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Last week Microsoft announced a number of new features for the next Windows update and in time I will get to them; but right now I want to the public reveal of Project Neon.

Fluent Design System

Starting with the Fall Creator’s Update Microsoft will be shifting Windows away from the flat, minimalist world of Metro to the third dimension known as the Fluent Design System (FDS).

Fluent Design is an expansion on some of the ideas Microsoft started playing with in Metro, but it is also is the opposite of it. FDS caries on the ideas of the use of colors and for apps to be digitally native, but it’s not the strongly flat thing Metro was. FDS is also not as stringent as the guidelines for Metro was. FDS still draws inspiration from the same sources as Metro did but the world FDS is built for is far different.

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Designed for the Surface and Mixed Reality

One of the interesting things I learned about Fluent Design is it was partly designed around the fact Microsoft makes hardware. The obvious one was HoloLens, Microsoft’s augmented reality headset. FDS takes clear inspiration from the device with a focus on depth and materials and scale. But I think one of the other sources is the Surface.

Put bluntly Fluent Design is about creating appealing software and experiences that will make Windows devices desirable. The Surface team has been pushing the hardware envelope but the software has largely languished. FDS potentially fixes that.

Right now FDS will not be a one and done affair, but instead release as a series of waves. Wave 1 is already out with a number of applications using aspects in their apps.

So this is the end of part one. I’m going to post up a series of various images showing the future of Fluent Design soon.

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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.

 

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.

The last two weeks has been chock full of Microsoft developer and product news that I am only now getting to write down my thoughts.

This week Microsoft held both Microsoft Ignite and Microsoft Edge Web Summit. Last week it held it’s annual developer conference Build as well as a small gathering for analysts and investors. They even managed to squeeze in the release of their newest member of the Surface family.

Busy week

So I was planning on doing a guide for understanding the Windows Universal Platform; going in depth but forgot I am not a developer. But I still want to discuss this from a non-developer, layman’s view. I will be talking about a few of these topics in detail but a bit later.

Build

Like I said last week was the Build conference which is Microsoft’s big developer show. And the focus there was on it’s platforms. So the focus was on Azure and Windows 10. Build 2015 was an interesting event. Not just because it began with Azure or HoloLens, but how it illustrated where both Microsoft and Windows is going.

For the last two years I think many enthusiasts looking on from the outside have really questioned if Windows is relevant to Microsoft. Windows 8 and Windows Phone’s reception and the embrace of a cross platform strategy has led many, including at time myself, to think Microsoft is divesting itself from Windows. We wanted clarity and I think Build brought that.

The more I learn about Windows 10 the more I buy what CEO Satya Nadella says; this is Windows being retooled and rethought for the next stage. While I still think Windows 10 is mostly about regaining the desktop it is also not abandoning the mobile aspiration of Windows 8. In some ways 10 is a clearing of the deck. This is a version of Windows that is moving back toward the desktop and also cleaning it up to move forward. I mean for all the talk about pulling back from Windows 8, Windows 10 is also refining what 8 brought. Microsoft is expanding the Windows store in terms of what it offers and where it runs.

There will be one store across devices and it will even have programs built running traditional desktop code. The new Windows Universal Platform (WUP) is an expansion of the Windows Runtime. Windows 10 is about making it easier to use on a desktop laptop, but it is not a return to Windows 7.

Build being a developer conference was all about developers and code; which made some reporters supposedly upset cause they wanted this to be WWDC. The interesting thing for me was how much the developer part of the show was about them going to where developers are. They released a number of products to Mac and Linux developers; specifically Visual Studio Code.

They also opened up Windows development to developers on iOS and Android by making it easier to just port code. Yes this is a Hail Mary pass but it also makes sense. And to me anyway it didn’t feel like a death knell the way Android porting to Blackberry did or the way it was rumored for Windows Phone. The news about porting iOS apps was a surprise because no one was expecting it. The more interesting in my opinion part was the plan to bring traditional desktop programs into the new Universal Platform. The reasons this port is interesting is in order to do so developers essentially are having to get rid of the a lot of things that needed to go.

Beyond the developer news the other big thing was design. Or more to the fact the design team is finally talking publicly. One of the things that has been frustrating for me has been this silence on the design front. Around Windows the majority of discussions are around development and tooling but little about design. I think part of the issue with Windows Phone and especially Windows 8 development was this lack of designer input. This Build we actually had a high level talk and hell even a blog post. Progress!

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This week Microsoft decided to profile a number of designers working at the company as well as do a podcast interview with Principle designer Katie Holmes and Principle researcher Bill Buxton. Given the dearth of info on what’s new in Windows 10 UI/UX I of course pounced on these posts.

Gang of Four

One of the interesting, and sometimes confounding things, about design at Microsoft is how communal it is. Whenever a designer from Redmond talks about design it’s never about a person but about a community of designers. This makes it hard to turn any number of people into a Microsoftian Jony Ive. However the consolidation of Microsoft’s products and groups has lead to veil being lifted so we no whom to praise (or blame).

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The designers profiled represent the hardware and software sides of the software giant. There is Kat Holmes who is Design Director, Operating Systems who worked on Cortana and is part of the team working on Windows 10. Next is Jonah Sterling, Azure’s Creative director and the guy I sort of wished would get a crack at Windows proper (I mean it the Azure web portal is sexy). On the hardware side is Yeongyku Yoo creative director for the Microsoft Devices team and Ralf Groene who is creative director for Surface. Yoo works on the upcoming HoloLens and for the newest hardware group, Devices, which is also working on wearables like the Microsoft Band. Groene, who every time there was a Surface video made me ask who he was, is part of the team that works on the Surface line of devices.

Each profile provides background on the designers and their various paths to Microsoft and their views on design. It’s an interesting mix because there is no lock step answer on what design means. Beyond these profiles was an interview on Microsoft and design done for the Next at Microsoft podcast.

Microsoft’s Five Burroughs

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Bill Buxton is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and someone who has done a lot of work on devices with consider commonplace. Buxton is also part of a larger movement to make design thinking a bigger part of Microsoft. In an interview with himself and Kat Holmes he discussed some of the issues Microsoft faces. One of the most interesting points was made by Ms. Holmes on where Microsoft’s interfaces are going. She described Windows and Microsoft services as being like the 5 boroughs of New York City; united but distinct. Buxton discussed the challenge facing technology was connecting devices and apps across their barriers.

And that is the latest in Microsoft Design news.

Next At Microsoft Podcast: Philosophy of Design

A Gang of Four: Holmes, Sterling, Yoo, Groene (Microsoft Stories)

images: Microsoft

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.

Classroom_of_the_Future

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

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Occasionally I want to do posts on Microsoft’s design teams when information pops up. I had planned to do this big opus about Microsoft and the evolution of design as part of the company but I don’t have enough to do it justice or enough sources to satisfy the OCD gods.

 

So I’ll say this…..

 

Microsoft over the last 4 or 5 years has slowly been building up its design capabilities to enhance its products. The most recent trend started with its Entertainment and Devices Group which created its own incubation and design group, Pioneer Studios. Pioneer and some other elements were absorbed into the mother ship and now form the nucleus for Microsoft OS design group headed by Windows Phone alum/co-creator Albert Shum.

 

This week the big news is Adobe’s Michael Gough to be Corporate VP of the Applications and Services Group under former Windows chief Julie Larson-Green. Similar to his work at Adobe, Gough will be working on user experience design and branding on services such as OneDrive, Office, and MSN. Gough also may work on inking experiences something he’s familiar with as the public face for Adobe’s Stylus and drawing apps for the iPad.

 

In other news the big Windows 10 event not only unveiled HaloLens but it also was the day the OS design team cut the ribbon on its new digs (location classified). The event was celebrated on Twitter by the Windows Phone design team, the official Microsoft Design account, and numerous members of the OS group. The space will bring together the design teams working on Windows (desktop/tablet/phone), Xbox, and now Windows Holographic.

images: Microsoft and GD USA