Co.Design

Windows 8 Schools Google Chrome In Building A Great 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.

"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 lackluster 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: Google’s own YouTube "app" is just a link to YouTube.com, Netflix’s "app" goes to Netflix.com, and so forth.

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 tiles, as well as the People app, which integrates many social networks—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn—into one experience.

Or, to crystallize 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 promise 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, HBO Go, and DropBox look and feel and run dramatically different on the web, when ported to the iPhone in app form, they all appear born of the same experience, with the same design language, principles, and DNA—thanks to Apple’s high standards.

Microsoft has clearly learned 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, Hulu, and Facebook were just links to their 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 center; 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 straightforward 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’s latest build, Google does seem to be doing so. Its new Aura interface looks remarkably like the Windows 7 taskbar or the Mac OS docking bay.

[Image: Christian Delbert/Shutterstock]

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26 Comments

  • Vince

    Microsoft is going down the wrong way if they think they can apply the same user interaction patterns to their tablet, phone, and desktop systems.

    Also, I personally clearly prefer Google spreadsheets over Excel. For Word, of course, it depends on the use case. But for simple tasks, I prefer the simple, stripped-down user interface of Google docs.

  • Humbledick

    If you prefer Google's spreadsheet over Excel, then you obviously aren't getting deep into Excel's functionality. Google's spreadsheet is lacking in depth and features.

  • toshi

    Yes, excel is too rich in feature and functures. its used by financial pros and school professors for calculating.

  • Just a guy

    I would rather pay for an OS-based experience like Windows 8 than get a free environment that is full of marketing crap I don't want to see. I like the idea of a consistent, user-friendly experience that is smooth, responsive and controllable, and that has the power of a full OS, especially as relates to networking and applications, data and hardware integration. Office is so much better and more enjoyable to work in that any web-based applications I have found yet.

  • oolong2

    With ChromeOS I said to myself "Why on earth is Google pushing ChromOS when they already have Android?"

    With a few ajustments to Android Google could have brought a web based experience, native feel,  as well as paved the way for ultrabooks with touch screens later.

    Instead they're purposely fracturing/fragmenting their own market.  Which was/is a huge mistake.

    "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."

    Uhh...  no.  That was simply a desktop feature that still exists in Windows 8.  Microsoft was never planning on going down the same road as Google.

  • Guest

    Just some corrections to statements made in earlier comments. The Windows 8 Start screen is not HTML. But most of the included Metro apps are. Some are even a mix of HTML/JS and native C++ code.  

    Another comment said that Office was written in .NET. This is also untrue.

    Finally, native C++ apps do *not* need to be written twice to work on ARM and x86. They just need to be recompiled, which is trivial in Visual Studio.

  • AcrylicStyle

    "Microsoft has clearly learned 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, Hulu, and Facebook were just links to their homepages."

    Ummm... Windows 8 houses an upgraded version of this feature. You can pin web apps to the start screen and it'll even display a notification badge for them.

    You do also know that Windows 8 apps are just enhanced web apps right?
    And not enhanced by that much I might add, Chrome OS adds almost all of the same functions.

    It is admittedly missing the unified design factor, but that's not exactly Googles fault, and there's a feature in Chrome OS (WebKit) that allows web apps to take design cues from the browser/OS (look up CSS appearance), but Googles implementation is lacking in comparison to Mozillas, though that could be changed easily.

  • AcrylicStyle

     

    They're pretty close, like I've said a lot of the enhancements are features already available in Chrome (Files and folders, globalization, threading/WebWorkers, background apps, notifications, etc...).

    The most crucial APIs that Windows 8 provides that browsers don't currently offer is networking, cryptography, online ID and contacts access which are all currently in the works (There are more, but they're more Windows specific and I don't think they could be translated to other OSes).

    There's also the ability to embed XAML/.NET and/or native code in these apps, but the web already has something similar in plugins and Googles Native Client.

    Also I agree with the polishing part, but not the encasing part.

    Google could easily upgrade WebKits CSS appearance feature to allow web apps to look and feel more inline with the operating systems design principles. 
    The feature wouldn't fragment anything and it'd work across platforms.

    The development experience for this would just be one step away from what Windows 8 offers as that OS just takes normal HTML elements and changes the default look (the guidelines are pretty detailed, but most of them don't really need to be read) and all browsers that don't support the feature would just display things as we see them today.

    It's not as difficult as it seems, and since these developers are already writing their apps using web standards, they might as well just code for the web where they could support more devices and not be locked in Microsofts ecosystem.

  • Luke ↬ Miller

    These are awesome points and absolutely should be included in the discussion, also elaborated on. To what extent are the enhancements that Windows 8 simply a point at which web technologies will arrive at? Will they get there quick enough? 

    A counter point: the design principles are what this article is about, so a unified UX across apps is what Windows 8 is doing to 'school' Google–so what they are at fault for is focusing on access to web as opposed to encasing it and polishing it. And although Google has a HIG and some other design guidelines it feels a bit too much of a moving target. Conversely developing for Windows 8 is much much easier for businesses and organizations (that are really freakin' busy) to easily provide a great UX by adhering to the much more strict–and proven through research to be somewhat successful–Windows 8 UX model.

  • paul4tA

    So instead of leveraging the latest technologies -- which can make web apps feel more desktop-like than ever before -- and provide a consistent user experience across all platforms, Microsoft would rather worsen the divide, hide the "real" Web from its users, and present it with a look and feel that they control.  Typical Microsoft.  I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think Windows 98's "Active Desktop" was a better idea.

  • Kingjons

    has anyone tried opening this link in chrome browser? it always pops an error message, but no problem whatsoever in IE or Firefox..

    Seems google is piss.. haha.

     

  • Hugh Isaacs II

    "...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."

    The irony here is that most of the apps for Windows 8 (including the home screen) are written in HTML5 with a special JavaScript library to add native functions (none of which affect the UI greatly).

    The reality is that this isn't the fault of Google or Chrome OS, developers are just free to cut loose on Windows 8 as IE10 is the guaranteed browser for app development, while with Chrome OS you still have to worry about supporting Firefox, Safari, Opera along with IE10, 9, 8, 7 and 6.

  • Hugh Isaacs II

    Also to note, for developers to support Windows 8 on ARM processors, writing native apps isn't ideal as they'd have to write them twice.

    So the best options are to either use .NET or HTML5 as those are the only other options (and most recommended ones from Microsoft).

    Applications from Microsoft like Word and Excel have long been written using .NET, which is just a virtual machine.

    Virtual machines aren't far off from JavaScript interpreters, which is why Microsoft put such a heavy investment in HTML5 this time around.

    So most of your arguments about native applications being better than the web isn't exactly true, as Microsoft is using the same or similar technologies to make these "native apps".

  • John Kneeland

    The other difference (and advantage of MS, imho) is that since MS made their revenue by taking payment up front, there isn't a single annoying ad to be seen anywhere.

  • acarr

    Agreed, John, though one interesting thing I stumbled across: The video store in Windows 8 -- the same one in the Xbox store -- has advertisements, though they are well integrated and look nothing like blue links. 

    Still, kind of jarring to see that in a desktop app, especially one created by Microsoft. Hope it's not a sign of things to come.

  • Ahmed Sattar

    I believe Windows finally has something to challenge even Apple with. While Apple is stuck in the ecosystem it created (though granted it is great), Windows has been free to re-define its borders and re-create their UI experience & look.

    Apple UI looks so outdated now compared to Windows and even Chrome.

  • Chris S.

    I disagree with your choice to compare a Chrome OS web app user experience with a Windows 8 native app experience.  They are both apples and oranges.  User experiences will generally be superior in native apps (given the time and effort) to a comparable web app.

    Your article should really have compared Windows 8 Mobile with Android.  They both have native apps but different user experiences.