Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Legacy of Windows Phone

While bloggers and industry pundits speculate about the future of Windows Phone, what is often overlooked is the influence it has had on other mobile platforms.  More specifically, the Modern UI (formerly known as Metro UI).

One of the things that attracted me to Windows Phone was its unique, modern user interface.  While other mobile platforms were overtly mimicking iOS, Microsoft chose a completely original path [Note: with a nod to Zune and Windows Media Center].  Modern UI is 180° opposite of Apple's skeuomorphic design language.

It was a bold move and was not to go unnoticed.  In 2011 the Industrial Designers Society of American awarded the Windows Phone 7 UI its "Gold Interactive" award, its "People's Choice Award", and a "Best in Show" award, stating:

"The innovation here is the fluidity of experience and focus on the data, without using tradition user interface conventions of windows and frames.  Data becomes the visual elements and controls. Simple gestures and transitions guide the user deeper into content. A truly elegant and unique experience."  – Isabel Ancona, User Experience Consultant

At the time of its launch on October 21, 2010, the mobile world looked like this:

Android 2.2
Had Microsoft released what amounted to an iOS or Android clone, today's mobile UI landscape may be very different.

What is remarkable about WP is what is not there.  As a mobile developer I understand the urge to pile more and more information and functionality onto a screen.  It must have required considerable restraint and discipline not to overload this screen, but instead have it serve more as a navigation device with visual cues.  This permits the designer (and user) to remain focused on the task at hand, and to expand functionality on subsequent screens; never overwhelming the user with unnecessary information or functionality.

From a purely subjective view, of the three, I would consider Windows Phone to be decidedly "modern".  I'm not entirely sure why that is.  Maybe it is because it has no obvious predecessors?

With Windows Phone and its Modern UI in the mix, both Apple and Google seemed compelled to update and revamp their own mobile UIs.  I would argue that this was not because Windows Phone posed a threat to their market shares.  Maybe it was the realisation that their own mobile UI appeared antiquated against the Modern UI?  Or that the underlying design principles of Modern UI were well suited for mobile devices?  Maybe it was a shift from producing interesting devices, to be interested in their user?  That is all speculation.  Eventually we will see both adopt and invent their own interpretation of a modern UI design language.

Google's Material Design feels like a distant cousin to Modern UI (some may contend not too distant).  Of the two, Android always felt like it needed some guidelines and continuity.  So, in that respect, Material Design is a welcome change, though not wholly original.

Apple, on the other hand, has had a much bumpier ride transitioning itself from the skeuomorphic world of steel, glass, paper and leather to a modern mobile UI.  The transformation thus far, has been beautiful and dramatic.  The Verge did an excellent piece on the history of iOS, check it out.

These same screens, as they appear today:

Android 5
Note how little has changed with Windows Phone, even after four versions.  We see the same basic layout, along with some additional visual cues and functionality, which likely evolved from usage studies and user feedback.

Microsoft is not compelled to reinvent its mobile UI or turn it into something else, nor should it.  The Modern UI is its DNA.  With the adoption of the Modern UI, Microsoft is in an enviable position of having a UI design which demonstrably works across devices.

It is worth mentioning that the Modern UI's influence extends well beyond the mobile platform; more and more I see it being adopted in web sites, games, television and elsewhere.

Regardless of the fate of Windows Phone, the design language it introduced will continue to influence devices and interfaces well into the future.

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