Windows 8: The Origin Story
To understand Windows 8, it’s instructive to begin at the beginning with the desktop and trace its steps. Every super hero has an origin story that shapes their worldview, guides their decisions, shapes their strengths and also their villains. Then later we’ll show how the designers behind Zune, Kin, Sync and Xbox (including Kinect) ultimately set a new course for Microsoft’s flagship product Windows.
There are quite a few striking similarities between this latest version of Windows and the original. The bright primary colors, typographic menus, rectilinear tiles, flat space, and abutting windows all betray their similarity. Steve Ballmer introduced the world to Windows 1 too, though with a slight variation in intonation. Even the new Windows logo seems to draw heavily from the first version. Most importantly, Windows 1 was a paradigm shift in personal computing. It was the release that moved Microsoft from the command line interface (CLI) of MS-DOS to the graphical user interface (GUI). And while Windows 1 was still designed primarily for keyboard input, the GUI gave purpose to another paradigm shift in user input, the mouse.
The Next Generation of Windows
The parallels are there (pun intended, Mac users). Windows 8 is very much intended as the next generational step forward in desktop computing. The keyboard begat the mouse, which begat touch. And these new inputs did not completely eclipse their forerunners, at least initially, but complemented and augmented them. Today, the keyboard lives alongside the mouse, much as Microsoft hopes the mouse can live alongside touch. The same might be said of the UI. The command line begat the graphical UI, which begat the natural UI. As with input, the previous generation is not replaced altogether, but nested within the latest UI. Just as the MS-Executive and Terminal apps provided command line functionality and interaction in Windows 1, so do the Desktop tile and its retro app counterparts provide GUI functionality and interaction within Windows 8.
Apple and Oranges
Another important similarity to Windows 1 is its relationship to the Apple experiences of the time—the Macintosh and System 1. Windows was designed both in imitation of, and in opposition to Mac. The GUI desktop paradigm was largely inherited from Apple (and Xerox before that), but there were intentional differences too. Windows had tiled windows because Mac had overlapping. Windows had sharp corners because Mac had rounded. Windows was in color because Mac was black and white. This same mixture of imitation and opposition to Apple UI lies at the heart of Windows 8.
“Microsoft’s vision of natural UI expands upon insights drawn from mobile and entertainment experiences.”
Born in Mobile & Entertainment
Microsoft’s vision of natural UI, the next generation of computing, expands upon insights drawn from mobile and entertainment experiences. Apple’s iPod and subsequent mobile initiatives have brought it back from the brink of obscurity to market dominance, and its mobile products have gone on to influence its desktop and TV experiences as well. Like Apple, when Microsoft went to reinvent the desktop, it looked to its Entertainment & Devices division for inspiration.
Windows Media Center
Before there was Windows 8, there was Windows Phone and the Metro UI. And before there was Metro, there was Kin, Zune, Xbox, Windows Media Center and the Twist UI. As early as 2002, glimpses of the nascent UI that would become Windows 8 started appearing in Microsoft product announcements. Windows XP Media Center Edition, previewed at CES 2002 and launched later that year, debuted the typographic beginnings of the Metro language. Although not set in Segoe (it was Trebuchet), the type-centric, list-based UI, and the large-scale, semi-cropped titling used in the subsections of the experience are some of the earliest foundations of Windows 8.
When the Xbox 360 updated from the original Blades UI to the New Xbox Experience in 2008, it used a variation of the Twist UI with its familiar typographic navigation. Its lateral carousel, initially illustrated in dimensional space and thus compared to Apple’s cover flow, may be an early precursor to the Windows 8 start screen with its content tiles and lateral scrolling.
The most recognizable ancestor appeared in 2006 with the release of Zune, Microsoft’s answer to the iPod. The first Zunes did not use touchscreen, but five-way and touchpad interaction. This, together with the shared entertainment content, may be why it inherited the Twist UI. The Zune UI had many hallmarks of the Metro navigational model with its hub pages, pivots and panoramas, but it was the Zune HD, the first touchscreen Zune released in 2009, that truly began to resemble the eventual Metro experience. Because it was touchscreen, actions and navigation moved on screen through circular, one-color iconography. The spatial model was now entirely flat, with hierarchical transitions illustrated as zooms in and out of the larger two-dimensional plane. The home experience took one step closer to Metro as the traditional typographic home screen grew an adjacent tiled space with pinned favorites and recent activity arranged chronologically.
The Kin, famous for its incredibly short 48-day product lifespan, was perhaps the last Microsoft product to influence the UI before it was officially announced as Metro. The Kin’s greatest contribution was its rich third-party social integration, and the home screen evolved once again. The Loop, as it was known on Kin, was now a fully tiled space with photography and status messages pulled from social networks. The Spot, essentially a drag and drop clipboard, was the original charm. Its functionality was limited to email and SMS, but it was the forerunner to the global sharing contracts present in Windows 8.
Finally, at Mobile World Congress 2010, Microsoft announced the Windows Phone 7 Series and the name for its new UI—Metro. These mobile roots define Windows 8 in many ways—content over chrome, cloud connectivity over local storage, touch and gestural interaction over mouse and keyboard, people- and app-centric content experiences over file-centric folder structures. These are the foundational ideas of Windows 8 that grew organically from Microsoft’s ventures in mobile and entertainment products.
The Progression of Interfaces
Graphical user interface
Natural user interface
Death of a Desktop
The PC is not dead. Nor is the desktop space. But the desktop GUI metaphor may be going the way of the command line. For now, the desktop UI is still just a click away, but it’s lost top billing. It’s just an app now, not an OS. Windows 8’s modern UI is the new face of the Microsoft PC and its model grew up in mobile computing and entertainment experiences. Its home tiles are the application entry experience median between Apple’s icons and Google’s widgets. Its navigational model and hierarchy structures are ideally suited to the consumption-heavy media experiences which pioneered the UI. And Microsoft is introducing the future of desktop computing on Surface, a touchscreen tablet. But this is not the end of the desktop story for Microsoft.
The Productivity Future Vision video produced by Microsoft Office Labs in 2011 depicts translating eyeglasses, transparent devices, touchscreen walls, and three-dimensional displays, but it also shows plenty of desks and keyboards. The large screen personal computing done at home and at work, on desks and tabletops, with keyboards and mice or trackpads or pens is not going anywhere tomorrow. But Windows is now a cross-device experience. This initial version of the new Windows may highlight the tablet experience, but the next may emphasize the desk, or the TV. There is one final analogy to Windows 1 that may be germane—Windows 1 did not sell. It wasn’t until Windows 3 that the majority of PC users began switching to the GUI paradigm introduced in Windows 1. But today’s PC users have a level of technological literacy far beyond those of 1985. It might not be long before the desktop UI seems as archaic as the blinking green cursor of MS-DOS.
Punchcut is a user interface design company with a unique specialization in multi-screen experiences for consumer devices — including handsets, tablets, ultrabooks, wearables and TV. We design experiences across major and emerging platforms: iOS, Android, and increasingly Windows 8. Our clients come to us not just to deploy apps on a new platform, but because we design user experience frameworks that help them create cohesion across platforms and devices.
Stay tuned for Part 4: Microsoft’s Manifesto where we’ll examine the 5 design principles of Windows 8 to better understand its core experience philosophy.
Windows Needs a Restart
A Reaction Against Faux Realism
The Next Generation of UI
Principles & Philosophy
The Nuts & Bolts of Designing For Windows 8