Thinking Windows 9

It’s March 23rd today and we now only have a bit more than 10 days for Build 2014, in which Microsoft will be unveiling some “vision” for Windows 9. As has been mentioned before, that will imply some further fusion between the Modern environment and the traditional desktop. Many have taken the opportunity to shout to the winds about the predictable return of the Start menu to fuel their hatred of the Start screen and by all accounts, a merger of both environments into a more cohesive whole does seem like the most likely path for the company to follow.

Now, the problem with people commenting on this line of thought is that they are expecting something along the lines of this:

mockupStartMenuOld

Yeah, OK. A) It’s never going to happen because B) that would look horribly disconnected from the flatter aesthetic that Microsoft has taken – with the rest of the world following very clearly. Now that we’ve established that, we can accept that Modern (formerly “Metro“) is the UI framework that will be used in the future. When you think about it, the fatal flaw of Windows 8.0 was that it was a beta product. Yes, millions bought it, yet it was an unfinished mess of an OS to ship that happened because something, anything needed to head out to market. In hindsight, it may have been much better to wait it out 1 year until 8.1 and release that as the .0 version: negative reactions would have most definitely been more subdued as the OS would have been more polished and respectful of touch and keyboard-mouse first users. 8.1 did much needed good to this new Modern environment but because of this focus it kept ignoring traditional desktop users, hence why 8.x adoption is still low around Vista-era levels. Now all hopes are clinging on 9.0 to retell the tale of 7.0’s success while fueling the uncomfortable coincidental reality that validates a figurative good-release/bad-release/good-release cadence within Microsoft.

Now, how does a further synergized desktop/Modern world look? For starters, it shows launched apps combined whether they are win32 or WinRT and it allows for the taskbar to bleed into the Modern world as a vestige of times past. When I first saw this I thought it was the most hideous thing ever done. Alas, this is still the case, yet once I used 8.1 Update 1 I came to realize the taskbar is only there when I mouse to the lower end of the screen. Even then, if I’m in a Modern app, priority is given to whatever menu that app may have, and only upon further going down does the taskbar show up (and immediately disappear when the mouse is taken away from it). Now, seeing this in action, this change is much less obtrusive than I originally envisioned. Yes, it does occlude whatever Modern app tools may lie below the taskbar, but if I’m making the effort to get to the taskbar I’m not looking at those Modern controls, thus, no usability is hindered. This is a positive direction to fuse desktop and Modern and I expect 9.0 to bring further cohesion to the Frankenstein that 8.x is.

With that out of the way, let’s get back to that start menu. It’s happening, mainly because old people keep complaining about it not being there and how hard it is to get used to all these new changes. Never mind they are able to pick up an iPad, which has nothing to do with OS X, and understand immediately how to use it, proving that they are adaptable creatures. No, the problem here is that they see a product called Windows and have certain expectations from it, which when changed into a Modern environment, throws them back into a field of negativity. But I digress. Without getting into why the Start screen is clearly a superior way to organize/find/initiate apps, let’s have a look at how I expect things to go in 9.0. As a reference, my current Start screen:

It is quite easy to imagine how a Start menu would work in the desktop while still respecting the UI design principles stipulated in the Modern framework. Use the same flat aesthetic, keep the Start menu tiles live just like in the Start screen and make this menu just as capable of personalization as the Start screen: you have a winner. Lighter users that use less apps could have a very unobtrusive Start menu that gives them all the app links they need while not occluding anything from view:

In my case, I would expect my Start menu to look along these lines:

Of course, the Start menu should be extendable to whatever one has picked in the Start screen, and the dimensions should not be limited to a certain specific screen space like pre-8.0 Start menus: remember, 9.x should be as focused on touch as it is on keyboard-mouse, so we can’t expect users to touch on tiny arrows to go up and down, or move through lists that frankly make no organizational sense in 2014. There is no reason why this menu can’t grow throughout the screen as more tiles are added while not occluding any tile from view:

This seems like an evolution that would satisfy heavy desktop users’ main complaint: they hate the Start screen because it launches them into a fullscreen experience that breaks their flow. This design would allow these people to access all the apps they have without ever leaving the desktop and losing whatever they’re doing from view. Of course, this assumes that by 9.0 we’ll be able to launch Modern apps in windows inside the desktop, which seems like the best compromise, otherwise, launching a fullscreen app basically negates the benefit from having a Start menu that doesn’t occlude anything else. While thinking of this design I was tempted to add a search box to the menu and decided it does not need one, since search would work just like it does in pre-8.x versions and the Start screen: hit the Windows key and start typing. However, there’s many people who again need to be educated and in a transition towards a Modern world will need visual cues, so adding a search box just like the one that was added to the Windows Store wouldn’t be the end of the world:

Even better, if wanted, this Start menu could still be organized in groups resembling the Start screen organization, though I would assume it wouldn’t be designed to show as many tiles as the Start screen otherwise it would occupy much of the desktop space and thus defeat the purpose of having a Start menu:

mockupStartMenuGroups

There, quite unobtrusive yet still helpful for those who require visual cues. The one last “problem” we would have to fix is when we get the Start menu and when we get the Start screen. This, again, is easily fixed: If a user clicks or touches the Start button with a mouse or finger, launch the Start menu. If a user clicks or touches the Windows logo on the charms bar or uses the hardware button on a tablet, launch the Start screen. 2 identities, desktop and Modern, accessible in similar ways yet always consistent with what’s expected from the user: desktop traits are linked to desktop use and thus the Start menu while Modern traits are linked to the Modern use and thus to the Start screen. Easy peasy!

So, those are some of my thoughts when thinking about Windows 9. This, however, is nowhere near enough: it’s just the main vocal point that will be argued to exasperation in blogs and forums during the next year. I expect Microsoft to converge far, far more by Windows 9 and bringing x86/ARM/WP8 systems together is not enough. There needs to be one store. It has to be possible to buy one app once and use it in any desktop/laptop/tablet/phone signed into the same Microsoft account. Desktop and Modern need to fuse much further; from two completely independent entities into a more cohesive unit that operates as a whole but has two moods if you will, a productive mood (think desktop) and a consumption mood (think Modern) that still act, react, look and feel like one. Desktop and Modern need to be melded into one whole environment for different uses and achieving precisely this goal is what will mark 9.0’s success.

At least, Microsoft is not boring anymore – it’s easily the most exciting company right now as they figure out who they are and who they want to be. Now let’s wait and see what “vision” Microsoft reveals on Build.

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