I’m conscious that tech reviews are the sole preserve of people with nothing better to comment on, but I’ve been using Windows 8 since the turn of the year now, and it’s a subject I find (a) quite interesting, and (b) badly documented across most of the internet.
First, a disclaimer. I don’t like Apple. I don’t like their products inflexibility, and I don’t like how you’re tied into an ecosystem of Apple products talking to other Apple products only in ways in which Apple wants them to talk. I have one of their phones, mainly because I don’t really need flexibility in a phone, but it’s annoying me greatly that iTunes is the only thing that can talk to it.
As such, I *want* Windows to work. I even want their phones to work, so the world has a choice beyond Apple and Android (the ugly reminder that flexibility can go *too far*). Ironically, Microsoft are of course trying to build themselves an Apple-esque walled garden all of their own, so if this were to succeed we’d again be increasingly tied to a single platform; but for now their system has escape routes into a desktop that’s as flexible as it ever was, and customisation levels throughout everything else aren’t bad either.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the thing. Isn’t it pretty?
Windows 8 is eye-catching in ways that other systems are not, with rolling animated tiles taking content from whatever they link to. As the jukebox at a houseparty, my touchscreen laptop garnered much attention as people happily poked and prodded away. Sadly, their initial question was usually ‘how does this thing work?’ – because the prettiness is at a cost. Minimalism sure looks nice, but doesn’t give many pointers as to where stuff is or what you’re supposed to do. Swiping in from various sides of the screen is the way to bring menus up, but there’s no signposting of this and no way one would know it without being told. It takes a laughable three touches, through a sub-menu of a side menu, to switch the thing off. Intuitive, it ain’t.
But I kinda like that. Today’s technology is largely designed for idiots, and needing to learn a few minor tricks to navigate a pretty landscape isn’t too high a cost in my estimation. I also like how damn *digital* the whole experience is – this is the design of a non-physical era, with no references to the formats that preceded it. Another gripe of mine with Apple is how backwards-looking the design is – contacts held in a ‘ring binder’ of yesteryear; reminders jotted on faux textured notepads; newspapers adorning a ‘wooden’ newsstand. Windows 8 is clean and fresh and doesn’t hold truck with any of that nonsense – but, again, this is at a cost to immediate usability. I may not find them aesthetically pleasing, but familiarity can lead me straight to an old-school calculator, or a calendar – these items being instantly recognisable in Apple’s world; less so in the digital tiles of Windows. It makes me wonder about evolution over generations, though – how many kids will grow up with graphical representations of items they’ve never seen in reality, or ask for the bill in a restaurant with the universal ‘signature wave’, having never used a signature to pay for anything? I think I’ll call them the Chip N Pin generation™.
The app store, about six months into existence now, is still rather threadbare. I can see it being stuck in something of a vicious circle – no-one wants to develop apps for a system with no users, and no users want to buy into a system that doesn’t have any apps. It’s a situation that doesn’t bother me much – being happy with the desktop approach where necessary – but it does restrict the grand design behind all of this, and would feel limiting for anyone used to the seamless apps-for-everything iPad. It is, however, the first operating system with social media baked into its very core. Social integration really is excellent – plug it into your Facebook / Twitter / Weibo accounts and it sings, creating an amalgamated contacts page flush with profile pictures, and all notifications popping up in a single updates section. Everything feels very joined up (to the point it’s difficult to work out *which* network you’re dealing with on occasion) and sharing from place to place is very natural. Anyone centering their world around such interactions should find it a pleasure.
Which brings us to who might use the thing. The social media focus suggests it might lend itself very well to the casual market looking to browse the internet and take in their various newsfeeds – but that’s a market already turning to tablets in their droves. Arresting that slide with a less-than-intuitive interface and a dearth of quality apps will not be easy, but those wanting a physical keyboard and a full laptop’s capabilities at their disposal will find plenty to like. So far, though, the hybrid tablet / laptop hardware options seem a little clumsy – most accused of being too heavy as a tablet, or under-powered as a laptop. For more demanding users, the consensus seems to be disappointment with an overall reduction in flexibility – apps, for example, run full-screen only and can’t be tiled alongside one another. Currently, it would seem the only real advocates are design nerds who hate skeuomorphism (me), or tech nerds wanting a new ecosystem to challenge the status quo (also me). Microsoft as the plucky outsider’s choice has an amusing ring to it.
But isn’t their business model built around, uh, business? Is that the only real future for Microsoft PCs? Sales figures would appear to point that way, but they’re certainly doing everything they can to align the company elsewhere. Windows 8 is, at heart, a *fun* way of interacting with a computer, and one that looks stunning. As such, it seems to actively divert away from ‘business’, and it’s hard to imagine Office users being enthralled by non-tileable workstations – are Microsoft even shooting themselves in the foot by cutting off the one avenue guaranteed to prop up their empire in the future? It’s hard to tell - I guess the business world itself has to evolve into more mobile / touchscreen working one day; they might even be ahead of the curve on that one.
Ultimately, Windows 8 is not quite easy enough for novices to pick up and go, and it’s not quite flexible enough to let power users fully tailor their own experience – it occupies a middle-ground between the two (which is probably a large slice of the market, just one that makes for less useful stereotypes when illustrating technology reviews).
I’m certainly happy enough with my choice, and it’ll be interesting to see where they go with future updates.. This thing is very much in its infancy - and all one can say with absolute certainty is that Microsoft Windows ain’t disappearing anytime soon.
So, it’s been a while. Strangely, I got nervous about writing. As my understanding of this place (slightly) increases, I’m getting less comfortable with the sweeping generalisations that are pretty necessary when it comes to writing about life in a new, batshit-insane country.
That said, I’ve just been re-reading a bunch of older posts, and I think by and large I stand by them, so it’s probably more a case of over-thinking things again (and having less spare time to do so).
I’m a bit disappointed with some aspects of integration here - my mandarin still sucks, which is a trap I promised myself I wouldn’t fall into, but *man* is it difficult and in Shanghai it’s too damn easy to just get by with the basics. No-one even speaks it around my area - everyone is Shanghainese and the local dialect bears little resemblance to anything else.
That’s no excuse, though. For a man with vague intentions around understanding the nature of this place, it’s something that needs to change. I’m slowly making a few friends who’ve less of an international background, which is interesting, but by definition those who can speak English have something of a different outlook.
I’m glad people read this thing, and I’m glad some noticed it was gone. For today, I’m not too worried about being the stereotypical foreigner and am going to support an international institution - Record Store Day. I think there’s one in the whole of Shanghai, so am more than happy to play along:
Well, a new year and (for once) a genuinely new start. I’m one and a bit weeks into a new job, in a new industry, on a new continent; and two weeks into a new flat, via a whirlwind trip to Hong Kong to sort the visa.
It feels strangely like success and failure all at the same time. My departure from a previous working life has wound itself around in circles, as documented by a tedious self-interested blog, and here I am back where the circus began. Kind of. I now have a blackberry and use words like ‘segmentation’ without laughing.
I’m not quite sure what I discovered in the interim, other than not really being up for the whole ‘traveler’ unstructured lifestyle. (Note to self: fuck hippies). I’m discovering that the things I once knew about marketing science are still true; that I can still express them in a way that vaguely makes sense to people, and that I’m surprisingly unique in that regard.
Right now I’m thinking about how little I still know about my environment, and how much I enjoy discovering new stuff. I’m looking forward to this job teaching me a lot about chinese buying behavior, and in turn the mentality that shapes it. I’m wondering whether this interest in the unknown extends to my personal life, where the people I enjoy being around are the ones I can’t even begin to work out, and as they become clearer to me my interest wanes to the point they disappear from view.
I haven’t had room to think for a while. Thinking is definitely an activity best enjoyed in short bursts. Here’s to 2013.
Last week was something of a landmark in my time here - while going through the motions of applying for a work visa, I was scheduled to complete a medical. My new employer took care of the process through a local agent, and as I turned up to face the wonders of Chinese bureaucracy, I was for once not facing it alone and in puzzlement. The agent lightened the load to the extent of insisting he queue in my place at various points of the process, which was perhaps my first proper taste of the more pampered aspect of expatriatism in China.
This experience has been expanded in the househunting arena, where swathes of agents keen to make a sale are turning out in ever-increasing numbers. My last visit took in a few of Shanghai’s more serious ‘luxury’ compounds, and the agents and their associated hangers-on multiplied with each flat - by the end my movements were taking on professional footballer proportions, with an expanded retinue opening every door.
It won’t surprise you to read that I’m not very comfortable with any of the above, middle-class / white man guilt being one of the few emotions at which I genuinely excel; but it’s interesting to see how so many of my kind must experience China for the first time. And, of course, it throws up debate around what kind of life we’d all choose, given the chance. Mollycoddled folk the world over seek ‘authenticity’ whenever they leave their own comfort zones, but given an explicit choice between the ‘genuine’ experience of queuing cluelessly for a day or being expertly shepherded through the matter in a few hours - would anyone seriously choose the former option?
As such, life for those with the means to do as they please becomes a menu of options - dipping in and out of a world others have no choosing in. For me, ‘authentic’ local street food = good, ‘authentic’ visa application process = bad. What I’m currently deciding is where on that scale I want to be with the housing. I’m quite taken by a lane house in an older, slightly dilapidated part of town, but all around me are warning me of flooding, pests and insects. Am I really going to sign up for that stark reality? Or plump instead for the boring, personality-free apartments that resemble high-end hotels? There’s surprisingly little in the way of grey area between the two, and I’m laughing to think back to the gentrified, ‘edgy’ regions of western cities - where rich folk feel ‘alive’ amongst Real People whilst maintaining the security of their own homes and never being more than five minutes from a skinny caramel latte. Here, the delineations are more defined, and those that can afford it sure as hell don’t want anything to do with those that can’t.
Great writeup of Shanghai Shenhua’s rather mental season, for them that are interested. Roll on 2013.
fappuchinotogo asked: what part of Shanghai do you currently reside in?
I’ve moved about quite a bit already, actually. Started off with a flatshare in Jing’an, attempting to be sociable and meet more people, but it never really worked out that way with a Hong Kong-er who spent more time at home and a German in his last few months of living in Shanghai.
From there I moved to house-sit a friend’s apartment near jiashan lu, in the southeast end of the french concession. It’s lovely around here, am in a pokey one-room flat with old Shanghainese for neighbours and barely a white face around. The transport connections suck a bit, but the local restaurants are great.
And now, my friend is due back in the new year, I’m due into my first proper job so I’m househunting for somewhere else to go. I’d like to keep it around shaanxi nan lu (a bit north of where I am now), but nice buildings seem few and far between. Seen a few places right on nanjing lu (the main shopping street, for non-Shanghai-ers) which seem quite fun but not sure where I’m going to get my 7 kuai noodles from if I live next door to Gucci et al.
The househunt is starting to annoy me slightly - as with everything here the gulf between cheap and expensive is beyond belief. My current place is around 3000 kuai / month - to live in a more modern building (which I wouldn’t mind, given how bloody cold it’s getting) will cost at least three times that, it seems.. Value for money? Difficult to justify. Wherever I end up, my western friends will think I’ve got a bargain and my chinese friends will be horrified at the expense - I guess the truth is probably somewhere between the two.
Anonymous asked: Hey man, I really liked the Nazi Reindeer jumper. Where can I get hold of one?
This question has been asked more times than you might think. Are you in Shanghai? I’m pretty sure it was a street seller on huaihai lu - on one of the junctions with either shaanxi, maoming or ruijin.
I think three people have now asked me to buy them one - will have to retrace my steps and hope the Shanghai fashion scene hasn’t moved on to bigger things..
Anonymous asked: After almost a year, is Shanghai home?
Excellent - a question I can answer in a very straightforward manner: yes. It’s been that way since a trip to Europe that felt like ancient history and left me wanting to come back.
My dad made a keen observation in an email recently: ‘I’m proud to have a son that can make such a bold move to an alien environment, but then I suspect you see the whole world as an alien environment’. He’s spot-on. A lifetime of not really belonging anywhere means locations are fairly interchangeable, I guess. Touching from a distance, as a man from Macclesfield once said.
Right now I’m looking for a long-term house to go with my long-term job, all kicking off in 2013. That sounds shit when I write it down, but honestly, after a year of turning everything upside-down I’ll happily pretend to be a grown-up for a bit.