While Intel's IDF San Francisco conference was mildly interesting, the real energy behind the next mobile revolution surprisingly came from Microsoft. The energy that they generated at their developer conference dwarfed Intel's IDF. Unlike the noise that came with the introduction of Vista and/or Windows 7, Windows 8 came in like lightning as they presented their next generational Metro interface. We'll definitely look back in a few years and realize that this was Microsoft's "Think Different Moment." In part two of our report, we take a look at some of the highlights from one of Microsoft's developer conference segments titled the "8 traits of great Metro Style apps," while taking a peek at some of the features behind one of Samsung's 2012 tablets. Updated Oct 5, 2011.
Windows 8: Microsoft's Think Different Moment
As humorous as Windows is at times, Microsoft stated that Windows 7 just crossed the 450 million mark in early September and that's a serious number. This could easily be the number of Windows 8 users by 2015 and considering that Windows 8 will be on tablets and a host of new to market digital devices, the billion-mark is likely to be reached faster than anyone could imagine.
And that's just scratching the surface. So make no mistake about it, Wintel is about to return to the market with a force the likes we haven't seen in over a decade. And that doesn't even touch Windows 8 on ARM. Though technically, only Windows Metro will make it to ARM. And for some, they'd prefer it that way anyways over mixing it with the productivity side of Windows 8 which will be a slightly updated version of the Windows 7 interface.
The energy out of Microsoft's Build conference was very, very high. I haven't seen this much enthusiasm for anything Windows since Windows '95 was released. Thankfully Steve Balmer stayed out of the conference's first keynote so as to allow their energetic team lay out the message for Windows 8.
At this stage of the game, it's little difficult to make any serious bets on Windows 8 and how it will impact Apple. There are well over a thousand articles on Windows 8 thus far and everyone under the sun has a perspective drawn from their own experiences. For instance, Mashable see's Windows 8 as the Sybil of OS's and fears that it will shock most Windows users; Computerworld foresees censorship at the windows store like Apple's App Store and fighting Adobe's Flash; The Seattle Times' take on Windows 8 is that users better be careful if they're in any way anti-social or want privacy like they now get on a PC, because it all changes with Windows 8; and MSNBC focused on the clash of two user interfaces in Windows 8 – as so many other articles have.
In this segment of our report we focus on a few of the key traits of the Metro interface as was presented by Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management Windows User Experience. Some of the direction that the Metro interface will be taking actually brings some fresh ideas to the tablet market in stark contrast to Android's pure copycat play. And along with fresh thinking comes some serious attitude which you'll read about in this report.
One classic quote from Jensen Harris was that "every PC screen in the world is going to have touch in a few years. A screen without touch is a broken screen. It's going to seem laughable in a few years when thinking of displays that don't have touch. It's an antiquated concept." Now let's take a closer look at a few of Metro's key traits starting with Tiles.
Microsoft Emphasized: Invest in a Great Tile
"Let's talk about tiles" stated Harris. "Here's a tile … (called Air Craft) … and that's fine – and when you think about a tile at its very basics I guess it's a program launcher. That's interesting" stated in the most boring of tones imaginable, "but in reality, if you think about it, it's not that much different than an icon. This is notepad sitting in Windows 7's Explorer. This is not actually interesting. Icons are yesterday's way of representing apps. They're antiquated they're not alive, they're not interesting, they're not helpful, they're just a picture and a line of text. And they were fine in the early GUI era, but in today's world they're antiquated."
"And so when you think about tiles," stated Harris, "don't think about them as just being a simple little program launcher. They're actually different things to different apps to different people; they're the front door to your app. They're connected. The best tiles are alive with activity and they draw you in and they're constantly summoning people back to your app because there's something interesting happening or they're making it so that you don't have to go into your app at all. The most useful apps like the weather app, I don't need to go in there most of the time, because it has my next three days right there on my start screen."
Sometimes they're an extension of the app. Sometimes it communicates, like the music app, which tells you the last song you had on pause in a quick glance (see bottom left tile).
Harris stated that "Tiles are not just an icon like an awesomely rendered picture of a book with a line of text under it," obviously kicking Apple's iBooks icon. Tiles, according to Harris, give you the ability to communicate with the user at an emotional level, "and it's something you can't just do with an icon." There will be 16 templates available for their developers to work with in creating live tiles.
Metro's Snap Trait
Windows 8 Metro will offer another new feature called Snap. It'll provide a usable, compelling snap view of an app while preserving context between views. It's definitely a feature with a lot of appeal if it works as advertised. In some ways, it's a feature that I wish that the iPad could work into their UI. But knowing Steve Jobs, he won't want anything to do with a Microsoft idea – which in this case is too bad because it's a simple play on multitasking when you're simply trying to keep track of another app at your fingertips, like email or your schedule and so forth.
Jensen Harris stated that "We know that people could do two things at once. One of the first things we realized when we started thinking about immersive apps, was that in reality people's brains are wired today to do two things at once. You could keep up with a feed that you're watching while browsing the web. You have a video on in the background while you're doing mail or doing some coding. It's a very common thing and we wanted to support that from the beginning." Below are a few Snap example slides for stock quotes, a social app and the combination of them to help you understand the look of the Snap trait on a tablet. It's definitely one of their better ideas.
Harris also talked about Groups vs. Folders. Folders "make you tuck things away where you can't see them which means that you don't feel the aliveness from them" as you will with simple groups. To some extent Groups has some appeal because of how you could have them easily viewable on your screen instead of buried in a folder on a tablet or desktop. But that won't work as well on a smartphone screen. Apple's folders will still work best. Microsoft's slides shown below illustrate the use of the Groups trait with "Friends" and "Info" sites which make their point. This trait is a toss. Although I like Apple's folders implementation, in some instances I think that Metro's grouping trait has more appeal.
Another definitive trait of Metro's is how information could be shared. You could copy a few lines of text from an article or book that you're reading, for instance, then swipe the right side of the tablet that'll display a short menu consisting of what they call "Charms" and hit the one called "Share" (see the Charm Bar in our opening graphic).
The thing is that once you choose your sharing-app (mail, social etc), the text that you originally copied is already sitting in the message box of that sharing app ready to be sent. It's "lighting-quick" and it's going to be a hit feature for those who like to grab snippets from an article for latter review or use in s blog as a quote, for instance. This was a simple yet original idea as you never have to leave the article that you're on when using your share charm. It's going to be a very convenient trait in Metro.
Additionally, the charm bar also carries a "Search" charm which works the same way that sharing did. It's easy to search for anything that you highlight on a page and the list of search options you have is very extensive. If you search for "Hawaii" for instance, you'll first get Bing but you could also, with one click, switch to a site that has music from Hawaii or another site like Flickr for photos of Hawaii and/or a cookbook search site for recipes from Hawaii – all within the page that you're on. It's simple, but convenient – if it works as shown that is. Time will tell.
Keeping Windows 8 Touch Language Simple
Microsoft took a slight jab at Apple's ever growing list of touch types and said that they would try to limit the their language to the those noted in their slide below.
Samsung's Developer Tablet for Windows 8
It was announced during the conference that Microsoft would be providing all attending developers with a new Samsung Developer Tablet-PC running on an Intel i5 processor. The other specifications are noted below in three slides. In one slide we clearly see that the Samsung tablet is including NFC, something that Apple has been working on for some time now. Hopefully this will roll out in 2012 on iPad 3.
It should be noted that the cozy Microsoft-Samsung relationship just got a lot cozier last Thursday with Samsung signing a deal with Microsoft over patents and developing a new smartphone amongst other devices.
Displays will also be wildly advancing over the next two years to include Ultra HD with 250DPI, as confirmed by Microsoft's slide shown below. VR-ZoNE's IDF coverage puts it another way: "Not only can the MFX engine display up to 4096 x 4096 pixels on a single monitor, but it can also handle video processing for 4K QuadHD video as well." Update Oct. 5, 2011: An updated report from VR-ZoNE now states that 2560x1400 'retina' displays are expected on Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks in 2012.
And while I applaud innovative thinking no matter where it comes from, you have to put it into perspective. Even though Microsoft introduced Tablet PCs first, it failed miserably because it lacked any vision whatsoever. It was Steve Jobs' vision that made the iPad iconic in a very short time. So let's be clear here: Microsoft has had the benefits of sitting back and taking their sweet time analyzing the iPad to death before coming up with Metro. So in a way, I think of it as Copycat Thinking ++.
At the End of the Day
When you think back in time, Apple's turn around began very slowly with their "Think Different" ad campaign followed by their early 2001 Digital Hub vision keynote at Macworld. Apple then introduced their first iPod that same year and in 2007 the iPhone started a completely new round of innovation.
While it may be early for some to predict Windows 8's success with its new Metro UI, I'm just going to step out on a limb here and say that I think it's going to be one of Microsoft's most successful Operating Systems to date over time. The Metro UI has a lot of fresh ideas behind it and is equaled by the energy of both their engineering teams and developers.
This is Microsoft we're talking about here, so they're bound to stumble many times before getting this right and those resistant to change will howl loudly as they always do. There are some that are still howling about OS X Lion. So change gets under people's skin, even mine (ha!).
Yet with that said, I still think that it's the first thing that I've seen out Redmond in some time now that demonstrates some decent original thinking. In fact, I view this as Microsoft's Think Different moment in time. And the combination of devices powered by Intel's Haswell with Windows 8 on it is going to revive the PC sector once again.
In context with the Intel backed Ultrabook category, the two differing user interfaces will have their proper place. For work there'll be the traditional Windows user interface used with a real notebook keyboard and when you want to just kick back to read, play a game or doodle with a smart pen, you'll be able to convert the Ultrabook into a tablet and run the Metro UI. In that context they're not clashing interfaces in the least. And, considering that Intel stated that 66% of the market is now ruled by notebooks, Microsoft is actually focusing on the right UI combination to meet the needs of the majority that will be using Windows 8 in the future. That will also be the majority of the market.
While I'm definitely a huge fan of Apple's, I also live in a two platform world and household. I think that the tech industry challenging Apple fairly will only push Apple to even higher ground. Everyone benefits from a market that is alive and well on multiple fronts and brimming with excitement from multiple leaders. That's just good for consumers, the economy and even the stock market.
At the end of the day – we are definitely on the cusp of a new explosion of innovation brought on by leaders like Apple, Intel, Microsoft and Google while other likely leaders begin to emerge in the coming years. That means that Apple's free reign as industry leader is definitely going to be openly challenged and eventually translate to them losing their crown in the coming years. Not that that's bad, but it's definitely going to be different.
In the shorter term, Apple will be introducing the iPhone 5 this coming Tuesday and Wintel and others will just have to take another TKO this coming Christmas season. Apple will rule this holiday season once again and perhaps it'll motivate the little elves in Redmond to make sure that they deliver their shiny new toys for next Christmas. I mean, Apple needs a real competitor to knock out of the ring, right? Let's be honest here, Apple has been shadow boxing for far too long – Ha!