Everybody short Microsoft!

A bit of a critique of a Microsoft subway ad

I should start by saying that I love Microsoft before I descend into what for some reason has become an intense and hate-filled rant. When I was 12 I would call their tech support hotline so often that one of the representatives offered me a job — no joke. (A job offer that turned out to consist mostly of a ruler and a few long-ago-lost pens.)

Without a real desktop operating system hit since Windows XP (which if you can believe it, was released in 2001) and with staggeringly reduced marketshare year over year, it’s really a wonder that Microsoft even exists, and is completely mind-blowing that they keep churning out products and have ad budgets to support them.

That era may be drawing to a close if the Microsoft Surface ad I saw on the subway is any indication.

First, let’s run through some of the hallmarks of what tends to make Microsoftware so painful:

  1. A hodgepodgy interface that feels like it is built out of five different products.
  2. Fundamental settings are in different places, with user-interface paradigms only a linux programmer could love (remember Microsoft Management Console, where you could partition drives by adding some kind of panel or something to an empty window?)
  3. Constant reshuffling of every user interface switch (but actually just hiding the old interface and slapping on something new.)
  4. Inelegance, inconsistency
  5. And last but certainly not least, in recent years a complete overenthusiasm and underfastidious approach to new technologies and paradigms.

Enter the magical world of the tablet, which Bill Gates won’t let you forget he predicted before anyone else. “Tablets are the future” seems to be the beginning and the end of Microsoft’s tablet strategy, with the result being a confused attempt to reconcile all the shiny things they want to copy from Apple with the bass-ackwards compatibility a respectable corporation like MS insists on. This New York Times article tells it better than I could, and I’d prefer to talk about the horrendous UI I witnessed on this subway ad:


Where to begin? We’re so used to the elegance of Apple interfaces that this boxy, graph paper-y interface feels so amateur. Even if Apple’s style isn’t copied, its core principles of designing the hell out of everything so that form mirrors functionality can and should be copied by all. Let’s go through some of the issues with this UI and advertisement:

  • EVERYTHING is cut off. If they are trying to show how nice it is to use the Surface in a split-pane view, it’s not working. From “Inbox – Moll…” to “Works for m…” to “How does Tu” to “See more about…” it is clear that this UI does not function well to show the text a user might like to read.
  • All these litlle widgets that let you expand toolbars are mind-numbing to look at. I count six on this one screen. And there are *two* at the bottom next to “See more abo…” If I tap one, will that let me see more about the email? Or just read the rest of that single line of text?
  • There is a LINE DRAWN THROUGH THE WORD “FOLDER”. How is that a good UI choice? Is that a UI choice?
  • The buttons are arranged in a labyrinthine assortment around the perimeter of the screen. The paradigms here look like they’re messy, but it’s hard to be sure. If I were to guess what some of these elements do: “FILE” appears to be an un-menu that actually looks like a toolbar, if indeed it is currently selected. “SEND/RECEIVE” might be a button, or a menu showing a dozen ways the user can check for new mail; it probably does the same thing as the double-envelope icon at the top. And that double-person, suspiciously MSN-looking icon in the lower left corner probably opens up a completely different application, tries to log you into MSN Messenger with the username and password you’ve forgotten, so you can be serenaded by bots. On this single screen there appear to be two ways to do almost everything.
  • The actual text of the email, what I imagine would be the point of looking at this particular piece of UI, has barely any real estate. If this were anything other than a one-sentence email this interface would be completely inappropriate. Why show it?

And some basic issues with the ad (that have nothing to do with UI):

  • The timestamp for the displayed email is different in the left pane as it is in the right one.
  • There is a grey lack of contact image. Why not put a smiling face in there?
  • And for god’s sake, the email being displayed is about someone who can’t figure out their filesystem. If you’re trying to put your device’s best foot forward, why show correspondence about losing files in collaborative settings? Could they not find an email in this person’s inbox which wasn’t about computer troubles?

What is horrifying to me is that somebody (no, likely an entire product and advertising team) compared this image the iPad mail app and said “sure, this looks pretty good.”

IT DOES NOT LOOK GOOD. Moreover, moving the decade-old Outlook design to a touchscreen interface without even a hint of a rethink, and putting out such a sloppy ad, should give any MS fan pause.


I feel the need to end on a positive note, because I have just been so mean to a company that really is trying to do the world good and has come out with a lot of innovation. The bright side of all this, to me, is that Microsoft remains a company in a position to make big changes in this world, and I hope that they use this position and don’t squander it. If the company can heal its internal mismanagement to create the great ideas I know are sitting there in MS engineers’ brains, what a world it could be.



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