Friday, February 14, 2014

Taming Windows 8.1 (Part 1)

As you may have gathered from an earlier post, I recently acquired a new laptop that came with Windows 8.1 preinstalled. While generally satisfied with the hardware, one downside was that hardware drivers were difficult to find for anything except Windows 8.1. In other words, if I wanted to use this computer to its full potential, I would have to stick with Microsoft's latest opus.

Windows 8.1 "Modern" Interface
This wasn't my first encounter with Windows 8, of course. I had run the beta for several months prior to its release, and even had a copy of the retail version that came with another computer (fortunately, I had an extra Windows 7 license and the hardware was fully compatible so I didn't have to use it!). Like many, I found Windows 8 uncomfortable to use, largely because of how radically - and poorly - Microsoft had revamped the interface. Nearly twenty years of graphic user interface evolution was flushed down the toilet in order to that Microsoft could present a common interface between PCs, tablet computers, Windows Phones and its XBox game console. The results of trying to mesh the needs of so many varied platforms with one single interface was as disastrous as might be expected. While there have been a few professed fans, by and large the change was met with anger and may have been part of the reason PC sales have plummeted so precipitously in recent years.

None of this was unknown to me, of course; I read the news, I had experienced Windows 8 for myself. I knew what I was getting into. Fortunately, I also knew that - thanks to enterprising developers - a lot of the horrors of the so-called Modern interface could be disappeared with the additions of a handful of software tools. If I had to use Windows 8.1, then I would do so in a way that minimized its worst parts.

This is that story.

First to be installed was Classic Shell. This project is a free, open-source application that can be used to completely banish the horrid Modern Start Screen, allowing the user to boot to a desktop that to all intents and purposes looks like Windows XP or Windows 7. There remain a few areas  -for instance, the screen where you select your wireless network - where a few remnants of the Modern interface remain, but these are not too bothersome.  Installation of Classic Shell is exceptionally easy. Once it is installed, however, you have numerous options you can tweak to your heart's delight.

Classic Shell Start Button Config
The first thing that needed a bit of adjustment was the Start Menu. Although Windows 8.1 had returned the Start button to the desktop, clicking it merely took you back to the dreaded Modern Start Screen. ClassicShell returned the original functionality back to the button, but some of the default stylistic choices were not to my taste. Fortunately, like many open source programs, users are given lots of choice on how to change things. Right clicking on the Start Menu popped up a little context menu; selecting "Settings" allowed me to to get into the guts of the program.

I decided to go with the Windows 7 style menu; you can also choose the "classic" single-column start menu introduced in Windows95, or the two-column menu of Windows XP. However, since many of my other PCs are running Windows 7, I felt it better to have a unified, consistent interface across all the computers. First thing I had to do, though, was replace the default non-trademark infringing Start button that ships with Classic Start; a quick Google search found me a working replacement. I chose the custom option and pointed the program to the downloaded image file (I later learned that this file is not cached anywhere, so if you later delete it the program reverts to the default).

Classic Shell Start Menu Options
With the button sorted out, now it was time work on the actual Start menu. Classic Shell again offers a host of options which allow you to mix and match features from XP, Vista and Windows 7. I like a nice and clean Start Menu, with a minimum of links. After over two decades of using Windows, I know all the keyboard shortcuts anyway. I enabled Computer, Recent Items, Control Panel, Devices and Printers and Run, and told ClassicShell to hide the rest. A nice feature of the program is that you can actually change the order in which these items appear on the menu; even Microsoft's shell never offered that functionality!

Classic Start Main Menu Options


Finally, I needed to clean up the Programs folder. Most important to me, was hiding as much of  Windows 8 - including all references to the Apps and Store - that I could. Fortunately this just required a few button clicks, specifically unchecking "Show Metro Apps", checking "Hide App Shortcuts" and unchecking "Show Recent Metro Apps" in the "Main Menu" section of the program.


With the Start menu taken care of, I was halfway there. Already Windows 8.1 was looking like a useable desktop instead of the abominable bastard-child of a tablet and an XBox. But the job's not done yet.

Windows 8.1 with Classic Start installed

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tragedy of the Commons - or How Not To Redesign A Social Website

Although its heyday may be years behind it, Slashdot remains a favored place for geeks and techies to congregate, there to discuss the latest news, gadgets and software. It is a site where traffic is not driven by the articles half-heartedly posted by the often-absentee editors, but by the conversation those articles generate. It is in fact a running joke that nobody actually reads the articles and instead they all just jump into the discussion to offer their two cents. But - thanks largely to its robust moderation system, controlled not by the site's administrators but by the audience themselves - the discussions on Slashdot are remarkably on-topic, intelligent, humorous and free of spam or flames.

Slashdot was founded in 1997 by Robert Malda, under the name Chips and Dips and remained under his curation until 2011, when it was sold to Dice Holdings, along with a number of other Geeknet websites including SourceForge. Dice Holdings started as a high-tech recruitment site and that remains the core of their business; they most recently acquired recruiting startup getTalent. Long-time readers of Slashdot worried what their purchase of Slashdot might mean for "their" site. However, over the first couple of years it appeared that their worries were moot, as the changes - largely the addition of a "Business Intelligence" section and the rarely-visited SlashdotTV video - seemed to indicate that Dice would remain fairly hands off of the website. In fact, there was occasional grumbling about how disinterested Dice appeared in maintaining certain editorial standards, especially when obvious marketing pieces or poorly-proofread articles slipped into the newsfeed.

That is, until February 7, 2014, when the controversial "beta" redesign started to be pushed onto existing members. The actual design has been unveiled in October the previous year but had been running on a side server and few users visited it except to provide feedback on what they thought was wrong with the new look. The February switch-over actively began redirecting users to the "beta" design.

The new redesign featured a front page filled with large images, a floating header, glaring whitespace and - most tellingly - a simplified comment system and a design that reduced the prominence of those comments. The site's look was changed from a relatively information-dense and text-heavy website to something more akin to a image-heavy blog.

Slashdot "Classic" - The Original Design

Slashdot Beta - The Redesign

To say the readership found this change unwelcome would be a gross understatement. Thousands of comments poured in expressing their distaste for the new look. Entire discussions were purposely disrupted, intent on making clear their anger to the Slashdot administrators and their bosses at Dice. Some comments were thoughtful, wondering as to the meaning of the change and what alternatives the readers had open to them. Other were as spiteful as would be expected on any angry message board.

Of course, Dice would not be the first to face such anger; most community boards suffer through similar growing pains and upset when they try to update their appearance. And certainly Dice had reason to want a change; while the rest of the web had embraced "Web 2.0", Slashdot had purposely remained old-school, favoring content over chrome.  Robert Malda, the previous owner of Slashdot wrote on the redesign: "Pretty much every Slashdot change, big or small, as been met with some level of community objection," he said in an e-mail. "When I originally added (totally optional!) user accounts in 1998, the community freaked out that I was asking them to even consider logging in!" What made the response to the Slashdot beta so extra-ordinary was the unanimity of the opposition; not one voice spoke up in favor of the new look, and it was four days before the first commentators started to say "enough" to the most vocal of the objectors, not in defense of Dice's decision but out of a desire to just get back to business.

Dice's response - after nearly 48 hours of silence after the explosion - was less than encouraging. Although promising to take user feedback into consideration, they also remained adamant that the new look was here to stay, and even the option to switch back to the "classic" interface would eventually be removed. This delay in responding smacked many of corporate politics, and few believed the promises that their feedback would be honored; after all, the initial design had been lambasted by the userbase for months since its unveiling in October 2013 and yet it had still been pushed, relatively unchanged, onto users months later. How, Slashdot regulars wondered, was this listening to the users?

Of concern to many was Dice's intention with their revered site. Were they, as Dice claimed, merely updating the look merely to "grow the audience" and attract new users? Or was Dice, as many suspected, attempting to reposition Slashdot from a techie-oriented social site to a more traditional news provider oriented towards the needs of CIOs and tech-business? Many of the changes of the past few years seemed in line with this theory, and the new design shared similarities with other business-oriented websites. Perhaps most damning in the eyes of the objectors was an except from Dice's own 2013 financial report:

Slashdot Media was acquired to provide content and services that are important to technology professionals in their everyday work lives and to leverage that reach into the global technology community benefiting user engagement on the Dice.com site. The expected benefits have started to be realized at Dice.com. However, advertising revenue has declined over the past year and there is no improvement expected in the future financial performance of Slashdot Media's underlying advertising business. Therefore, $7.2 million of intangible assets and $6.3 million of goodwill related to Slashdot Media were reduced to zero.
Whatever the reasoning behind the redesign, the objectors felt betrayed. Although the site was run by Dice, many users felt a sort of communal ownership; after all, it was their comments which were the primary draw for the site; it was their discussion which attracted new traffic, and it was the users who - through their comments and moderation - molded the spirit and mood of Slashdot. In fact, Slashdot allows the users to retain full ownership of all their comments. Dice's actions were seen as unilateral and lacking in respect for that spirit and the community that built it.

This may have been unintentional. Web designer Joe Peacock discussed in a Notacon seminar  his own disastrous attempt to change the look of Fark.com, a competing social site, in 2011. He states that such problems may stem from a lack of understanding of the difference between social and corporate websites by the designer."On a corporate website, it is their  [the owner's] site. You go to the site and they push information down to you. On a social site, it's my site."  Web-designers used to building a web-presence for corporate entities often have a certain hubris that blinds them to this difference. "We thought we knew better what to do with the site than the users did," Peacock warns. "We didn't give the users time to acclimate. Don't shock the user." He instead advised pushing out changes incrementally, and engaging the community in the changes. By allowing them an opportunity to voice their objections or to help chose a direction, the web site owner can mitigate much of the outrage. In fact, more often than not by providing this option most users find they actually do not much care about the proposed changes; they just appreciate the opportunity to share in the development. Fark.com, which remains independently owned, wisely backed away from the 2011 redesign and worked with their audience to come to an agreeable middle-ground - in part by allowing them to vote on proposed mock-ups - and has rebounded from the debacle.

This is unfortunately one lesson that Dice did not take to heel. Although they did present the beta redesign months earlier, they ignored the feedback from the community. They did engage the users by allowing them to discuss different designs. They forced the changes on the users in its entirety rather than trickle them in gradually. Dice followed up these blunders with a response that struck many as nothing more than a blow-off by a corporate entity that neither respected nor valued the users who were both the audience and the primary content providers.

The fate of Slashdot.com remains uncertain. Already many users have indicated their intent to leave the website, either to join other already-existing communities - such as the venerable Ars Technica - or to create a simulacrum of Slashdot not under the control of Dice's corporate thumb. Already one such attempt is in early planning stage: SoylentNews.org, largely using the same underlying code that drives Slashdot. Others seek pleasanter - and freer - pastures on Usenet, reoccupying the comp.misc newsgroup. A week-long boycott of Slashdot.com is also intended.

Ultimately however, the short-term effect to the website will likely be fairly mild. Most users will likely migrate back to the social site again and the outrage will fade, especially as the classic design still remains accessible for the moment. However, in the longer term Dice may have sealed the fate of their website, having forced their users to reconsider the relationship between Dice, Slashdot, and themselves. The users have been reminded of their alternatives and the community will likely diminish at a faster rate. Engagement amongst those that stay will drop.  Dice hopes that its redesign will attract a new audience, making the loss of this old guard may be insignificant, but many of the current users believe that the new Slashdot has too little to viably compete against the many other similar sites and without the users to provide the intelligent commentary even the existing audience will have little reason to hang around,  at which point the website will probably be shuttered, ending a nearly twenty-year presence on the Internet. If this happens, all that will remain will be fond memories and a lamentable lesson likely to be ignored by the next round of Internet entreponeurs who only see the social community as an obstacle and not a valued partnership.