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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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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.

You know you run through your head all the clever and insightful things you are preparing to write then you sit down in front of the screen, open up WordPress, put your hands over the keys…….

And you go blank.

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As a fan of Microsoft, yesterday’s Windows 10 event left me feeling the type of high you get when your team wins a tournament. It didn’t answer everyone’s questions about the app gap. There was no new app wins (but we finally saw Office). There was hardware, but it was something NO ONE expected. I still think they need to do more with the Start Screen; and the enthusiasts will complain it’s not “Metro enough” or “It’s too much damn Metro, give me Aero.”

The thing I took away wasn’t so much a single feature, but the answer to a question people wanted answered. It has been a question people have been asking the last few years and especially when Satya Nadella became CEO. In today’s tech market what place does Windows have? To users and to Microsoft itself.

And on Wednesday Microsoft answered.

It is clear people working on Windows 10 want to make it memorable. It’s also becoming clear that they are committed to delivering something that is appealing to users. The main build of Windows 10 continues to be polished with new animations and refinements to taskbar and the overall look and feel.

At this point Joe Belfiore, Windows VP on PC/Phone/Tablets, took over showing features. At this point if you’ve been following Windows 10 you wouldn’t have been surprised by his demos. Cortana on the Desktop, turning the Start Menu into the Start Screen and back, new changes to the taskbar. What was nice was being able to see it all in action.

Belfiore confirmed the coming together of the Control Panel and Settings; they will be a Universal app running on phones, tablets, and PCs. The Charms bar (RIP) has been replaced by the Action Center which has more features and ties in closely to the Phone. Cortana is now the search option and can retrieve various bits of information from all over. Like others I thought the Cortana stuff ran too long but the functionality and integration is staggering to behold.

With Windows 10 Windows RT and Windows Phone as specific versions are gone. In their place is Windows 10 for small tablets (under 7 inches) and phones. Unlike on larger devices, this version will not have a desktop. From the current look Windows 10 mobile looks a lot like Windows Phone except we can now change the background. They did not show multitasking but I am assuming it will be similar to how it’s done on larger devices (using TaskView).

I like some of the changes coming to phones, but I wish they had done more to overhaul the Start Screen. The Universal app model is interesting especially in the changes its making to the Metro (Modern) interface. I will be going more in depth on it later, but for now it appears that at least on the app side there will be a new visual language. The fruits of the model are appearing quickly with rewrites for core applications, Office, and even the Settings app.

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Microsoft finally took the sheet off Office Universal apps (formerly Gemini and Office Touch). Belfiore showed off Word, PowerPoint, Outlook Mail, and Calendar. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will be included on all phones and small tablets similar to how it is now; the apps will also be available for download from the Store for larger devices. The new Outlook app has new quick action features (flick right to delete and left to flag). The Calendar app has also been changed sporting cleaner lines and colors. While briefly shown as motion studies Music, People, and Photos will also be revamped for Windows 10. I would just like to say that the Photos app redesign is enough of reason to upgrade (even though I miss the Photo cover in Windows 8).

Another bit of information we knew before it was shown was Project Spartan. Spartan is the new browser for Windows built on a forked version of the engine used to build Internet Explorer. Spartan is another part of the Windows 10 announcement I will discuss in another post (honestly Microsoft just kept dropping info like they had to go pee). Spartan is, well, spartan in look and features at this moment and it won’t be part of the next Technical Preview. Belfiore did not talk about extensions or web apps but he did show off the rumored features for the new browser. Spartan in its current form has three features. You can write and type notes on web pages using the inking tool, save articles to the Reading List app, and with a click switch into Reading mode. Cortana is integrated into Spartan and can pop up information from address bar or from the side. Spartan will work on all three Windows screens.

phil_spencer_battletoadsAt the point Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, came on the streamed buffered (actually this event is one of the few times I have had the issue with a Microsoft event). Spencer seemed a little nervous with the crowd of journalists (I won’t make jokes cause I would’ve been standing like a log). What Spencer came to show was the new Xbox app for Windows 10. In Spencer’s short time on stage he announced the ability to stream Xbox games off the console and onto PCs and tablets. He showed off console and PC cross platform gaming; announcing the latest version of Fables will be coming for both PC and Xbox One. He announced DirectX 12 on Windows 10 on all three screens, and he perhaps leaked the return of Battletoads.

The Surface Hub is a 4k, 84 inch touch display built for the Enterprise. The most interesting thing about the Hub is in how in some ways it’s a past through for other devices. You can move what you’re working on from your device to the Hub’s screen almost instantly. Another interesting aspect of the Hub is the notion that a user’s information and work comes with them and leaves with them. Like the Kinect the Hub recognizes users and logs them in and saves their work to their profile. The Surface Hub comes in two sizes (55 and 84) and yes it comes with a pen.

Everyone call this Microsoft’s one more thing, I call a Mic drop or the tech equivalent of the middle finger. At one point looking at it in action I thought to myself it’s not real, this is fake. Then the articles started coming in and jaded reporters and bloggers seemed to be trying their hardest to not act like 10 year olds. And all this from some funky black shades. Windows Holographic was not something anyone had in mind when thinking about what Redmond would show at a Windows 10 event. Even now it seems a little to sci-fi. Windows Holographic and the HoloLens that runs it will be out in the Windows 10 timeframe. It was worked on for five years under the Microsoft Welcome Center and Gift shop.

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The headset is freestanding, augmented reality device that will remind some of Google Glass and Oculus Rift. It started life as a gaming helmet and now it will help JPL explore Mars. The whole thing was surreal; it’s like the first step toward the Holodeck or at least Tony Stark’s garage in Iron Man 2. Windows Holographic essentially paints a virtual world onto the 3d landscape we live in creating this immersive space you can walk around. Head of Wearables and creator of Kinect Alex Kipman showed off the prototype and with a colleague showed off a holographic image of Terry Myerson and made a flying contraption in 3d.

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When he stepped out on stage Satya Nadella essentially closed the event by restating the importance of Windows to Microsoft. The fact that he talked about Windows being Microsoft’s platform, as the place in which all its services came together, was a big deal. Up until then it appeared his tenure would see Windows recede into the background especially in mobile. I think it was important and necessary that he as CEO made it clear that Windows was THE platform. Yes Microsoft wants its services everywhere, but Windows is where they come together and are at their best. What I really loved was that he said that the future of Windows is not just creating a product people need to use, but both choose and love. And in many ways Wednesday was so eventful because the people there seemed to be there because they thought Windows mattered, it’s users matter, and sometimes that’s what’s needed.

So now that the challenger has finally shown up the fight can begin.

Images: Microsoft