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Continuum

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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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.

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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.

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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.

I haven’t done a post about Windows Phone now Windows 10 Mobile. I mean I started on one but then everyone said it was dead; then Mary Jo Foley got a Nexus and the sky fell.

So let’s recap:

  • Windows Phone as it was first conceived and marketed was not successful.
  • Many of Microsoft’s partners when it was still Windows Phone 7 Series abandoned it.
  • Redmond had to buy the only real Windows Phone handset maker left but ending up firing a lot of the workers and reducing the amount of handsets they make. (When really the only value were the Camera team and HERE mapping)
  • Microsoft has refocused its mobile strategies on pushing apps and services for the big two (Android/iOS); and on refocusing Windows  10 Mobile’s target audiences.

For the last year Microsoft under Nadella has been, in my opinion, trying to make Windows Mobile work. And by work I mean start making profits and being credible competition.

Now let me say upfront, Windows Phone failed. I hate writing that because like its spiritual ancestor the Zune, it was ahead of its time. It faced a number of hurdles that it could not overcome (no matter how hard they tried). So now we on.

I’ve been playing with Windows 10 Mobile since its Insider Preview started. There are a lot things about it I think need serious work. For me most of it is surface stuff. I like the personalization options, but I wish I could group apps to break up the Start Screen. I think the basic layout for UI needs refining and more needs to be done to make apps really pop.

But I also find myself intrigued by what the new Win Mobile is.

I complain about Action Center, but I also really like it. Controls are better. I like the fact this interacts better with the PC. And I like the fact I want to see it on larger screens.

So I think Windows  Mobile has legs, but how does Microsoft make it compelling?

Windows Mobile’s biggest issue out of the gate will be the legacy of Windows Phone: no one uses it and there are no apps. So first question will be, “Why Windows Mobile?”

In some ways Microsoft has already telegraphed that going forward Windows Mobile will be first and foremost about the Enterprise. While Microsoft has also talked about creating experiences for fans of the platform it is clear the focus will be on where they saw growth. Fans are just a bonus.

Beyond the business focus, Windows Mobile will need a consumer story. And I think this where the Surface team comes in.

Despite the appearance of Acer and HP with high end devices, Microsoft is going to have to raise the flag for Windows 10 Mobile. The rumored Surface phone is going to be the point device for Windows Mobile. It will need to be more than just a pretty phone; it’ll need to be a new experience.

This experience goes beyond just having hardware.

Recent reporting around Windows Mobile is indicating that it will be the focus of the next major update to Windows 10. If this is the case, then I think Microsoft should focus on refining the interface and building robust features into the platform.

In my opinion the biggest assets Windows Mobile has is it’s NT kernel underpinnings and Continuum. The NT kernel means this is real Windows. With Continuum Windows Mobile becomes less of an also ran to be a versatile platform. In order for Windows Mobile to get over the “no apps” rep, it will need to push versatility and Continuum hard. To me that means when dock, the phone just becomes a PC (including multitasking).

(Continuum allows a Windows phone to function like a PC with a desktop; apps built to make use of the feature fit the screen. It’s a lot like Windows on ARM or Windows RT)

In some ways what I am suggesting is Microsoft should run with the idea that Windows Mobile as the new Pocket PC. Keep it nerdy. Make it business friendly. Make it versatile and flexible in ways Android and iOS can’t.  Revisit the ideas from the old Win Mobile but reimagined for current mobile audiences.

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(Honestly, I got more but I hit over 700 words and I’ll live it here)

 

There has been so much news coming out of this year’s Build Conference that it’s hard to just recap daily events. Beyond HoloLens which is amazing is a number of initiatives and changes that are making Windows 10 this very intriguing platform to watch. In particular the future of the UI once known as Metro and Continuum.

Now this isn’t exactly breaking news, other sites have reported it, but during one of the sessions on Windows Live Tiles one of the slides listed Interactive Tiles as a feature being worked . While Live tiles allow you to see information without having to open an application you still have to open an app to do anything proactive. Interactive tiles function like Widgets which allow you to interact with info without leaving the Start Screen. Interactive tiles were introduced as a research project two years ago and it looks like they will be coming in Windows 10.

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On the other side of things is Continuum. Continuum is a system that makes it easy for users of Windows to switch between the Desktop and Tablet environments. Basically it’s a tablet mode for Windows PCs and 2-in-1 devices. On Wednesday Microsoft introduced a version of Continuum for Windows Phones running 10. unlike the PC/Tablet PC version, Continuum for Phones turns smartphones into PCs. This means with a dock, wireless dongle, or USB cord your Windows phone can deliver a PC experience.

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Now during a talk on how to implement Continuum for Phones members of the Continuum team briefly showed a slide that showed a device they described, “as not a PC but a device powered by a Phone.” The white laptop dock, which was also described as a detachable tablet PC, would work like a cross between Windows RT and a Chromebook. The team described it as one of a new class of devices that could be powered by Continuum for Phones. The idea of using a phone to power a laptop isn’t new; Motorola did it with the Atrix and Palm with the Foleo. Asus also markets the Padfone as tablet/phone device. The difference here is Microsoft is designing its software to work across screens and providing developers with the tools to do the same.

The fact that the developers showed off a picture of a device looks like Microsoft or one of its hardware partners is planning on showing us something cool.