I started this piece with the intention of discussing the new MacBook Pro lineup, but on deeper consideration I needed to zoom out.

See it is easy to look at the various reactions and mixed reviews for the new Mac Pro notebooks and say it’s coming from longtime users who don’t get the modern Apple. It’s easy because on one level it’s true.

Most of the complaints are coming from long time Mac users; people who used the platform before Apple was cool and professionals. The problem for them and many others is that the Mac and MacOS are not the drivers of Apple’s business; iOS is. The iPhone along with the App store is the thing that drives the company and keeps it’s coffers full. Mac sales have increased, but the overall PC market is shrinking and mobile growth simply outweighs it.

On the other hand these same longtime users have reason to complain. Only Apple makes Macs. The Mac is the only OS that developers can build iOS apps on. Apple has cultivated a large following of creative professionals to the point where it is the de facto hardware/software platform. So an underwhelming MacBook is an issue. But the thing is those laptops are just another aspect of a larger change in computing; one where the PC/Mac going forward is simply  an appliance.

The Dumb PC

The idea of the computer as an appliance is not new: Oracle, SONY, and others have all thought up ways of simplifying the computer for regular use. The big difference now is there are now platforms that make the idea a reality. The difference between an appliance computer and a Mac/PC is the appliance hides the natural complexities of a device.

Think about your phone or tablet.

For most users this means running Android or iOS. Now running those systems means certain aspects of the device (files, downloads, systems, diagnostics) is not always easily accessible to users. The design is based around simplifying the OS so users get to the thing they want to do. An appliance also sometimes limits what the device can do in order to improve the user experience. For example Apple limits multitasking on iOS devices because it is not meant to be like a Mac. The point of the appliance computer or device is to make computing easier by reducing the stress points and design around a specific set of user tasks.

The Appliance Age

The perfect example of an Appliance device is the smartphone. It is a single task device which form factor means it has a set of restrictions on how it can be used. Yes the phone can be modified but most modifications are done by niche users. The phone can do everything a user expects from a computer, but in a fairly locked down manner.

It has been the explosion of mobile devices that has spurred on this Appliance age. The lockdown nature of the phone has influenced the thinking around the future of traditional devices like desktops and laptops. As mobile devices replace the desktop and laptop as the place where most do their computing they also replace the idea of what a computer is and what it should do.

Or to put it simpler: Computer companies are making laptops and desktops into hammers which after a while you toss at keep until the handle falls off.

Computer companies see the shift in usage and are now moving it up to the personal computer because even there usage has changed.

Blame Netscape

So how did we get to this point? Well beyond mobile devices there is the browser. The web browser was the first real step away from user’s needing to have high computer literacy to use one. While mobile applications have flourished in the last decade, desktop software has peaked.

On Windows the most used and updated x86 software has trickled to a handful; and most of it involves browsers. The browser has become the most important bit of software you can download. It is the window by which most view their device and use it. And the thing about the browser is it exists everywhere; it is a nondenominational piece of technology. Browser technology is why Google built Chrome OS. It’s also why, despite of an app gap, Windows tablets and 2 in 1s are good enough for many. Because the side effect of the web browser’s growth was that software development and deployment moved of the device and onto first the web, then the cloud.

The Days of PC’s Past

So returning to the MacBook Pro. The Mac is not dead, but it ain’t the future. Neither is Windows or Linux. At least they aren’t entirely the future. They and the desktop will be part of a future driven by mobile and an ever shifting audience far removed from the command line.

In my opinion the future will see mobile become the majority platform for computing. Desktop oriented task and niche activities like gaming will become this other category handled by a small market of OEMs and platforms.

iOS, Android, and to some extent Windows Mobile will all be there with appliance offerings running on ARM (unless Intel returns to mobile chip making.). And yes desktop systems will continue to be simplified for an income set of users who want to simply use a device.

Welcome to the real Post PC age.

 

One of the better aspects of technology writing is searching for concept interfaces and fake user interfaces. The following images are from Microsoft and may or may not show up in future Windows’ releases.

continuum_desktop

The above image is (guessing) a design study for the Start menu and desktop. Given the way the Start Menu looks this may be a study looking for Windows 10 Mobile.

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Design study (again guessing) for Windows 10 Mobile. Notice the Tile sizes; looks like a refinement.

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More Windows Mobile designs. Looks like Aero fans will be entertained. Interesting looking mail and messaging icons.

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More Start Screen designs.

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Last image is a look at the Start Menu on a PC. In a few concepts Microsoft has experimented with the Taskbar; adding features that make it work more like the MacOS launcher and making work when PC is in tablet mode.

And that’s it for now folks.

shocked-monkey

 

I loathe writing about politics, not because I hate it (I don’t and it was a major) but because stupidity it almost automatically generates. And this is no truer than in this election.

Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States and no one saw it coming. Oh I know one or two did, but most of us didn’t. And beyond the actual win was the way the map looked when it was all said and done. Basically it was these clusters of blue lining the edge of the country with the middle red as a red wedding.

This Presidential election was ugly. It was so ugly its primaries were ugly. And yes I am of the opinion that both the Democratic and Republican primaries were messy affairs that tainted the winners. The GOP’s base revolted from the kingmaker’s after years of the party playing it’s various cards and allowing political ideology to overcome common sense. That and a weak bench of candidates helped Donald Trump reach the convention podium.

And bless their hearts but the DNC doesn’t look better. Knowing Hilary Clinton was the preferred nominee is one thing; trying to play House of Cards while not being Kevin Spacey is another. Also Bernie Sanders did hurt Clinton by both: 1. staying in too long and 2. painting her into a corner as a corporate puppet. It did not help that Clinton is not personable in the way her husband or Barack Obama are. She is a wonk; she is built to be one who get’s it done and not the one to convey they feel your pain.

So we got through the primaries and ended up with the least optimal choices for the next leader of the free world. The Pussy grabber and the Crooked one. We operated under assumptions that there was no way in hell they’d elect him; I mean look at him.

Meanwhile Clinton spent part of the campaign dealing with one side that honestly thought they had been screwed and a coalition busy basking in the warm glow of Obama’s smile and pictures of him and Michelle. It became an election built around fear and anger and the deciding factor was a populist fuck you vote from people we discounted. So now we are here; except now it’s the America we were told we were becoming fearful of an America people thought died.

I’m getting to old to feign fear of the thoughts hidden inside other people. I’m getting to old to demonize people I disagree with. Life is too short. Right now people have gone from hand wringing to public outcry to attempting to move to Canada. We go online and wallow in information to shore up are choice or demonize others or gloat like pigs in a trough.

Maybe this was the right election and maybe Trump is the right man for the job if for nothing else we can stop lying to ourselves about the myth of America. Maybe it is the cynic in me but the glass at some point is half empty, not full. Sometimes we need the uncomfortable and the ugly to run around lest it fester. It doesn’t mean it won’t get better, but it does mean it gets more honest.

So over the weekend news leaked of Project Neon, a new design initiative for Windows 10. According to those early reports, Neon was started about a year ago as an internal project.

There are a lot of questions about Neon. For one how far reaching will it be? Is Neon for only the Shell; dig deep enough and you’ll find the stuff that’s been there since Windows 3.0? Or will it be deeper? Will it be part of one big update or slowly integrated in? Most of these answers won’t be known until Microsoft makes whatever their doing publically known. However we can sort of trace where Neon is coming from and why it’s coming together now.

neon_suspect

History Lesson

It is hard not to start a design conversation about Microsoft and not start with Metro; the design language built for Windows Phone. That design had a profound impact on Microsoft. In many ways Metro brought design thinking to Redmond as part of the product. And while Metro was influential it was/is divisive; especially the version that ended up in Windows 8. It’s development stalled with the stalling of Windows Phone and later Windows RT. This led to the Modern Design Language or MDL.

MDL faced a huge task; bridging the UI of Windows Phone with the UI of Windows 8. It had to work across screen sizes and inputs while maintaining the Metro ideal. The result was mixed. Much like Windows 10, MDL was geared more toward easing the fears caused by Windows 8 mobile first posture. A balance was hit in the update to MDL but much of what made Metro a strongly identifiable interface were taken out or muted.

Now that was a really condensed version and it only tells part of the story. The other half is about the formalizing of Microsoft design.

Between Metro and MDL design responsibilities were shifting at Microsoft. What we now call Metro started inside what was the Entertainment and Devices Group (home of Xbox). At that time Chief Experience Officer J Allard was working on consumer initiatives like Windows Mobile, Zune, and Xbox.

The actual work of designing Metro was done at Pioneer Studios, Allard’s skunkworks group. The Metro associated with Windows 8 was done by the Windows team headed Julie Larsen-Green under Steven Sinofsky. So different teams, different approaches, and little contact. After Allard and Sinofsky both left their respective domains were joined together into Windows and Devices. In an interesting twist the design team for Windows comes from the core developed by Allard. Design was also elevated with company reorganization.

Building the City

Back in 2015 the idea of the city as an analogy for Windows’ UI was used. The first time I heard it was from Principal Designer Kat Holmes. It was used then to describe how while each service, like Office, has its own unique identity it was still part of Windows.

The analogy was used again by Windows’ design chief Albert Shum to describe the changing approach to Windows UI in 10 (along with a stated recommitment to underlying principles of Metro like typography).

The idea of the City; a place with clearly defined lines yet also containing differentiated neighborhoods is a good place to start a discussion about the Windows Interface. Given the products built by Microsoft and the wildly different ways it’s used is a lot like living in a city. Windows is complicated and after both Windows 8 and 10 complicated in ways unique.

Neon seems to be about easing these complexities.

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Neon Signs

So why Project Neon?

Go back to the beginning of Windows 10. It was built upon the work of Windows 8 and RT and was mainly about answering desktop user concerns. The MDL was designed to make it easier on desktop users to use features built for Windows 8. The MDL was built to make the transitions between mobile and desktop easier along with making it easier for app developers to port apps to Windows. Part of the criticism that MDL received was based around how much it was about being this bridge without it’s own identity. And I think the designers in Redmond took the lessons of MDL and Metro into Neon.

At this stage I should explain that the primary goal of a design language is in creating a common framework from which designers and developers can start. It is a guide and not the rules. I think one of the big lessons of Metro was making sure people understood that the design language and guide are the basic things to do not the only thing. With Neon Microsoft is pushing Windows and its users further into the modern age.

(Okay this is the part where I make up stuff and I had no witty transition so I put this here instead)

Neon comes at a point where Windows is being pulled in many different directions. On one hand there is the traditional PC with its mouse and keyboard. Then there is mobile which depending on your phone may also look a little like your PC. The Xbox is now a Windows device as is the HoloLens which computes neither like a pc or a phone. Add to this devices like 2 in 1s and you factor in tablets (and pens); Windows is complicated.

So Neon’s job will be about making tablets, pcs, and phones feel at home and usable. Neon will also improve on the various inputs Windows uses such as pen and touch. With Windows 10 inking saw major improvements and I expect those to be part of Neon. Neon will also be a spring board for mixed reality. Devices like HoloLens and the HTC Vive need interfaces and Neon will be part of their integration.

Lastly, Neon’s design will be about setting Windows up for the next generation of devices. Windows 10 came about because Microsoft wanted to move forward. I think Neon is about defining what moving forward means.

It’s going to be interesting seeing how this pans out.

 

Mobility

Mobile has been a disruptive technology for almost a decade now. It shifted the fortunes of a number of companies; turning some into kings while making others paupers. Mobile devices have overtaken personal computers as the way most people compute.

Think about it; all the task we have associated with computing; gaming, doing bills, watching movies; is now done on devices we keep in our pockets. The mobile market grew exponentially faster than the PC market and has in many ways made the PC look like the mainframe; a relic for the back office.

Given the changes it becomes clear why Microsoft did a reboot with Windows Phone and also why despite failing to catch on Windows Mobile is still with us.

Continuum_Concept

Continuum Machine

Back at the beginning of Windows 10, Continuum was a feature that simply described modal use; tablet mode/pc mode and mobile/desktop-like experience. The Phone side of Continuum was always more intriguing because it was an adrenaline shot to a platform that had/has been given up for dead.

However as a feature Phone Continuum  lacked features to make it’s desktop truly functional. The feature resembled Windows RT; only one app can be seen at a time along with the additional restriction to apps built to UWP guidelines. This changes with the next update for Windows 10. The Creator’s update will allow for windowing so multiple apps running on screen along with improvements for wireless connections. Add to this new reports of x86 emulation, allowing users to natively run desktop applications, and the idea of a phone replacing a computer for periods become feasible.

I have to say these latter features have shown up faster than expected given the last update to Continuum was around the Xbox controller. I should also note this makes the case for accessories like HP’s Lap dock for the Elite X3.

Design in Neon

Right after the Thanksgiving holiday it was reported that Microsoft was working on a new design language for Windows 10 codenamed Neon. While details are scarce Neon appears to a effort to improve and streamline the overall look and behavior of Windows.

For Mobile this will most likely mean improvements to the Start Screen and Continuum desktop experience. Neon may also pave the way for new devices like tablets and Chromebook style notebooks.

Focus on the Enterprise and Services

The last two years have seen Microsoft retrench its mobile efforts (much to the acrimony of users). It has been a period of slumping sales and write offs as Microsoft moves the mobile focus toward enterprises. Much of the announced and known information around Windows Mobile drives this home; x86 emulation and Continuum are primarily feature sets businesses probably asked for.

Microsoft is also continuing to push UWP to be the replacement for .exe and pure x86. Initiatives like Project Centennial are trying to put Windows developers on a platform path toward the Universal Windows Platform. They are also working on features to make UWP as powerful as x86 without too much baggage.

So what does all this mean?

Well right now little.

The Continuum features will arrive sometime in the next year and a little before for those using the Windows Insider program. Any additional features, especially something like Neon, are coming in another update codenamed Redstone 3 in late 2017. And with what we know there are still questions. For example what will be the consumer facing features? Will there be new partners for hardware and software?

According to reporting done by Mary Jo Foley Microsoft is working with Qualcomm on getting the emulation feature working on their newer chipsets. Which is fascinating and proves the company is still committed to mobile. However this work is happening on a platform with no real pull in mobile (and statically no real share of the market). So where does it go from here?

2017: The Slow Return of Windows Mobile

Recently both Microsoft’s CEO and it’s head of Windows have been asked about mobile. The questions follow the usual script in which Microsoft acknowledges it missed mobile and that yes, they are committed to Windows Mobile and mobile hardware. Now Ms. Foley asked the million dollar question: Why bother?! I mean Windows Phone is dead and most want Redmond to follow the list of the former mobile leaders on the path to wherever Android is going. Or why not quit and restart like Nokia.

“When you stop investing in these things, it’s super hard, super, super hard to restart. And at Microsoft, we have a few of those examples where we stopped.” This was the response from Windows chief Terry Myerson. He also cited the ARM chipset and cellular as additional reasons for mobile continued existence.

In my opinion I think Microsoft understands where it is in mobile. I remember an interview done with Microsoft’s Chief Marketer in which he talked about needing to create something that would be truly compelling for phone buyers. His statement was echoed by Myerson and Nadella. This acknowledgement that whatever is coming needs to be truly compelling and groundbreaking to overcome Windows Mobile shortfalls.

So in 2017 expect to see features and functionality added that 1) closes some feature gaps with iOS and Android 2) Bring parity between mobile and pc 3) Entice more hardware partners to join and 4)Provide better user experiences. This will occur alongside updates for the PC so don’t look for a mobile specific update, yet.

Now beyond that I feel like long term Windows mobile’s future will be in helping Microsoft define the future of mobility. I’m talking about something that may go beyond the best guest work around mobile’s future form; or maybe just move the needle to where most think its going. This includes Windows mobile finally running on tablets and possibly laptops similar to Chrome OS. And even then this is leaving out aspects like AI, bots, mixed reality, and inking.

Before reading the article posted today on Windows Central I have to admit I was nonplused by what was coming down the pike for Windows. The fact is Windows as an OS needs a make over but can’t get one because legacy keeps it afloat while drowning it.

And I know a lot of people need and require software built on top of x86 but it does prevent things moving forward.

Then Neon happened and my inner UI nerd fainted.

 

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image: New Creation

 

Metro 2.0

According to Zac Bowden at Windows Central and Cassim Kefti at Numerama Neon is the codename for the next interface update to Windows 10. Kefti says internally Neon is being described as “Metro 2.0” in reference to the UI introduced with Windows Phone. Windows Central describes it as a streamlining of various efforts to bring level of coherency throughout the system. Neon also looks to add new animations and transitions to Windows 10. Neon also appears to be an effort to integrate new UI elements for augmented and virtual reality headsets. The timeline for the changes according to both articles seems to be Redstone 3, the update planned for 2017.

Neon

So what do I think? Honestly I am hyped by the news nd the possibilities. The news follows reporting from ZDNet about x86 emulation running on ARM for Windows Mobile. The emulation news was preceded by new mobile features coming with Windows’ next update. All this adds up to interesting times ahead for Windows mobile users and enthusiasts.

Now that was the hope. Here is the wants and needs.

First, there needs to be a visual update to both the Start Screen of Windows mobile and the start menu/tablet mode on Windows 10. I include them together because those are the public facing parts of the OS and the ones users use when mobile or without a keyboard. Windows 10 is fine for tablets but can always use improvements.

Second more features for Live Tiles and the lock screen. Neon is the perfect opportunity for features like Interactive Tiles or anything that moves the Tile metaphor forward. Also the Lock screen has been there sitting waiting to be unleashed; maybe the work of Microsoft’s Arrow Launcher could help.

Last, seamless integration of mixed reality into the platform. Windows has merged touch with the mouse and keyboard and no it was not easy. Hopefully they learned from those growing pains.

Honestly it’s early days and I will be revisiting this topic in future.

So I’ve been off; away from tech writing but still glued to technology. And while I have not been posting about the latest rumblings around it, I do have opinions which I now present to you. Apologies for the bad sentence structures beforehand.

 

Cook’s Apple

It’s hard to remember how positively received Tim Cook was as Apple’s CEO. His leadership was a major change of pace from the days of Steve Jobs. I’m reminded of those days again because now the chorus has changed. I’ve noticed in some of my reading around Apple a serious discontent on the part of longtime Mac users as well as professional Mac users feeling uncertain about it’s future.

The introduction of the latest MacBook Pro line has led to a bit of a social media backlash; with some seriously thinking of switching platforms or simply holding onto older Macs longer. To be honest to have such discussions being out there is weird giving the nature of Apple. Or maybe not.

Apple is no longer the company Steve Jobs founded in the seventies. It is not the company built on the back of the Apple II or Lisa. It is the Apple that he rebuilt in the late 1990s and whose fortunes can be tied back to the iPod and forward to iOS. This new Apple needs to maintain the iOS train while getting to the next big thing; unfortunately MacOS isn’t that and only exists until iOS can at least replace Mac laptops.

 

Beyond Mobile

Given how much disruption is supposed to be an underlying part of technology, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone asked what will disrupt mobile. In fact it’s hard to really look past mobile to any emerging or potential trend.

I mean tablets, smartwatches, and virtual reality have all been tied to mobile. Smartwatches are literally just there to be phone extensions. Media dongles like the Chromecast exist to extend the phone’s reach to your TV.

So what exists beyond mobile or is mobile so big we haven’t reached the edge yet?

 

Nadella’s Windows

This is something I will revisit later, but I want to start here. Satya Nadella’s time as head of Microsoft has been interesting to watch. He became CEO after what was largely a dark period for the company; maybe not in terms of profit, but in direction. Microsoft failed to successfully modernized its mobile efforts with Windows Phone and made missteps with developers. It made some moves to successfully move the company forward (Azure) and has seen success in the cloud while stumbling in the consumer market.

Much of the failings of the last decade were pinned to former chief Steve Ballmer who three years ago decided to retire and hand the reins to then Cloud head Nadella.

Now I’m not going to bore you with the overview; tl;dr of it is Nadella has been credited with a renaissance at Microsoft with new products and a rejuvenated workforce. For me the focus is on where Microsoft is going with Windows under Nadella.

Before recent reports; much of the news around Windows was about both the decline in the PC market and the innovation around Microsoft hardware. It’s weird but the PC’s decline has lead to a sort of resurgence. However for Nadella and Microsoft Windows and especially it’s mobile half are what keeps tongues wagging. And we may have an answer next year.