Why Windows 8 Does The Right Thing The Wrong Way
Yesterday, I saw a superb presentation called “When The Consoles Die, What Comes Next?” by Ben Cousins. It demonstrates that mobile gaming is behaving as a disruptive technology, and is causing the same market decline in consoles that consoles themselves did to arcades in the 1990s. He also demonstrates how TV crushed cinema in a similar manner - we just don't think of it like that because we don't remember back when almost 60% of the population was going to the movie theaters on a weekly basis. Today, most people tend to go to the movie theater as a special occasion, so the theaters didn't completely die out, they just lost their market dominance. The role the movie theater played changed as new technology was introduced.
The game industry, and in fact the software industry as a whole, is in a similar situation. Due to the mass adoption of iPads and other tablets, we now have a mobile computing experience that is distinct from that of say, a console, or even a PC. Consequently, the role of consoles and PCs will shift in response to this new technology. However, while many people are eager to jump on the bandwagon (and it's a very lucrative bandwagon), we are already losing sight of what will happen to stabilize the market.
People who want to sound futuristic and smart are talking about the “Post-PC Era”, which is a very inaccurate thing to say. PCs are clearly very useful for some tasks, and its unlikely that they will be entirely replaced by mobile computing, especially when screen real-estate is so important to development and productivity, and the difficulty of replicating an ergonomic keyboard. The underlying concept of a PC, in that you sit down at it, have a keyboard and mouse and a large screen to work at, is unlikely to change significantly. The mouse will probably be replaced by adaptive touch solutions and possibly gestures, and the screen might very well turn into a giant glass slab with OLEDs on it, or perhaps simply exist as the wall, but the underlying idea is not going anywhere. It will simply evolve.
Windows 8 is both a surprisingly prescient move on part of Microsoft, and also (not surprisingly) a horrible train wreck of an OS. The key concept that Microsoft correctly anticipated was the unification of operating systems. It is foolish to think that we will continue on with this brick wall separating tablet devices and PCs. The difference between tablets and PCs is simply one of both user interface and user experience. These are both managed by the highest layers of complexity in an operating system, such that it can simply adapt its presentation to suit whatever device it is currently on. It will have to once we introduce monitors the size of walls and OLED cards with embedded microchips. There will be such a ridiculous number of possible presentation mediums, that the idea of a presentation medium must be generalized such that a single operating system can operate on a stupendous range of devices.
This has important consequences for the future of software. Currently we seem to think that there should be “tablet versions” of software. This is silly and inconvenient. If you buy a piece of software, it should just work, no matter what you put it on. If it finds itself on a PC, it will analyze the screen size and behave appropriately. If its on a tablet, it will enable touch controls and reorganize the UI appropriately. More importantly, you shouldn't have to buy a version for each of your devices, because eventually there won't be anything other than a computer we carry around with us that plugs into terminals or interacts with small central servers at a company.
If someone buys a game I make, they own a copy of that game. That means they need to be able to get a copy of that game on all their devices without having to buy it 2 or 3 times. The act of buying the game should make it available to install on any interactive medium they want, and my game should simply adapt itself to whatever medium is being used to play it. The difference between PC and tablet will become blurred as they are reduced to simply being different modes of interaction, with the same underlying functionality.
This is what Microsoft is attempting to anticipate, by building an operating system that can work on both a normal computer and a tablet. They even introduce a Windows App Store, which is a crucial step towards allowing you to buy a program for both your PC and your tablet in a single purchase. Unfortunately, the train-wreck analogy is all too appropriate for describing the state of Windows 8. Rather than presenting an elegant, unified tablet and PC experience, they smash together two completely incompatible interfaces in an incoherent disaster. You are either presented with a metro interface, or a traditional desktop interface, with no in-between. The transition is about as smooth as your head smashing against a brick wall. They don't even properly account for the fact that their new metro start menu is terribly optimized for a mouse, but try to make you use it anyway. It does the right thing, the wrong way.
The game industry has yet to catch on to this, since one designs either a “PC game” or a “mobile game”. When a game is released on a tablet, it's a special “mobile version”. FL Studio has a special mobile version. There is no unification anywhere, and the two are treated as separate walled gardens. While this is currently an advantage during a time where tablets don't have the kind of power a PC does, it will quickly become a disadvantage. The convenience of having familiar interfaces on all your devices, with all of the same programs, will trump isolated functionality. There will always be games and programs more suited to consoles, or to PCs, or to tablets, but unless we stop thinking of these as separate devices, and instead one of many possible user experiences that we must adapt our creations to, we will find ourselves on the wrong side of history.