Before the BUILD conference, the one thing we all knew was that Microsoft needed a multitouch tablet strategy to compete with Google and Apple and in order to maintain the future viability of the Windows operating system. What we were not sure of was how Microsoft would achieve this goal while preserving backwards compatibility for all of our previous Windows applications in the office as well as in the home. The challenge at first blush seemed insurmountable: provide something completely new to the Windows world while preserving everything that went before.
At BUILD, Microsoft revealed that they have actually accomplished this goal by providing what is basically two side-by-side operating systems. They have also signaled that the primary challenge for application creators going forward will not be technical but rather design-focused. Microsoft, which in the past has tended to side-line user experience, now puts design front and center with “Windows 8.”
One of the two Win8 interfaces is a slightly souped up version of Windows 7 that looks familiar and runs just about anything I could think to try installing on it: Zune, Dropbox, iTunes, Kindle for PC, and even the software for the Kinect SDK. “Windows 8” ran each of them without complaint. The desktop shell works best with a mouse and keyboard, though it also supports and has been redesigned to support multitouch also.
The other is a Metro inspired immersive experience that works best using touch. Instead of an explorer based file system with icons, the Metro shell is designed around interactive tiles, familiar from Windows Phone 7, that launch discrete apps. The Metro shell revolves around a new Windows Store (the equivalent of the iPad’s App Store and WP7’s Marketplace) that allows consumers to download games and apps.
Dual Mode with Dock
One could easily think of this as two solutions in one: a consumer platform designed for the tablet and a desktop platform designed for the PC. What is unusual about these side-by-side solutions is that, with the flick of a finger, the tablet user can bring up the desktop UI and the desktop user can bring up the Metro UI. The two operating systems are not something one configures through the control panel the way one might configure a background theme. Instead, both UIs are effectively always alive and always immediately accessible.
Microsoft generously provided each attendee with a new Samsung tablet installed with a pre-Beta build of “Windows 8” and accessorized with a wireless keyboard, a stylus and a dock. The dock is by far the most intriguing – and least discussed – piece of hardware provided as it offers an indication of how Microsoft envisions “Windows 8” being used in the future. A tablet may be inserted into the docking station with a monitor and mouse in an office setting, at which point the desktop UI can be brought up and the user has an experience for the most part indistinguishable from what he is currently used to. The tablet can then be undocked and switched to the Metro style with all the previously running applications still running.
Initially the expectation is that the .NET tools of the past ten years will be used to write business, productivity and data-entry intensive applications while the new tools will be used for games, social apps and everything else one might expect to find on a smartphone or an iPad.
In a mixed-OS experience like the one described above using a dock, a more likely setup would be a full .NET style business app for the desktop with a lighter-weight Metro style version of the same app on the Metro UI. This allows users to quickly switch back and forth between a tablet and a desktop scenario using the same device. The test of this will likely come when Microsoft reveals its plans for Microsoft Office. We would expect Microsoft to provide both a classic and a Metro version of their Office suite. How well they implement this will in turn provide a roadmap for how other vendors will cater to the enterprise in their software solutions. In other words, will “Windows 8” for the enterprise have enterprise applications for the desktop only or for both the desktop and for the Metro UI.
There is a third possibility also. It may be possible to build full enterprise applications targeting Metro only. The WinRT platform combined with Microsoft’s Azure offering supports this.
The challenge in creating sophisticated apps for Metro is not primarily a technical challenge. It is primarily a User Experience challenge. Can we create multitouch enabled data grids? Can we come up with new navigation patterns to replace the standard enterprise application with hundreds of unique windows? Can we find ways to create great experiences that combine both multitouch and keyboard interaction?
While Microsoft has been tagged with a reputation for not understanding UX over the past decade, this has seemed to change. At BUILD, the speakers were all aware of the importance of UX while speakers like Jensen Harris demonstrated that Microsoft not only knew that UX problems were important but that they also had the chops to solve them. In this context, BUILD has been a watershed event. If Microsoft has tended to admire and promote smart programming in the past, after BUILD it will become more important to be savvy about design. The days when design could be dismissed as merely prettying up an application are over. After this week, design on Windows is front and center. This is good news for agencies like Razorfish which are strong in both design and technology. It will be a challenge for software consultancies that have only been paying lip service to UX until now as they attempt to establish themselves as Metro experts.
On the technology front, as mentioned above, Microsoft is supporting three platforms: one targeted at C++ developers, one at XAML developers (Silverlight and WPF), and one targeted at web developers. The tack of using web technologies for building native Metro apps for the “Windows 8” tablet currently makes the most sense. A common path for developing apps for multiple platforms like the iPad and iPhone, Android and Windows is to first create a web application that can run on all these platforms, then after looking at web analytics data and determining which platforms use the web app most, building native apps for each of the top platforms. In the case of the Metro UI, it will be easiest to port code from web apps to the native web development tools on Windows 8 rather than attempt to build a brand new project in either C++ or XAML. Again, this type of development is already familiar to digital agencies but likely to be a challenge for other organizations.
BUILD also quietly announced improvements and fixes to WPF in the new .NET 4.5 framework being released with “Windows 8.” This is exciting for the Razorfish Emerging Experiences group as WPF is our main development platform for Surface applications and multitouch experiences.
Search Results for Silverlight at BUILD
The story for Silverlight is a bit more ambiguous. Currently “Windows 8” offers two different versions of IE 10 – one for the desktop UI and one for the Metro UI. The Metro UI version does not support plugins. Consequently neither Flash nor Silverlight applications will run in Metro IE. This is a difficult position since it entails Silverlight does not work as a multi-platform solution even on “Windows 8,” i.e. it supports only one of the two Win8 platforms. Silverlight-out-of browser is still viable on the desktop UI. It must compete, however, with both WPF – which is more feature rich – and WinForms – which has a significantly larger developer base. It has been suggested that the main benefit of Silverlight as a desktop technology solution will be that, since it, like XAML for WinRT, is only a subset of WPF, this will make things easier when it comes time to port an application over to the Metro UI. In porting from either Silverlight or WPF, however, some rewriting will have to occur as XAML for WinRT actually introduces interesting new XAML features – such as markup for localization – currently missing from both Silverlight and WPF.
There are still several open questions remaining with regard to Windows 8. Two have already been mentioned:
1. Is the Metro UI for the enterprise or for consumers only?
2. What are Microsoft’s plans for Microsoft Office?
Waiting in line for Win8 Tablets
A third open question is What are Microsoft’s plans for Windows Phone? While the Samsung tablets given to attendees at BUILD are Intel-based, Microsoft’s ultimate goal is to provide an ARM-based version of “Windows 8.” The great advantage of an ARM architecture is that it allows “Windows 8” to be placed on a variety of hardware platforms including smart phones. Currently, however, Microsoft has dropped no hint that it plans to release “Windows 8” phones, however, and the concern would be that such an announcement would damage sales of Windows Phone 7.5, which will be released sometime in 2011. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to make sense to have completely different operating systems for the Microsoft tablet and Microsoft’s phone. Apple has benefited greatly by having one OS for both form factors and Microsoft strategists, no doubt, are well aware of this.