I'm not sure Microsoft Windows will be around in a decade, and that makes me sad.
I used to pick Windows computers. I used to like the operating system and feel more productive on it. I'm sure the price point helped. I still miss full-size arrow keys and having a functional text-selection model, but today I'm decidedly a Mac user. I like that the terminal is a Unix terminal, and I like that I can uninstall an app by throwing it in the trash. My phone runs Android, and I like how sharing information between apps work, enough that I'm willing to put up with phones that are too big and cameras that aren't great. But there's no longer a place in my life for Windows. Sure, I run it in a virtual machine to test things, but that hardly counts.
Although Windows 8 was a nightmare hellride to actually use, I really liked how starkly new it felt compared to how operating systems have looked and functioned for decades. The swiss design style1 is something I never thought we'd see in computer interfaces. Going all in with this on Windows 8 was a ballsy and rather couragous move, even though it obviously didn't pan out. Turns out you can't just throw out decades of interface paradigms between versions, who knew? Windows 8 was a glorious failure, but it did include a new application runtime that's shared with Windows Phone, and it looks like Windows 10 will be fixing the UI wonkiness. I'm still left wondering if it'll be enough to turn things around.
I've been a big fan of new CEO Satya Nadella's work in the past year. He seems to thinking what we've all been thinking for decades: it's weird that Microsoft hasn't been putting their apps on iOS and Android. Windows RT was stupid. No-one is using Windows Phone.
But that last one is disconcerting to me. While I'm a happy Android user and fan of iOS, a duopoly in smartphone platforms isn't good for anyone. I would prefer Microsoft to have a semi-succesful presence in the mobile space, if only to keep Google and Apple on their toes. Most developers aren't going to voluntarily maintain an app for a platform that only has 3% of the market, and without apps, no-one will adopt the platform. Recent news suggests Nadella understands this, and is giving their mobile efforts one final shot. The hope is that by making Windows 10 a free upgrade, app developers might have more incentive to use the new app runtime so their apps will run on desktop and mobile alike. I would think if this strategy fails, it's likely Microsoft will more or less be conceding the smartphone form factor entirely.
On the one hand this seems like exactly the kind of tough choice a forward-looking CEO needs to make in order to ensure Microsoft has a future at all, but on the other hand it leaves an even bigger question of where that leaves Windows for PCs if Microsoft concedes defeat on smartphones. While in the near term Windows for desktops and laptops is probably safe, in the longer term there are growing threats from Chrome OS, a potential Android on laptops, and apps running in the cloud. Even if Windows marketshare survives past these challenges, the price and therefore revenue of selling operating systems has been converging on zero for a while now. It's only a matter of time.
So what's Nadella's plan? When Windows revenue eventually drops to zero, and Microsoft has no platform (and therefore app store with a revenue cut) on smartphones, what will be their livelyhood? In order for Microsoft to stay in the consumer space and not become the next dull IBM, they'll need a source of income that is not Windows, and it's probably not hardware either, no matter how good the Surface Pro 3 was.
So what remains of Microsoft must be what Nadella bets on as the next source of income. So that's Office, Xbox, various cloud services and new things.
Microsoft has always been good at new things, but bad at productizing them. It seems Nadella has some skills in that area, so this will be an exciting space to watch in the next few years, but like all new ideas it's like buying a lottery ticket. You increase your chance of winning by buying a ticket, but you might still not win.
The rest is tricky. The problem is that without owning the platform it'll be orders of magnitude harder for Microsoft to sell their services. Unlike Google, Microsoft has to broker deals in order to have their apps preinstalled on Android phones, and though Android is pretty open, since they don't own the platform they'll always be subject to changing terms and APIs. Apple is a closed country entirely: you'll have to seek out and install their apps if you want them, and even if you do, Microsofts digital assistant will never be accessible from the home button. It's a steep and uphill battle, but I really hope Microsoft finds new footing. Because like how birds do, if life in one ecosystem turns miserable, I want to be able to migrate to another one, ideally a flourishing one. Oh, and I want to see how Windows looks when Microsoft turns it up to eleven.
I refuse to call it Flat Design™ because that's a stupid term that suggests a flat sheet of color is somehow a recent invention. ↩
I used to strongly believe the future of apps would be rooted in web-technologies such as HTML5. Born cross-platform, they'd be really easy to build, and bold new possiblities were just around the corner. I still believe webapps will be part of the future, but recently I've started to think it's going to be a bit more muddled than that. If you'll indulge me the explanation will be somewhat roundabout.
The mobile era in computing, more than anything, helped propel interface design patterns ahead much faster than decades of desktop operating systems did. We used to discuss whether your app should use native interface widgets or if it was okay to style them. While keeping them unstyled is often still a good idea, dwelling on it would be navelgazing, as it's no longer the day and night indicator whether an app is good or not. In fact we're starting to see per-app design languages that cross not only platforms, but codebases too. Most interestingly, these apps don't suck! You see it with Google rolling out Material Design across Android and web-apps. Microsoft under Satya Nadella is rolling out their flatter-than-flat visual language across not only their own Windows platforms, but iOS and Android as well. Apple just redesigned OSX to look like iOS.
It feels like we're at a point where traditional usability guidelines should be digested and analyzed for their intent, rather than taken at dogmatic face value. If it looks like a button, acts like a button, or both, it's probably a button. What we're left with is a far simpler arbiter for success: there are good designs and there are bad designs. It's as liberatingly simple as not wearing pants.
dogma (noun) a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true
The dogma of interface design has been left by the wayside. Hired to take its place is a sense of good taste. Build what works for you and keep testing, iterating and responding to feedback. Remembering good design patterns will help you take shortcuts, but once in a while we have to invent something. It either works or it doesn't, and then you can fix it.
It's a bold new frontier, and we already have multiple tools to build amazing things. No one single technology or platform will ever "win", because there is no winning the platform game. The operating system is increasingly taking a back seat to the success of ecosystems that live in the cloud. Platform install numbers will soon become a mostly useless metric for divining who's #winning this made-up war of black vs. white. The ecosystem is the new platform, and because of it it's easier than ever to switch from Android to iOS.
It's a good time to build apps. Come up with a great idea, then pick an ecosystem. You'll be better equipped to decide what type of code you'll want to write: does your app only need one platform, multiple, or should it be crossplatform? It's only going to become easier: in a war of ecosystems, the one that's the most open and spans the most platforms will be the most successful. It'll be in the interest of platform vendors to run as many apps as possible, whether through multiple runtimes or just simplified porting. It won't matter if you wrote your app in HTML5, Java, or C#: on a good platform it'll just work. Walled gardens will stick around, of course, but it'll be a strategy that fewer and fewer companies can support.
No, dear reader, I have not forgotten about Jobs' Thoughts on Flash. Jobs was right: apps built on Flash were bad. That's why today is such an exciting time. People don't care about the code behind the curtain.
As a fan of interface design, operating systems — Android, iOS, Windows — have always been a tremendous point of fascination for me. We spend hours in them every day, whether cognizant about that fact or not. And so any paradigm shifts in this field intrigue me to no end. One such paradigm shift that appears to be happening, is the phasing out of the desktop metaphor, the screen you put a wallpaper and shortcuts on.
Windows 8 was Microsofts bold attempt to phase out the desktop. Instead of the traditional desktop being the bottom of it all — the screen that was beneath all of your apps which you would get to if you closed or minimized them — there's now the Start screen, a colorful bunch of tiles. Aside from the stark visual difference, the main difference between the traditional desktop and the Start screen, is that you can't litter it with files. You'll have to either organize your documents or adopt the mobile pattern of not worrying about where files are stored at all.
Apple created iOS without a desktop. The bottom screen here was Springboard, a sort of desktop-in-looks-only, basically an app-launcher with rudimentary folder-support. Born this way, iOS has had pretty much universal appeal among adopters. There was no desktop to get used to, so no lollipop to have taken away. While sharing files between apps on iOS is sort of a pain, it hasn't stopped people from appreciating the otherwise complete lack of file-management. I suppose if you take away the need to manage files, you don't really need a desktop to clutter up. You'd think this was the plan all along. (Italic text means wink wink, nudge nudge, pointing at the nose, and so on.)
For the longest time, Android seems to have tried to do the best of both worlds. The bottom screen of Android is a place to see your wallpaper and apps pinned to your dock. You can also put app shortcuts and even widgets here. Through an extra tap (so not quite the bottom of the hierarchy) you can access all of your installed apps, which unlike iOS have to manually be put on your homescreen if so desired. You can actually pin document shortcuts here as well, though it's a cumbersome process and like with iOS you can't save a file there. Though not elegant, the Android homescreen works reasonably well and certainly appeals to power-users with its many customization options.
Microsoft and Apple both appear to consider the desktop (and file-management as a subset) an interface relic to be phased out. Microsoft tried and mostly failed to do so, while Apple is taking baby-steps with iOS. If recent Android leaks are to be believed, and if I'm right in my interpretation of said leaks, Android is about to take it a step beyond even homescreens/app-launchers.
One such leak suggests Google is about to bridge the gap between native apps and web-apps, in a project dubbed "Hera" (after the mythological goddess of marriage). The mockups posted suggest apps are about to be treated more like cards than ever. Fans of WebOS1 will quickly recognize this concept fondly:
The card metaphor that Android is aggressively pushing is all about units of information, ideally contextual. The metaphor, by virtue of its physical counterpart, suggests it holding a finite amount of information after which you're done with the card and can swipe it away. Like a menu at a restaurant, it stops being relevant the moment you know what to order. Similarly, business cards convey contact information and can then be filed away. Cards as an interface design metaphor is about divining what the user wants to do and grouping the answers together.
We've seen parts of this vision with Android Wear. The watch can't run apps and instead relies on rich, interactive notification cards. Android phones have similar (though less rich) notifications, but are currently designed around traditional desktop patterns. There's a homescreen at the bottom of the hierarchy, then you tap in and out of apps: home button, open Gmail, open email, delete, homescreen.
I think it's safe to assume Google wants you to be able to do the same (and more) on an Android phone as you can on an Android smartwatch, and not have them use two widely different interaction mechanisms. So on the phone side, something has to give. The homescreen/desktop, perchance?
The more recent leak suggests just that. Supposedly Google is working to put "OK Google" everywhere. The little red circle button you can see in the Android Wear videos, when invoked, will scale down the app you're in, show it as a card you can apply voice actions on. Presumably the already expansive list of Google Now commands would also be available; "OK Google, play some music" to start up an instant mix.
The key pattern I take note of here, is the attempt to de-emphasize individual apps and instead focus on app-agnostic actions. Matias Duarte recently suggested that mobile is dead and that we should approach design by thinking about problems to solve on a range of different screen sizes. That notion plays exactly into this. Probably most users approach their phone with particular tasks in mind: send an email, take a photo. Having to tap a home button, then an app drawer, then an app icon in order to do this seems almost antiquated compared to the slick Android Wear approach of no desktop/homescreen, no apps. Supposedly Google may remove the home button, relegating the homescreen to be simply another card in your multi-tasking list. Perhaps the bottom card?
I'll be waiting with bated breath to see how successful Google can be in this endeavour. The homescreen/desktop metaphor represents, to many people, a comforting starting point. A 0,0,0 coordinate in a stressful universe. A place I can pin a photo of my baby girl, so I can at least smile when pulling out the smartphone to confirm that, in fact, nothing happened since last I checked 5 minutes ago.
Matias Duarte, current Android designer, used to work on WebOS ↩
There's a lot to like about the new iOS 7. As a whole, the result looks mostly unique. There's a nice clean aesthetic going with the thin Helvetica, the white UI chrome, the sandblasted layers and the almost complete absence of gaudy textures. It's also colorful. Which is a good thing. Right?
Leading up to this there were jungle-drums touting how flat the new UI was going to look (as though every UI will suddenly be clean and uncluttered if you just run it over with a bulldozer). Fortunately that's not what happened. Don't get me wrong: I do like my UIs to be clean and simple, I just find the term "flat" to be mostly meaningless when applied to design. There are no magic bullets, there's only good design and bad design, and I think Jony Ive gets that. So instead of trumpeting flat, Apple trumpeted true simplicity. Oh, and grid-based icons:
Sure, there's certainly a grid there. I was mostly paying attention to the light-source for those gradients, though: why does Phone looks embossed while Mail looks inset? Also: Game Center? Again?
There will be no tears shed for the linen texture. I will not mourn the loss of green felt. Still, the new iconography alone makes iOS 7 such a departure that there's bound to be some learning curve, which begs the question: why didn't they go further now they were at it?
They had a real opportunity here. Jony could've said to his team:
Team! We've dominated the smartphone market for the last 5 years with a grid of round-rect icons. How do we re-think it from the ground up for the next decade? How do we create something that'll make Samsung scramble to copy us again?
Perhaps they did just that. Conceivably they created giant mood-boards. Maybe they decorated hip little cubicles with smiling model faces and photos of subway signs and collages of differently colored post-it notes. Could be they brain-stormed all the places they see the mobile space go in the next ten years: creepy glasses, holographic watches, voice-controlled smart underwear. No doubt they considered the convergence of the cloud with all these new-fangled features. Perchance they arrived right back at a grid of icons: Eureka! We had it right all along!
I hope that's not the case. I hope they had grander ideas… post-smartphone ideas. I'm hoping they were just so lazer-focused on shipping on time they had to punt their ideas for replacing Springboard. I'm hoping Jony felt the most important thing was to uproot the old linen-clad ways and set out a strong new direction for all future Apple UIs. I want to believe.
I want to believe that maybe one day we'll have smartphones whose strongest visual cues aren't defined by the graphical prowess of 3rd party icon designers. I want to believe that maybe one day we'll look back at websites that use confirm() to alert us of their mobile apps as a dark age. I want to believe that maybe one day it'll be possible to avoid all social interaction in a manner more impressive than tapping in and out of apps. Is that so much to ask?
The once-mythical GooOS has materialized, and it’s carved in Chrome. Google has just announced that they’re entering the operating system arena with their own offering, Google Chrome OS. Here are the facts:
Initially targeted for Netbooks, later also for full size desktops
New windowing system
Focused on getting you on the web quickly
Will run on x86 (Intel) and ARM processors
Will be available this year as a download, OEMs second half 2010
The business model: happier users that spend more time on the internet
Well this is exciting. Translated roughly from pressreleasish, this means that Google is now entering a cold war with Microsoft, Apple, Ubuntu, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and pretty much everyone else who has a stake in the web. The computer. The smartphone. It could work too; imagine it’s a little over a year from now, and your mom wants a new laptop. You surf onto dell.com and when you get to pick between operating systems, you can either pick Windows 7 Starter at an added price (and no ability to change the desktop wallpaper), or you can pick Google Chrome OS at no extra cost. Both run Gmail and Facebook. Which sums up the extent of the chromic bomb Google dropped last night.
For Your Mom
Chrome OS may succeed where many others have failed. It may succeed by simply leveraging the ignorance that’s keeping people on Internet Explorer 6; the very same ignorance that makes your mom think Google is a browser (which I remind you, it wasn’t always). Why should’nt it be? With Android, Google got their fingers dirty with Linux. With Chrome, they surprised many (possibly even themselves) with the ability to bring the minified Google interface to an application, without getting flak from the “pretty is important”-brigade. Opportunity awaits in operating system country, and it’s fueled by I don’t care what my computer runs, as long as it works. It’s a match made in the cloud.
It’ll be interesting to see what the implications are for Ubuntu. Whether there are casualties or opportunities created when a new massive open source project is announced, is a very tricky discussion. One could argue that Firefox is in trouble with the existence of Google Chrome and certainly something similar could be the case for Ubuntu with the emergence of Chrome OS.
Or, it could mean the opposite. The market is a pretty large cake, and even the smallest slice is larger than it seems. So on the flipside, if Google Chrome OS takes off, it’ll mean that high profile apps will suddenly also appear on the Linux platform. Sure, right now Google proclaims HTML5 and CSS to be the new SDK, but so did Apple when the iPhone launched. Given time, I find it likely that “real”, compiled apps, will still be necessary for a number of things. So just possibly, Chrome OS means Ubuntu users will finally get Photoshop on their platform. And perhaps it won’t even be slow.
The System Font
One of the core tenets of Linux has always been free (as a bird). Which means it’s not so compatible with non-free stuff like Helvetica and Flash Player being bundled with the system. So let’s indulge in speculation for a moment: Chrome OS will be Google branded and so when Google opens the source of the OS, it’ll likely result in Chromium OS (as it did for Chrome). Whether this will solve the non-free problem, or upset the gentle Linux eco-system further, remains to be seen.
Timing Is Crucial
According to Robert Scoble, there’s a reason why Google announces Chrome OS this week:
Why did Google announce Chrome OS this week? Well, of course, Microsoft has a big announcement coming on Monday (I’m embargoed). (#)
While I do find it somewhat odd that Chrome OS is being launched without even a single Comicbook to go along, the timing could simply be a matter of coinciding with Windows 7 going gold (which I read somewhere is scheduled for this monday). However, if we are to read any significance in to Scobles comments (which history suggests we shouldn’t), Microsofts upcoming announcement is likely to be somewhat related to Googles Chrome OS announcement. Could it be that Microsoft is finally shedding the DOS baggage and rebooting Windows with a new product, codenamed Windows Begins? With Google Chrome OS just announced, such an announcement would certainly lack the same punch.
Then again, it’s probably just yet another Microsoft attempt to copy Googles success. In fact, it’s probably Google Docs, but from Microsoft: Microsoft LiveBing for Workgroups (you know, because it’s collaborative).
Perhaps, Finally, People Will Stop Using Internet Explorer 6
Search is not Googles core business, Google Adsense is. And so, the more web-apps Google can make and place Google ads in, the better Google is doing. And so it once again boils down to Microsofts gift to the internet, the curse known as Internet Explorer 6, an obsolete browser which which reads web-apps like a conservative christian would read The Origin of Species; try a few pages, then give up and burn the rest. In the fight against Internet Explorer 6, the operating system as chosen by OEMs is the final frontier. So in a way, Internet Explorer 6 probably paved the way for Chrome OS. Thanks?