Microsoft has gotten a lot of people excited with the radical break that Windows Phone 7 represents. Behind the user experience shift is the simple realization that phones aren’t really small computers. Especially computers from the ’90s, with folders, files, and a desktop. See my recent post, Why Closed Works: Moving Past Steampunk Thinking About The Future Of Computing, which suggests why iPad and other new OS approaches are potentially liberating for us, despite the yowling from techies.
Windows Phone 7 represents a similar departure — a break with the notions of what users should have in their heads when fooling with a phone.
- Peter Sayer, Microsoft CEO unveils Windows Phone 7
“Phones looked like PCs, but a phone is not a PC, it’s smaller, more personal,” said Joe Belfiore, vice president for Windows Phone.
To make the interface more personal, Microsoft is counting on a checkerboard of customizable “live tiles” that can update automatically with information from the phone or the Internet.
Some of the tiles will update automatically to show frequent contacts or local information, while others can be customized manually. The tiles will be grouped into themed “hubs,” for example a page of contacts called “people” or a page of photos called “pictures”.
It seems that we are starting to see some commonalities in these new operating environments, like iPad, Windows Phone 7, and Litl, to name three interesting examples.
iPad will be based on the iPhone operating environment, which is extremely minimal: it offers up single applications, and not much else. These apps are generally fairly minimal: it seems that at least in the first release iPhone apps will generally be running in a ‘double pixels’ mode, although Apple has said it will provide tools to allow iPhone apps to be rejiggered to run natively.
The point is that users will not need a Mac OS X kind of experience to read a book, listen to music, or watch a movie. The user’s experience will be shaped by the sorts of media being accessed, rather than a general purpose programming world.
This is also what seems to be at work with Windows Phone 7: they have thrown away the general purpose file/folder/desktop environment so familiar to programmers, and moved ahead to an environment designed around information streaming to the device or to the user.
Here we see the adoption of ‘tiles’ — rectangular information objects that access streams or stores of information when touched. These ‘tiles’ will replace the notion of running apps, or opening files, or initiating a connection to the web through a browser, although it seems like we are going to be stuck with the browser metaphor for some time.
The deepest shift at work in these new environments is a transition to information flows away from information stores.
We will come to perceive what is going on as we touch these Windows 7 tiles, or open Litl channels, is that we are connecting to a stream of information, more like a TV channel than opening a file or browsing to a website.
And I believe that the streaming metaphor when coupled with the social dimension of tools like Facebook and Twitter, or new social elements of these new platforms themselves, will change how we think about them and how we use them.
My sense is that more designers — like the folks at Litl, the innovative ‘internet computer for the home’ — are looking to television and streaming media services as a starting point for redesign of user experience.
I recently got a loaner from Litl, and while I was impressed with much of the philosophy of the user experience, I was dissatisfied with the experience overall.
In particular, I had hoped that there would be a social experience tightly integrated into the radically different OS they had devised, something as innovative as the ‘ring’ controller they developed as part of the scrolling controls on the hardware. But that side of the equation was stuck back at email. If I see something cool in one of the channels on my Litl I would like to be able to simply pass it along to those following me in a hypothetical Litl network. Or else they could have tightly integrated to something like Twitter.
Yes, I can use Litl to look up a recipe, and position the device on the kitchen counter in it’s easel mode to make it a handy appliance. But it’s just a browser window to Epicurious, and not connecting me to a network of other cooks.
This is perhaps an example of a general rule: as innovators attempt to break out of the user experience ruts of today’s operating systems, they will get hung up on those irreducible elements of the existing world order that have to be connected. Like browsers, and email. These will hold us back, even in circumstances where radical changes are being attempted.
I beleive that Litl is a bellwether of things to come, as is Windows 7 Phone OS, and the iPad.
In all cases, the designers have drastically minimized what users are able to do for the sake of a simpler and more usable model of use.
But I think it is a mistake to not make these devices more obviously social, where streaming of information to and from other people becomes the primary mode of operation, and not something demoted to something in email, or in other applications. I expect to see someone release a social OS in the near term, where our connections to others are directly supported in the operating environment, not just within social applications.
Update on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 1:55PM by Stowe Boyd
From the Microsoft Windows 7 Phone press release:
Windows Phone 7 Series creates an unrivaled set of integrated experiences on a phone through Windows Phone hubs. Hubs bring together related content from the Web, applications and services into a single view to simplify common tasks. Windows Phone 7 Series includes six hubs built on specific themes reflecting activities that matter most to people:People. This hub delivers an engaging social experience by bringing together relevant content based on the person, including his or her live feeds from social networks and photos. It also provides a central place from which to post updates to Facebook and Windows Live in one step.
Sounds like the ‘people hub’ is a step in the direction I was alluding to.