Windows 8: Return of the Start Menu

The Verge is reporting that the iconic Start Menu will be returning in Windows 8.1. For those of you that don’t follow such things, Microsoft removed the start menu is Win8 in when they replaced the desktop as the primary UX canvas in favor of the new tile interface, called Modern (originally called Metro).

Removing the menu would probably have been a non-issue if the user experience of traditional and Modern designed apps were seamless but there is a critical distinction that makes this all but impossible to rectify, the current generation of Modern apps run in a dedicated focus, meaning they consume the entire screen and have no menu overlay that is omnipresent (the Charm bar gets close but you still have to swipe it to see it and those menus are almost entirely app focused). Meanwhile, for popular windows app like Office which run in the traditional Desktop mode the user spends most of their time not in Modern but in desktop mode. The result of this is that in order to access a different app you have to jump back to the Modern tile interface and run another app which takes you back to desktop (there are other ways to do this but that is the rough cut, it’s an extra step and a minor hassle every time).

I am happily using a Lenovo Yoga in laptop and tablet mode, and I have found that when I am in tablet mode I want to use the tile interface exclusively while in laptop mode all I care about is the desktop. The fact that Windows can accommodate both modes is itself no small feat and points to a major success point for the new Windows. but the forced convergence that resulted from removing the Start menu doesn’t work and they should bring it back. I don’t want Microsoft to become the new Apple, where the only way I can do things is the way that the ghost of Steve Jobs declares acceptable, I want options.

Much has been written about the decline of PC sales globally and almost without exception the blame has been pinned on Windows 8. I’m not buying that argument and here’s why, if Windows 8 were causing buyers to flee we would see large gains in competitive platforms, which for the sake of this argument is really easy to identify, Apple.

This is not happening, what is happening is that people are increasingly buying tablets, netbooks, and other alternative devices instead of new desktop and laptop computers. And why shouldn’t they when even 5 year old hardware performs good enough in a web browser dominated world? I feel no imperative to upgrade Windows and Mac hardware in my household (other than my internal geek factor) while we have been adding a never ending stream of mobile  devices to our mix, from tablets to the Logitech internet radio I bought a few months ago.

I am confident that Microsoft will turn the crank a few more times to tighten up Windows 8, and I am looking forward to new hardware innovations that blur the lines between mobile and portable, desktop and tablet, and I hope there will be more hardware that offers Android and Windows mode options, such as the big Asus tablet/desktop that was unveiled last month.

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Lenovo Yoga–Straight up With a Twist

I have been using a Lenovo Yoga laptop for a month and like it enough to report back on my impressions. This laptop replaces an Asus Zenbook Touch that I had been using and generally liked but in order to maximize the touch aspects of Windows 8 I found that having a touch screen simply wasn’t enough, a full convertible laptop is what makes the experience much more accommodating of touch interactions.

Back in January I wrote about my initial reaction to Windows 8 and highlighted a couple of aspects of the hardware experience that needed attention. The Asus Zenbook Touch is a beautiful piece of hardware that comes close to beating the Mac Air at its own game, it is blazingly fast, has a beautiful display, is thinner than an Air and better to look at. The Zenbook has fast USB 3.0 ports and a very compact power supply that is definitely inspired by Mac, and has a backlit chiclet-style keyboard that is comfortable and did I mention backlit?

The two shortcomings are brutal, the Zenbook touchpad is so awful they should never have shipped the computer with it, and the wifi is wonky, prone to going dark enough that using the USB Ethernet adapter is a good call. at least Asus gives you the connectors, unlike Apple. Based on the touchpad alone, I would not recommend the Zenbook to anyone.

I noticed a couple of other things in my foray into the world of Win8. The first is that the performance is really good across the board but battery life is highly variable. The Zenbook can be pushed to 5+ hours of battery life but I really want more than that because I often find myself unplugged for long periods of time. Most of the ultrabooks come with 4gb of RAM and 128gb of SSD, both are acceptable and Windows itself is remarkably high performing on 4gb but some apps (cough, Chrome) are not so well behaved and if you are like me and have dozens of tabs open, along with a wide range of apps. you will run into low memory warnings (which to Microsoft’s credit don’t cause erratic behaviors but you still have to close stuff). The 128gb of SSD is manageable because I store almost everything in the cloud, but I just wanted more to have the option of keeping things local for offline use.

The biggest issue with Win8 and touch is that you really want to use it as a tablet so unless your ultrabook has a removable display or can perform some unnatural act to become a tablet, you will be left wanting more. My choice for this was to buy the Lenovo Yoga with 256gb of SSD and 8gb of RAM (and yes, I did get it in orange!).

As a laptop this computer delivers and then some. It’s fast, very fast, and has a super comfortable rubberized coating on the palm rests. The keyboard took a couple of days to adapt to but is good to use, the battery life is in the 7-8 hour range, and most importantly, everything – including the touchpad – just works.

I do miss the wedge shape of the Zenbook, and would also suggest to Lenovo that they trim off 1/2″ off each side for a much more compact form factor because there is a lot of bezel that adds to the overall package. The instant on could be a little more instant but honestly it is a legitimate “instant on”. Lastly, even though the power supply is compact and svelte, it has a lot of power chord off one end and an unwieldy one on the other. pay attention to Asus and Apple on this point, their design direction is a good one. Another USB port would be welcome and why USB 3.0 on just one of the two ports? I do appreciate the HDMI output but had to buy an HDMI-VGA adapter, which is cheap enough that it should just come with the machine.

Folded over into tablet form the 13″ 3.3 lb tablet would not be my first mobile choice but I regularly use it in meetings, sitting in bed, and on airplanes (no seat back reclining into your open laptop!!!). It is a great way to use Win8 and of all the convertibles I have tried, this one is most natural and confidence inspiring with regard to build quality.

Folded into tablet form the keyboard deactivates but you still feel it, so I bought the sleeve that Lenovo sells and sleeve up the keyboard half of the package when using it as a tablet. This works great and is more confortable because the Yoga can generate some heat (maybe it is more appropriately named the Bikram) so the sleeve solves two issues without adding bulk or complexity.

As I wrote back in January, Microsoft really needs to get a handle on the integrated hardware/software value proposition for a better customer experience but what I really appreciate is that I am not limited to what Apple alone decides to build, as is the case in the Mac world. The range of hardware configurations and options is impressive and if one ultrabook doesn’t work for you then you can simply shop around and find something different. Windows 8 as a touch experience is compelling and while I would appreciate refinements that meld the old and new Windows better, as well as provide for more context switching and interoperability in the dedicated app focus mode, I am still very happy with Windows 8.

PS- as I was writing this I noticed for the first time the irony of going from zen to yoga.

Ron Johnson Out: The Customer Experience Files

I was in a cab yesterday with my wife, who works in the fashion industry, and she casually mentioned that Ron Johnson was out at JCP. I can imagine that everyone in the retail and fashion industry was aware of this 12 hours before the rest of us.

This morning I was watching Squawk Box on CNBC and Richard Branson along with Virgin America CEO David Cush were being interviewed. Cush was asked about JCP and replied that the key lesson is that you don’t destroy your existing business model before ensuring that the new one works. This is good advice but I think it radically oversimplifies challenges at JCP and creates false comfort for business executives prone to thinking that methodical change is better than radical change.

JCP is interesting to look at from the standpoint of customer experience and Johnson deserves credit for doing things that ultimately will prove to be essential retailers in all segments. What Johnson got wrong is that brand doesn’t drive customer experience, but rather brand reflects customer experience and a new logo, splashy store displays and forward leaning messaging can’t overcome what happens when actual people interact with the environment you create and worse, interact with other people called employees. If everyone isn’t up to the new task you will end up failing and doing real damage, this is the lesson I took away from the Ron Johnson era at JCP.

Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement IndexBrand Keys is a company that measures brand engagement, specifically the emotional engagement that customers have with the brands they interact with. The 2013 survey was revealing on several levels in that across the 54 retail categories they survey, 39,000 consumers, several consistent themes are evident and all refute what Johnson actually did at JCP, which had a brand engagement score that s between 11-20 points below retail category leaders, they have been demonstrably failing at connecting with customers.

Customers today connect more strongly on brand values than at any previous time and this is critical because even in durable goods categories you don’t purchase things one-off. you come back and buy again, or make purchases of products in adjacent categories that reflect that brand experience you are striving for. Brands that have had consistent brand positions and deliver on that with everyday action also benefit from higher brand engagement, and companies like J. Crew, Apple, and Virgin America are good examples of this.

JCP is a mess and likely will not get better, they have lost connection with customers, who are now shopping at Macy’s and Kohl’s and unlikely to return. The physical retail experience is improved but the integration of digital and physical is weak, impairing their ability to convert customers from other brands, but most debilitating is the demoralized workforce that is the front line of customer experience. It’s a death spiral and I would not be surprised if JCP were acquired in the next 12 months. The new normal is unforgiving and punishing for brands that ignore it.