Microsoft Metro, Watching Elephants Learn To Dance…

Microsoft has over decades built a reputation as the most famous corporate Dinosaurs. With legendary stories of inflexibility and decision by technical committee, it was a well-deserved reputation. Five years ago behind closed doors a single decision was made that would rock their world, like an evolution altering asteroid. A decision that somehow slipped under the media’s radar. A decision that has been slowly changing Microsoft from the inside.

Fast forward to today and the time has come to pay the reaper. Microsoft has a new design team and philosophy, their mobile phone operating system is winning design awards and with its brand new partner Nokia they need 2012 to be the year that the changes take hold.

The background for this particular tale begins way back in 2007 with the release of the iPhone. Apple single-handedly changed the landscape and the rules, all in one foul sweep. The Apple way quickly came to dominate the small touch screen world. Steve Jobs knew that people needed to be able to work naturally with their devices, his premise being that the machines should work with us, we shouldn’t’ have to change the way we work just to use a phone and he was right and even Microsoft realized it.

In 2008 Microsoft took this bold decision, facing enormous pressure from the then hot new Apple iPhone – and later Google’s Android – they chose to have a fire sale, restarting smart phone software and interface development from scratch and altering forever how they created software. Amongst many baby and bathwater throwing accusations Microsoft showed some enormous kahuna’s and made the decision that in years to come may be seen as pivotal to their survival. Not only did they assemble a new team but they put Graphics Designers in charge, until that point Microsoft had internally been dominated by programmers and techies. This was an enormous change for this corporate leviathan.

Metro, a new look for MS.

Until 2008 Microsoft’s version of the smartphone had grown out of two decades of PDA and Windows Tablet OS ‘development, Windows CE originally, which in its simplest form was just a shrunken Windows desktop. Microsoft had become a one trick pony with its desktop analogy being applied to each and every platform. The desktop analogue had been pure genius when Xerox developed it in the 60’s but 40 years later it wasn’t adapting well to the new world of smart phones and touch screen devices.

So in 2008 after locking the entire management team in a room for 8 hours with nothing but pizza, coffee and the determination to fix a seriously broken philosophy the decision was made to re-start the entire mobile operating system and interface development, it all had to go. This was more than just a technology change though; even the internal workings of the company would be changed. A brave new world for Microsoft, innovative even. The fire-sale was so total that even the development teams were turned over; from top to bottom all would be washed away and rebuilt.

This 2008 meeting was the moment of conception for the Metro UI, the most radical interface the world has seen in 20 years. Who knows if this would have happened with Bill Gates in charge? Even though Gates retired from his position as CEO in 2000 many years earlier, his last full-time day wasn’t until June 27, 2008, around the same time of the sea change decision.

The Present, Microsoft’s New Design Philosophy
Now 3 years later, the fruits of their labor are starting to take shape. Windows Phone 8 and its Metro UI represent far more than just a change in interface design for Microsoft. Internally the paradigm shift sees move away from concentrating on the technology behind the scenes to concentrating on the design in front of the user. This can be seen in the change of the mobile team when this revolution began. Originally the mobile team consisted of programmers and techies overseeing graphic designers, the team is now lead by a graphic designer Steve Kaneko and it is much leaner. Many Apple fans would claim this is what Apple has always done, and they may well be right about that.

The Future
When first released in 2010 the WP7 phones were a little rough around the edges and lacked a number of basic functions like cut and paste, possibly due to the extremely short development time. The full rebuild took a little over 18 months. The start of 2011 saw the release of WP7.5 , code name Mango, which brought many of the missing functions along with bug fixes.

Has Microsoft gone fruity?

The current version WP7.5 has smoothed out the rough start and now has a number of highlights that set it apart. The camera app can be quickly launched with the press of a single button without unlocking the phone. X-Box integration is excellent using a single X-Box live account on both machines, synchronizing X-Box Live stats, avatars and X-Box Live achievements making the hunt for achievements even more addictive, be warned. Microsoft OneNote with skydive – cloud – support allows your notes to be available to you on every one of you devices or computers automatically. The onscreen keyboard is well spaced, comfortable and quick to use, with people reaching 78 wpm – words per minute -.

The integration of social media sites and contacts has been present since the early versions. All e-mails, Facebook and twitter feeds are integrated into a single stream by the operating system, accessible by a single press of a button from the main screen. Contacts from various sources are synchronized so that for each contact their personal details are collected from many sources. A Google contact with an email, phone and address will be merged with the data of the same friend on Facebook, adding his birthday, partner and Facebook updates to your WP7 contacts database.

Media has missed the point.
While the Technorati who have reviewed the phone have been mostly positive about the phones there is a common theme to the complaints, the App’s store. This is possibly the one area you can guarantee Microsoft will catch up to Android in no time. In fact most Technorati overlook the fact that Microsoft’s empire was built on – both literally and figuratively – their easy to use development software. That’s how they won the battle originally, the best development tools on the market given to anyone who wanted them. It’s also the reason the X-Box is now kicking the PlayStations proverbial butt. If there is one complaint that seems valid it’s that the built in browser, Internet Explorer is much slower than the iPhones browser – Safari -. The browser is fully loaded though, with full support for HTML5, hardware-accelerated graphics rendering and enhanced JavaScript and AJAX. Still if internet browser speed is your number one priority WP8 might be worth the wait.

What is Metro??
The Metro User Interface – UI – is a radical departure from all interfaces that came before it. The design of the interface takes much of its inspiration from the International Typographic Style, also known as the Swiss Style of design and layout. Internally Microsoft considers Metro to be more than a style, they call it the Metro Design Language, and the rest of us might call it a style. Hallmarks of the style are asymmetric layouts, the use of grid layouts, sans-serif typefaces like Akzidenz Grotesk, and flush left, ragged right text. These are the same principles applied to the design of street signs, highway information and the Metro transport of Seattle. Many people have said Microsoft has drawn it’s inspiration from these street and transport signs but in reality both Metro UI and information signage’s are based on the same Swiss Style design principles. A set of principles that Microsoft has taken to heart. Microsoft’s use of the term Metro Design Language is their corporate way of trying to make this as much a cultural change internally as it is a visual change to the interface.

Nokia learns the Metro language.

Chrome is the term given by Microsoft to superfluous information and graphics, if it’s not essential its gone, a major part of the Metro Design Language principles. The idea is to identify and remove these Chrome elements of an interface, making it much cleaner and faster to use. Chrome is the enemy when trying to design a clean and fast interface. Metro also emphasises the use of photos or live view feeds of an application instead of icon based graphics, along with the use of clean sans-sheriff fonts. All of this points to the fact that Microsoft is attempting to change the way it approaches software design, no longer is interface and after thought but it is now the driver.

One of the interesting aspects of the Metro UI is the change in how information is being prioritized on the display. Using various properties such as font size, contrast and colour Microsoft is trying to change how information is delivered to the user, allowing the users eye to be drawn to the most important information without having to search through a sea of graphics and similar looking text.

Innovation Nation – Metro UI – The new Interface
An interesting thing happened on the way to this brave new world, a world with an aging population. The Metro UI it turns out is very compatible with the non-technical older population as well as the younger hipper techno embracing generation. The older segment of the population is actually the fastest growing internet and smartphone market and they hate Android, some can cope with the iPhone but many still find it unusable.

The problem? Our human frailties! As our eyes progressively deteriorate with age small complex screens with tiny text become hard to read, irritating. My mother is the perfect example, she wears glasses and she has for a long time. On her WP7 phone she can do all of the basics without even putting on her specs. She doesn’t understand what the letters SMS mean but she knows that tapping the red square lets here type a message to her friends, she doesn’t want to know the difference between 2G or 3G phone’s but she knows that tapping the green square will let her make a call. This is a revelation for her, as well as a revolution in Microsoft’s new philosophy.

Steve Kaneko Microsoft’s design lead for Metro and head of the mobile team has noted that Microsoft is becoming a more design-oriented company. “We are reducing the noise,” Kaneko said. “Content and information is getting denser and denser and the only way to prepare ourselves for the future is to strip ourselves out of the equation, so that what you are seeing is all about you and not about us.”

Fighting Back From Number 3
Apple and Google are number one and two in the Smartphone market at the moment, probably by quite a long way too – 50% Android, 15% for Apple and Windows Phone 1.5%, 3rd quarter 2011, Gartner Research -. Don’t count out the Microsoft though, they do underdog very well. It has been a while since Microsoft was played the underdog role – IE versus Netscape – but they do it very well, they are willing to do whatever it takes.

Metro’s Ongoing Impact – End to End Consistency.

The new start screen.

Microsoft’s has one major advantage over Android which when combined with Metro may allow them to overtake Android. Metro UI is as we speak is being spread across all of Microsoft’s consumer products. If you want to be able to use a single consistent interface over all of your devices from Phone to PC Microsoft offers the only real alternative to Apples complete integration of devices. While Google has won a lot of fans with Android it is a stand-alone device in a world dying for integration. Apple offers a similar user experience across the board from iTV to Macs and phones. Androids don’t even have a consistent interface across manufacturers and this market fracturing will always come back to haunt them. Add to that the complete lack of PC platform and the cracks start to appear.

The X-Box 360 has already received the Metro treatment, with a new version of the dashboard released in November bringing the Metro style and integration between the latest Windows Phones and the 360. Windows Phones can now act as the remote control for the 360, with the next release of the Windows Phone – WP8 – allowing direct data exchanges of music and other data over a wireless connection. The changes aren’t just being limited to software either, December saw Don Coyner the General Manager of entertainment design at Microsoft and part of the original X-Box design team has been replaced by Emma Williams who was recently in charge of the Metro redesign of X-Box Dashboard.

Start screen part 2.

Windows 8 for the desktop will also receive the Metro treatment this year. While this won’t be a complete re-write of the operating system as it was with Windows Phone. Initially only Windows 8’s login window and starting screens will be pure Metro. Windows Media Centre may not be completed in time for the initial release of Windows 8 but it is a prime candidate for the upgrade, with the Metro interface being perfect for the 10 foot interface of TV’s and media centres as the X-Box upgrade has demonstrated. Windows 8 will still be fully compatible with all current desktop apps that run in Windows 7, it will even still include the standard desktop.

Steve Ballmer has as usual caused a stir amongst the Technorati and sent the rumour mill spinning. His recent announcement that Windows and Windows Phone will use the same code base had the poor simple Technorati assuming that meant they would be the same operating systems. Not true. All of Microsoft’s software already comes from the same code base. Windows CE, the original Windows Phone software – and still the basis of the WP7.5 – was created from a variation of Windows NT, recompiled and then it’s development continued separately. Re-using code or using the same code base is a very different thing than the operating systems being the same. It is a time saving strategy for companies that do a lot of program coding, re-use, re-use and re-use.

Microsoft Office is already said to be getting the Metro UI treatment. Microsoft has discussed a release some time in the second half of the year but that may be a little optimistic. Office is the first major application that the Metro team have attempted to upgrade and making Metro fit this environment will be tricky. Some parts may work really well, like the ability to prioritize information, some not so well.

Microsoft’s Intranet portal for its employee’s worldwide has even been given the Metro treatment. After 19 months of work the web development company ‘If/Then’ completed the new site. With over 5 million page views a month the site is busy, by all reports Microsoft’s employees are very happy with the new clean design.

Microsoft has an ambitious year planned for 2012. The plan includes releasing Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Internet Explorer 10, the next X-Box 720 – code name Loop – with integrated and updated Kinect, Office Metro and a new crop of Windows Phone hardware. That’s just the cool consumer oriented stuff.

The X-Box 720 will be on display to a select few at CES this week with a possible release date mid-year. Along with the new Metro UI rumours suggest DVR functions are being integrated, but the smart money is on Microsoft adding the functionality using a plug in device. There will be a version that has the an upgraded Kinect integrated as well.

Apollo Features

Nokia Lumia 800

Windows Phone 8 – WP8, code name Apollo – is due out in the June 2012, half way through a very busy year. The Apollo update will bring the Windows Phone up to version 8, bringing it on par with the iPhone and Android feature list. Internet Explorer for Windows 8 Phones will support 6 tabs that can be loaded in parallel along with support for smooth zoom and more multi touch gestures. Behind the scenes WP8 will include LTE – 4G – support, multiple screen sizes, Near Field Communication for micro payments – NFC – and support for multi core processors and various GPU’s.

Over the air OS updates will allow updating the operating system – OS – without connecting to your PC or Mac. Data sharing has improved using direct wireless transfers between WP8, X-Box and PC’s. Similar to the Zune’s Squirt technology that allowed users to share a track or data stored on one device to any compatible device within range. As well as Bing Audio Search, Bing Vision to read barcodes, for example, or search Bing via taking a picture with the phone’s camera, turn-by-turn navigation and SMS dictation.

WP8 will bring standardized backup and restore functions for data and applications along with the ability to backup directly to the cloud if that’s your thing. Apollo will be the first major upgrade to Metro since the release of WP7.5 – Mango -. There is also an intermediate update to WP due early 2012 – code name Tango -, not a large enough update to earn its own version number. In all likelihood the Tango update will loosen some of the strict hardware requirements – no more mandatory camera or compass – as well as adding some functions requested by Nokia, mostly revolving around smaller screen sizes, different button layouts and compatibility with Nokia’s lower end chipsets.

Nokia Lumia 710

Expect Nokia’s full range of smart phones to appear at the same time along with the first generation of WP8 Tablets. The Metro UI should adapt extremely well to the tablet format. Nokia’s WP8 Smart phones are shaping up to be very impressive beasts indeed. The Lumia 800 is already catching many peoples eye – the demonstrations so far have only included WP7.5 -, with its fast and slick interface, amazing camera and Nokia’s brand this is a phone going places. The Lumia 710 is scheduled to go on sale in the United States at the beginning of January, at $49. It will compete against the hordes of low end Android devices offered by the carriers, and by all accounts it has a real chance to clean up that market. Anyone who has used a cheap Android knows that they can be an exercise in frustration.

Also new is Ask Ziggy, Microsoft’s answer to Siri, working in much the same way it takes voice commands in the form of natural sentences and provides answers using Wolfram Alpha search engine. Released to the Windows Marketplace in December Ziggy is said to be Siri’s equal. Who will be the first to directly link the two and have a voice command face down? TellMe is a simple voice activation application already built into WP7.5 but Ziggy takes voice commands to the next level with a much higher level of understanding and conversation. Ziggy’s creator Shai Leib is working on increasing Ziggy’s phrase database allowing for conversations. Ziggy is by the way the name of the holographic computer assistant in the TV series Quantum Leap.

Everything Else
At the moment Metro UI is only touching on consumer products. While the interface technology will eventually find its way into every product Microsoft’s back end technology such as SQL Server, Active Directory go through much slower upgrade cycles. Although Metro UI technology could make these seriously complex software packages much easier to use these technologies will most like be the last to receive the Metro treatment.

Sales are still tiny compared to Apple and Google. With Windows Phone only holding 1.5% of the market – still millions of units mind you – Microsoft has a lot of work to do to start to challenge the dominant players Apple and Google. If Google and its Android have shown us anything it’s that the world wants a viable alternative to iPhone. Microsoft’s final keynote speech at CES should reinforce the integration of Metro into Microsoft’s consumer products.

Microsoft were indeed the world’s per-eminent behemoth,this elephant however may have finally learned to dance, becoming nimble on its feet as a matter of survival.

Metro is much more than a new snazzy interface; it is a sign of change. Microsoft has created the first new interface that doesn’t rely on the old desktop and icon analogy. This is something very different, innovation even. Many of Microsoft’s consumer product releases during 2012 will revolve around rolling out Metro across the board to new and updated products including Windows 8 and Office.

Nokia and Microsoft are about to have their Kodak moment; adapt or fade away. At least in this case they are giving it damn good shot and not just burying their heads in the sand while screaming Kodachrome, Kodachrome Kodachrome. Have the artists taken control at Microsoft? Can Microsoft fight its way back? Will Android shoot itself in the foot one more time and can anyone scale the ivory tower that is the iPhone? Here at Highpants all we know for sure is that 2012 is the year to make magic happen. It’s going to be one hell of an interesting year in so many ways.