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User Experience

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.

 

neon

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.

Neon

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.

Today I read an interesting retrospective by Paul Thurrott on Windows Phone. It was part of a series of articles he writes on past Microsoft technologies with occasional comparisons to current events.

The article on Windows Phone was interesting because it talk about the fact that with Windows 10 Microsoft was closing the door on Windows Phone and on what made it special. It is an interesting read but it left me wondering if Microsoft was really closing the door on Windows Phone as it was and if that wasn’t entirely a bad thing.

Five years ago Microsoft made a break from it’s then mobile OS Windows Mobile to Windows Phone 7 Series. They shifted their thinking away from delivering software that Phone makers would re-skin and put on various hardware to a consistent interface and underlying hardware platform aimed at consumers and not enterprise. The move brought design into focus for Microsoft in ways it never had and brought kudos and awards.

But it hasn’t been the success Redmond was hoping for.

Five years later the vision put out for Windows Phone has had to exist in a less than friendly market. It’s innovative thinking around applications and notifications were love by critics but not widely adapted by app makers. The designers had to move quickly to make the platform work in a market where it was a distant third player and thus some things were tossed. Add to that Windows Phone’s merger into the larger Windows ecosystem (beginning with the move to the NT kernel in Windows Phone 8) brought more changes.

Some of the changes were sad. The need to keep partners and increase traction meant hardware requirements became optional. The next billion users meant an increase in affordable phones and less flagship devices. The dearth of app developer support meant things like Hubs and other initiatives went largely untouched.  And user expectation has meant the strong Metro design language has had to concede to things like hamburger menus.

And to be honest with Windows 10 what Thurrott describes as backing away is true; many of the elements that marked Metro and Windows Phone are gone to one degree or another. the Panorama and Pivot controls which define the typical app no longer is the representative design.

And yet we are talking about Windows Phone at year 5. And after five years it is time in my opinion to move on. As much as I liked Windows Phone and Metro I always thought they were a step toward something else. And while I would’ve loved to see user generated Hubs and an anti-app model I also wanted to see a Metro that allowed for a UI developers could stretch and brand their own way. I also think Windows Phone wasn’t perfect if the goal was to create something that could run on tablets as well as phones.

For me after four or five years an interface can and should be re-examined. What was fine in the beginning may no longer work. Unlike iOS and Android Windows Phone couldn’t bend developers to add features or influence the influencers. Users did not flock and it’s hard to know if it was the uniqueness of Metro, the lack o certain apps, or both that kept them away.

With Windows 10 Microsoft is merging Windows Phone and Windows RT (tablet OS) to create a new mobile offering. This means the things Windows Phone was about in its beginning no longer apply. And that could ultimately be bad or it could be good. We will know in another five years.

win10_xbox_devices_web

Since the release of the second preview for Windows 10 I’ve been going over the presentation and the latest Build looking at the changes for Windows and the Metro interface. Visually there have been clear changes made to core applications as they make the shift from Windows/Windows Phone 8.1 to the Universal app model. Reception for the overhaul has been mixed to be polite. I’ve read a few user comments saying Windows 10 sucks for tablet users. Also a few feel the new interface with new app controls and the hamburger menu means Windows is losing its unique accents.

While the overall ideas and final look for Windows 10 is far from finished, there is enough stuff there to make a preliminary brief.

Up first let’s talk about the Hamburger. The Hamburger menu is a button composed of three lines which represents menu selection or more options. It is used a lot for mobile websites and apps across platforms. The menu is a bit controversial in design circles; some consider it the mystery meat of design. Now in Windows and Windows Phone the Hamburger was rarely used; instead pivot and panorama controls were used on Phones and edge UI elements used on tablets. The new Modern UI is moving beyond both. Now one thing I observed with the new menu is how much it also resembles the look of the Mail app in Windows 8. When you shrink it down the Map app’s settings resemble the template used in creating the new Map app. Photos, and others. The Hamburger menu simply lets you hide them.

Outlook_UI_900x530

One of the things some of the early applications show is that the shift in design is partly about providing an experience that moves easier between screens. The transfer of Metro from mobile to tablets wasn’t as easy because the teams designing them were coming from different directions. Another aspect I am noticing is the new Modern design might’ve been created to with an eye on reducing app repetition. By repetition I mean how a lot of Metro apps just used the basic templates which resulted in a bunch of similar apps.

The new Modern language deviates from some of what Metro was but not much. It’s not backing away from minimalism or a focus on content over superfluous elements. The Universal app model carries an inherent need for the reuse of elements, but not necessarily shrinking the interface. There is a merger of ideas in some places and changes in others. The edge UI’s in Windows 8 and 8.1 have been replaced easily available quick app settings (hamburger). The app bar remains but rules on controls have be relaxed. Commands can now be on top or bottom. One thing to note is that some apps appear to use motion and animation when switching controls. An example of this is in the new Mail app. App controls look to be heading for a change in styling. A new design for App controls was seen.

Beyond applications there has been work done to modernize the desktop. The taskbar has a new highlight feature with opened programs. Microsoft has tweaked the flat color and style introduced in Windows 8 along with the title bars and the minimize, maximize, and close buttons. The Start menu continues to be iterated on. In an interesting move the Start Menu has been rebuilt in XAML, a software language used to make applications. This is interesting because Microsoft is using its tools to build apps; these tools are available to developers.

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The interface and experience that has been made public has divided Windows users especially those who loved the Metro design language. The new Modern language. Windows 10’s rough sketch is showing an OS that is trying to think about mobile from a new perspective and balance the needs of traditional PC users while not abandoning users who adopted touch and tablets. This approach is obviously something to get used to and refine.

images: Microsoft

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.