic. These are computers, not Fisher Price toys. It's also a pretty crappy way to stile creativity, and (on the other end of the scale) the corporate branding of many disparate products.
    Doing that on a gelded phone or Tablet OS is one thing, but on a full desktop OS that goes a little beyond the pale.

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