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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.

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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.

 

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Microsoft has always had its eyes on the future. Bill Gates was well known for making predictions on the future of computing (even wrote a book on it). In fact Microsoft has maintained a section of the company that works on thinking about the future.

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For the last decade, starting in 2006, Microsoft has made a series of videos that show a vision of the future. For most people who follow such things the series was made famous in 2009. This past week a new video came out that once again put out a Microsoft colored vision of the world in 5-10 years.

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Now some have criticized the Productivity Future Vision (PFV) videos for the fact they didn’t reflect products that Microsoft was working on. Critics wondered why the software giant would focus on making science fiction while Apple and Google made reality. For Microsoft the answer has been about creating a conversation by providing a glimpse on things Microsoft is working on.

This year’s video is interesting because much of what’s on screen now reflects products Microsoft makes. The video’s focus also seems to coincide with the new focus the idea of the ubiquity of experience and mobility that’s been the focus of Nadella’s tenure.

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For me the PFV is a vision of computing and of Microsoft that I want the company to strive for. The idea of computing being this thing that travels cross devices where you walk in, log on and use a device and everything is there; and when you go your stuff just goes with you.

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Productivity Future Vision (link)

(You just don’t know how much this video has me like a kid on Christmas day)

images: Microsoft

Okay Microsoft comes out with a new Productivity Future video and I admittedly want to go to there.

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The new video for me is a little different from past ones because much of what’s shown now represents real world products. Almost everything in this video corresponded to a product available now or soon to be out. So what does the future hold for the Surface? Thinner bezels, screens, and new form factors.

The evolution of Windows, a revolution for Microsoft Hardware

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The next update to Windows will bring a new look but the same focus on getting things done. Cortana’s update brings new capabilities through the new personal assistant software.

The Surface lineup is expanding with the new Surface Courier, Surface Hub Home, and Surface 5.

Surface Courier, the tablet transformed

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The Surface Courier brings new flexibility to the tablet form factor. Use the device folded and it’s a 8 inch device or open it and use the 11 inch screen to get more work done. For those looking for a more traditional form factor, the Surface 5 refreshes the entry level Surface device for students, business, and customers.

The new Surface Pen is now Universal, use it with other Windows tablets, the iPad Pro 3 and compatible Android tablets. Try the new stone charger for faster charging of the pen.

The Surface Hub Home is a new all in one that brings the power of the Surface Hub to the All in One device. Aimed at the education market, Hub Home works seamlessly with other Windows devices.

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Building on the HoloLens, the Microsoft HoloPad brings Holograms further into the home and office. HoloPad allows for the power of Holograms to be used by people without strapping on a Lens. The 3d of HoloPad lets users interact with computers in a whole new way.

Coming soon the next evolution in digital White boarding for the office and home; MagicWall and Surface Hub.

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* this is a work of fiction; I have no bloody clue what Microsoft is doing.

images: Microsoft