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Windows 8: The Boldest, Biggest Redesign In Microsoft’s...

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2012-09-15 18:28:12

Good Design Is Good Business

This fall, a billion PC users will wake up to a new desktop--Windows 8. Could it signal a design revolution at Microsoft?


A pair of leggy, lipsticked models stop short outside a casting call at Milk Studios, a cavernous space in Hollywood known for art shows and photo shoots. They edge forward in 4-inch heels, intrigued by the sidewalk scene: a snaking line of balding reporters and backpacked bloggers sweating in the June afternoon heat. Not exactly the red carpet at Fashion Week. "It’s for Microsoft," an attendee mumbles when asked about the commotion. Thick-framed Ray-Bans do nothing to hide the models’ puzzled looks.

A good 40 minutes after the crowd began to form, the doors open and more than a hundred reporters shuffle into the space and take their seats. The room darkens, the caffeinated stares of live-bloggers lit only by the glow of MacBook Airs. (Not for crew members, who joke that their instructions are "No fruit allowed"; Microsoft higher-ups had forbidden them from bringing iGadgets to the event.) A bass-heavy pop song blasts over the speakers as CEO Steve Ballmer stomps out in front of the crowd, his Shrek-like stature dominating the stage, to unveil the star of the show: the Surface tablet, the first PC device that Microsoft has manufactured in its 30-year history.

In the center is Sam Moreau, who led the Windows user experience team.

The buzz, the secrecy, the horde of reporters--one might expect this from Apple, not the corporate giant responsible for Clippy and blue screens of death. The attention was warranted, too. The Surface, with its ultrathin magnesium casing and integrated kickstand, might be the iPad’s most compelling competitor yet.

But what was really revolutionary at Milk Studios that day was the software driving the Surface: Windows 8, which aims to change the way we’ve been interacting with computers for the past three decades. Windows 8 could also transform the nature of the software giant’s competition with home-run king Apple, potentially reversing a string of embarrassing defeats, especially in the mobile market. Even more improbably, Microsoft is building this comeback attempt not on its traditional strength--engineering--but on, of all things, design.

It’s not about adornments. It’s about typography, color, motion. That’s the pixel.

Microsoft has united around a set of design principles that it dubbed Metro, a slick, intuitive, and playful visual language that is seeping into the company’s product portfolio, from Office to Bing to Windows Phone to Xbox, creating a common platform for hardware of all types. You won’t be seeing the word Metro in Microsoft’s branding because of a reported last-minute naming conflict with a European partner. But as manifested in Windows 8, these principles embody what the company has called an "authentically digital" experience. Gone are the icon-studded toolbars and drop-down menus and artificial glassy reflections; Windows 8 emphasizes a stripped-down user interface that’s flat and without flourish. "It’s not about adornments," says Sam Moreau, the director of user experience for Windows. "It’s about typography, color, motion. That’s the pixel."


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With 1 billion users of its operating system, Microsoft’s novel approach to interface design could cause tectonic shifts in the way software of all sorts is conceived. And therein lies the risk. Windows has long been Microsoft’s bread and butter: 336 million Windows PCs were sold in 2011--roughly 10 per second--a large chunk of which went to corporate customers, who are constitutionally resistant to change. The Surface could add to the disruption, as third-party hardware makers will soon be in the awkward position of having to compete with the company they support. But Microsoft has no choice other than to bet on its new software design. For if Apple has proved anything, it’s that design has become big business in the technology world.

"It’s the ultimate design challenge," Moreau says. "You’ve got 25 years of Windows behind you. There’s a responsibility to preserve it but also to evolve--knowing that when you change something, you’re changing how computing works."

Live tiles display real-time updates for email, weather, and more, giving immediate context without having to dive into a web page or widget.

Visually, at least, Windows 8 is the simplest version of the operating system ever. For years, software has followed the same formula: The user interface mimics a real-life desktop, with documents filed in folders and pictographic icons that act as visual metaphors of a software program’s function. It’s a legacy of the graphical user interface (GUI) popularized in the 1980s by Apple. Operating systems have largely seen only incremental innovations since Windows 1.0 and the original Macintosh. They do many more tricks than before, but the underlying blueprint is the same.

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