Microsoft: Think Square

Published on Author Eli Fennell

I’ve argued that one of the reasons why Microsoft is failing in mobile is because of the new Metro User Interface for Windows Phone and the upcoming Windows 8.  Rather than bringing any awesome new software and hardware features to market, Microsoft has been reduced, in the mobile space, to trying to push a radically different design than the interface for the iPhone or iPad.

Maybe they were trying to think different as Apple once encouraged people to do, before they became a heart of censorship among other things.  If so, it worked, Windows Phone is, as promised, hardly a thing at all like the iPhone.  It’s too bad for Microsoft that people don’t hate Apple’s designs as much they want them to, and that being totally different from Apple isn’t the selling point they hoped it would be.

When people want Prada, they buy Prada, and when they want to buy something that isn’t quite Prada but close enough and maybe even better in some ways, they buy a knock-off brand.  As I’ve suggested, Apple is basically a designer brand.

Windows was always a Macintosh knock-off, borrowing elements of design, but setting itself apart through variety, price, and even value adding unique features.  No one thinks Windows is Macintosh, but if Windows had been completely different from Macintosh, it might never have caught on.

Forget this for a moment and look at what the Metro UI says about how the folks in Redmond are approaching the market.  While Apple has been extolling the virtue of thinking different, Windows has been thinking square.  They’ve been pushing something similar to the design of Windows Phone and Windows 8 for a while, at least as far back as Windows XP Media Center edition and the Zune.

Media Center has made my life easier in a lot of ways, but in retrospect they’re all things Microsoft should have thought about a long time ago.  The file system has been broken since the early days of personal computing.  In the early days we dealt with character limits, which hampered our ability to name the folders distinctively.

Eventually the major platforms tackled this issue, but there were other issues they didn’t tackle, like the endless accumulation of folders with redundant content.  Naming folders with names like Documents, Downloads, Videos, etc… helped, but didn’t cute, and has never cured, the problem.

It’s likely that nearly everyone has, sooner or later, experienced the problem of not knowing which folder to go to for a file.  Thank the sweet gods of computing sanity for inventing the cloud and making the organization of files far easier, but why did we end up having to put our files on remote servers to finally begin to solve this problem?

Media Center started, but didn’t go far enough, in remedying this problem.  Microsoft clearly envisioned Media Center as the start of a new design aesthetic for Windows, meant to streamline and organize a lot of the chaos which, frankly, they created over the years.  It helped users to organize videos, pictures, and music in one single place, selecting which folders to synchronize across the device.

Media Center also added extra media features like Internet TV, a hub for streaming online television shows from websites like Fox and CBS, which in my experience is more efficient than the websites themselves.  In addition it supported new media capabilities like TV & Radio Tuner cards, remote controls, and more.  It is great for what it is: a place to organize and control all of your media on Windows.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go far enough, and Microsoft misunderstood the success of Media Center as a design success rather than a convenience success.  If Microsoft had wanted Media Center to become what they envisioned, the new design for an interface for Windows, as they clearly imagined it would be, they should have done a number of small things to push it forward.

They were already naming folders to help organize content, so why didn’t they take it to the next step and make those folders mandatory?  In other words, any documents go in the Documents folder, or subfolders of that folder, any pictures in Pictures, etc…  Then, instead of having to set up Media Center for different folders, the work would already have been done!

Of course, this might have offended some users as first but, if done well, it would eventually have caught on.  Windows had enough power to set the new design standard for user interfaces, and unfortunately, they didn’t take advantage of it.  They were entrenched enough to do it.

Don’t tell me it couldn’t be done, either, because there were various third-party solutions going way back.  And instead of just making it a media center, they could have pushed it as an organization hub, a place where you give your files and folders a bit more life, and extend the functionality of Windows to new domains like the television market.  Microsoft could have finally fixed the broken file system!

The reason Media Center is great isn’t design… the design is really quite bland and, while elegant, is soulless.  Media Center is where Microsoft Windows started to change from a place with homescreens full of wallpapers and icons to ribbons of squares and subdued color schemes.  As a Media Center it’s elegant, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck with it to do everything, even with a Media Center remote control.

The Windows interface is dynamic, inviting the user to click anywhere and everywhere all over the screen, but the Media Center is more like flipping through a channel guide, rather tedious and arduous, and it stops far short of offering a wide variety of organizational options the way it would need to in order to make life incredibly easier for the user.  It is, as it stands, a rather minor convenience for media organization, although it is a great feature for media enhancements like TV Tuner cards.

With the Zune, Microsoft extended this square thinking idea to the entire interface, thinking its difference and the Microsoft brand would set it apart from the iPod.  It did.  It set it apart so much the entire product line has achieved its greatest fame as a running gag on the new season of Two and a Half men.  They failed to establish the Media Center interface as a new standard and this made it much harder to sell the Zune, although that was hardly its only problem.

Windows Phone took the idea of squares, ribbons, and subdued background colors instead of traditional wallpapers to a new extreme and, in fact, they made this its primary selling point.  They tried to extend the concept of higher organization by focusing on tasks rather than apps, grouping and streamlining the process of things like viewing all your messages from different services like texts, instant messages, and social networks into a central hub.  The Metro UI increasingly streamlines the organization of files and processes.  I given them credit for that much: they tried to fix the problems they made for the user over the years.

Unfortunately no one wanted it, any of it, because it ironically went too far: in the attempt to fix the broken system for both files and processes, it sucked all the life out of the operating system, especially for developers.  Apps can be advertised separately; a feature hub can’t.

It turned it into something so new and so different from anything Apple made that users were confronted with a choice between two design aesthetics.  Android won, in part, by being a quality knock-off like Windows: it reproduces key elements of the Apple design, many of which already existed in Windows ironically, while being different enough and available enough to win the market.

The tiles and ribbon design is somewhat elegant, for some purposes, but as a general interface, it’s lifeless, and too radically different from what users are accustomed to.  An iPhone, Android, or even Blackberry is less of a leap for users because it feels familiar, in part because of the familiar standards established by Apple and Microsoft, which includes icons, homescreens, and wallpapers.

The folks in Redmond are doing their best to carve out a niche for themselves that distinguishes them from the competition, hoping to move the Windows division from being an Apple follower to a market leader.  They’ve succeeded brilliantly.  Windows is now known far and wide as the software for people who think square.  Congratulations, Steve Ballmer, you’ve proven that no one is better than Microsoft at thinking inside the box.