"Microsoft's philosophy is 'Okay, we want to be consistent across our operating systems,' and the way it worked in their brains was to just make one [interface]," Ben Bajarin, the director of consumer technology at Creative Strategies, told me in a discussion about contrasting operating system interfaces. "Whereas Apple said, 'Well, we'll make two [operating systems], but we're going to have gestures and some UI consistencies [across iOS and OS X] so that you have a consistent experience.'"
Satya Nadella has his head in the cloud (services)
That's where Satya Nadella fits in.
Windows 8 had to happen. Microsoft couldn't miss the mobile bandwagon any more than it had. But forcing the modern UI down PC users' throats to hopefully woo them to Windows tablets has proven to be a flop. With the interface changes in Windows 8.1 and Update 1, MIcrosoft appears to be acknowledging that. So how do you create synergy between Windows tablets and Windows PCs, while letting tablets be tablets and PCs be PCs?
By focusing on what Nadella excels at and on what the very core of Microsoft was recently restructured around--cloud-based services and apps that are available across Microsoft's far-flung platforms. Apps and services that, as Bajarin says, extend UI consistencies and experiences across tablets and PCs alike.
The boot-to-desktop default and mouse improvements baked into Windows 8.1 Update 1, paired with the finger-friendly UI elements left intact for users with touchscreen devices, enable just that (assuming Windows 8.1 update 1's changes all make it into the final build, of course). The core apps and services remain consistent across tablets, PCs and Windows Phones, but they're dynamically tailored to the device in-hand. Services, embodied in devices--a vision Nadella repeatedly drove home on his first day on the job.
"The coevolution of software and new hardware form factors will intermediate and digitize," Nadella said in his first email to Microsoft employees as CEO. "This is a software-powered world."
And as the former head of the enterprise division, Nadella likely understands how deeply the revolutionary UI changes in Windows 8 pained businesses and longtime users.
Old meets new
Additional rumors about a "Windows Threshold" update--possibly Windows 9--slated for spring 2015 suggest that Microsoft might rekindle its desktop focus even further. Early whispers say that a modern-styled Start Menu may reappear in Threshold, along with the ability to run modern apps in desktop windows, rather forcing them to be fullscreen.
That's not a full retreat to the Windows 7 desktop of old, but it's pretty darn close. Don't get me wrong, though. Microsoft isn't abandoning the modern UI. It's making it better.
Let's face it: Live Tiles and Metro apps aren't going anywhere. There's too much invested there, and more than the future of Windows, the modern UI is the future of Microsoft, across consoles and tablets and phones and PCs.
But hey, if Microsoft indeed manages to refine the Metro blend to deliver a consistent experience while still letting a PC be a PC and a tablet be a tablet, I don't mind that so much. Here's hoping my optimism isn't misplaced.
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