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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.

So right now I’m going back over the big Windows 10 event which beyond HoloLens had enough news to make one busy writing on it for at least a week. And while many are writing about Windows Holographic and whether Microsoft is cool, a potential fanboy rage event (FRE) could be lurking within.

Amongst the many things the software giant showed off were new applications based on the new Universal app model. Many of the apps shown were one’s available now on Windows tablets and Windows Phones like Mail, Pictures, Maps, and People. They all looked nice and they all seem to, even in this early stage, perform well.

But there is an issue with them.

One that will be a discussion point in fanboy flame wars….

It does not look like Metro.

Now what does that mean. In one sense the apps shown as demos and as motion studies don’t use the Pivot and Panorama controls introduced with the birth of Windows Phone. You don’t gesture over to another screen with your fingers. Settings are now no longer contained on the bottom of the screen or hidden when not in use. There is a certain level of chaos that has been injected into the uniformity that has been part of the Metro design language. The live tiles are there (and they may change) but other aspects are changing. On the PC side gone is the Charms bar; replaced by an overhauled Action Center. Sliding from the left brings up not a set of thumbnails of open apps, but the new task view which looks like webOS (card like). This along with the many little changes sprinkled in is making some wonder if this is the end of the Metro line.

Right now Windows 10 is in Technical Preview, meaning its available for anyone to use but it is not ready to ship. That means a lot of enthusiasts along with IT admins get to test it. Now I call this post a war but really I am just observing the reactions of people who took to the Metro language complaining about changes that make 10 look to them like another “me too” system. On the other side I’m also reading the views of those who thought Windows 10 would mean the death of Metro and a return to Windows 7 and Aero. At this point I could describe to you the level of rage and the invectives used by both sides but that is boring, mind numbing, and tedious; in condensed form there is must bleating and bitching.

Actually let me say this. There are a number of people who are Metro purists; people who take the design guidelines as rule of law. As much as I like Metro I don’t think it should be the last stop in the evolution of interface design, especially at Microsoft. Even the Office labs envisioning videos I still hold up as what I want in a UI shouldn’t be the end point (in fact it’s time to rethink them too).

For me what I see so far is intriguing. As much as I like Windows 8 and what it brought I also acknowledge it hasn’t been accepted by people. In order to move forward changes had to be made to make Windows accessible and acceptable to users who use laptops and desktops. On the other hand Windows 8 brought new features which honestly make Windows easier for people to use and manage. We can’t go back to the days of Windows 7 because those days are gone and users are looking for something modern.

And that is where Windows 10 comes in.

Now this doesn’t mean I don’t have issues. The new icons and looks could be construed that Microsoft is trying to make Windows look like iOS and Android. Also I still think the Start Screen needs tweaking to open it up more for customization beyond backgrounds; especially on phones and tablets. Lastly I think more should be done around making Windows work better on pure tablets.

But right now I think 10 is on the right track.