How Will Power Apps Evolve in Windows 8…and What About Voice?
Following up from Windows 8 Vs Resistant Developers Part 2, let’s talk a bit about the future of applications using touch and voice.
Windows 8 is a very different animal. To an extent, I understand why so many are skeptical about how some kinds of software can evolve to include touch and/or voice as part of their standard usage model in a meaningful way. How do you take something that’s deep and feature rich like Photoshop, 3D Studio Max, Maya, Autocad–hell, even Word or Excel–and make it better with touch and voice? Those are tough futures to see, but that doesn’t mean no good change is possible–only that nobody’s thought of one yet. Just because we can’t see tomorrow doesn’t mean it isn’t coming, after all, or that someone else halfway around the world doesn’t see it. If you’re over 30, think about all the things we have today that we didn’t when you were a child. How many of them did you foresee? Probably not very many. Most of us didn’t, and we won’t foresee a lot of what will come tomorrow, either.
But developers are smart and they like to make money. If there’s a demand, they’ll find a way to meet it and turn it to their advantage. It’s worth noting that for the average user and the average task, a simple app is enough. You don’t need some gigantic, complex program to handle things like task management, calendaring, IM, weather, email or word processing. There’s nothing wrong with having a series of small, fast, light applications, each of which handles something different.
What About Voice?
I’m interested in the technology, and impressed with recent strides (Kinect is pretty slick, if imperfect). It’s tough to say how long it will take to become truly useful. Recently, I spent some time with the new Mass Effect 3 demo, which utilizes Kinect voice control, and I came away shocked at how positive an experience it was. Unlike most other voice recognition experiences I’ve had, it was fast, responsive and created a more immersive experience.
I’m no expert on the topic, but as I understand it, the major factor with making voice recognition more accurate and useful is simply having more sample data. Basically, that means having more voices saying the same and different commands from which glean recognition patterns. Thanks to very recent technologies like Siri, Kinect and Microsoft TellMe, all of which today are available in limited areas, developers are digesting more voice data than ever before. I can’t say for sure, obviously, but as this thing–which is essentially a “neat toy” at this point–spreads across the consumer space and is used, transmitting data back to these companies’ servers with every single usage, we are very likely to see a fairly dramatic improvement within the next few years.
What Should We Expect From Voice and Touch?
In the near term we should expect more from touch than from voice. For now, things like Siri, Kinect and TellMe are interesting and fun toys to play with, but are only marginally useful. Siri and TellMe do a decent job for things like text messaging by voice or doing searches from your mobile device, but so far there haven’t been too many inroads (outside of dictation software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, or Windows 7’s integrated voice recognition) on the desktop and workspace side. If rumors of direct, native integration of micro Kinect systems in Windows laptops and tablets turns out to be true, of course, that could change dramatically. If that happens, we’ll also need to think seriously about hand and body gestures as additions to the Natural User Interface movement.
Touch, however, is rapidly becoming a part of the overall computing ecosystem, in large part thanks to devices like the iPhone, Android and Windows smartphones, to say nothing of the iPad, Amazon Kindle Fire and other Android tablets of various flavors. Apple introduced multitouch into the trackpads of Macbook computers starting in 2010, and has since introduced the “Magic trackpad” and the “Magic mouse.” Similarly, Microsoft has introduced its own series of touch mice, which many speculate was in “preparation” for Windows 8’s launch.
Touch applications have already shown us that they can be smaller, lighter, and arguably faster for most users. Yes, I know: there are the “keyboard only” officianados who can hit every menu and drop to a command line in two shakes of a lamb’s tail to get anything and everything done, but lest we waste too much time discussing that topic, let me be plain: you are in the minority, big time. Most people either can’t or won’t work that way. For them, touch is something of a god-send, enabling apps to be easier to use and navigate to get the results you want. It’s all very tactile and very visual, all rolled into one.
If it’s nothing else, the Metro UI on Windows 8 is a masterpiece of blending the visual and the tactile. Live Tiles present oodles of information to the user in real time without the need to launch apps directly, and their large, friendly, touchable surfaces make getting to the “meat” of the application a breeze. Similarly, the new UI’s ability to swipe apps in and out quickly, or to bring two apps together onscreen at once, will make life easier for people who’ve gotten used to the friendly yet limited iPad and Android UI’s.
How this will all pan out remains to be seen, but for the immediate future you can expect to see, in series, apps simply ported from other touch devices more or less “as-is”; new tablet-esque apps that include limited Live Tile functionality (think notifications); more advanced apps that use multiple Live Tiles and deeper integration with core features of the OS (the new “Contracts” system which lets apps use functions of the OS and each other without actually knowing anything about each other); and finally, apps that will ultimately require Windows 8 to run. I expect this ramp up to be fairly swift, happening inside of one year for smaller, nimbler apps and developers, but probably requiring upwards of 3 years for the large developers and apps. After all, one doesn’t simply port Adobe Creative Suite in a day, right?
At the end of the day, Microsoft is still the big kid on the OS block. We can cite numbers about Apple’s “giant” growth percentages all day long, but the truth of the matter is that in terms of sheer numbers, nobody’s holding a candle to Microsoft’s dominance in the OS market, and OSX never will because it requires hardware that is too costly and a massive investment in both infrastructure, user and support training.
iOS and android alone are threats to Microsoft’s OS dominance, and Windows 8 is designed to challenge both, head-on, in their own space. Windows already owns the desktop and laptop markets, and over the next few years we’ll see the Metro UI become the de facto standard on most new PC’s sold. Windows 8 will dictate the inclusion of hardware features like multitouch on all new PC’s, and as people slowly become accustomed to the new UI, it’ll take on a life of its own.
Ironically, the iPhone, iPad and Android have actually helped ensure the success of Windows 8 by proving use case and consumer interest in touch based OS’s. When Windows 8 arrives on the scene it’ll be the new, shiny thing on the street, faster and nimbler than anything else out there. It’ll be the first full featured OS to run on tablet hardware, including all the strengths of the other platforms yet few of their weaknesses. It’ll leverage existing infrastructure and expertise, both of which are key factors for business adoption. Like it or not, Windows 8 is all but certain to be the future of mainstream UI design.
We’re in for a big shift in how computers are used. I’m excited–aren’t you?