WINDOWS-FIRST != WINDOWS-BEST

A few nights ago, I (prematurely) tweeted:

Earlier tonight, I was in the middle of a call using Skype UWP on my Surface Pro when the sound suddenly went but the call still appeared active. A quick peek of my Nexus phone indicated not only had the call actually been dropped but I had also received a message about it that didn't show up on my Surface. I decide to continue the rest of the call on my Android phone, and you know what? It was great - I didn't run into any problems.

Windows-first is no longer the Microsoft mission. I get that. But similar to how the Surface products are meant to offer the best experience of Windows, albeit at a premium, a reasonable expectation is for a similar benchmark to apply to all Microsoft products and services that run on Windows vs other platforms i.e. Windows-best.

WINDOWS S DOESN'T HAVE 99 PROBLEMS BUT THE STORE IS STILL ONE

Zac Bowden:

Windows 10 S is so much more than just another go at Windows RT — it's Windows RT done right.

Windows RT was bad, but only because it was locked to the Windows Store with no other options. Windows 10 S has options, including the ability to not be Windows 10 S anymore. If you buy a Windows 10 S machine, you will never be "locked" to Windows 10 S forever. Users have the option to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro for a discounted price.

Zac gets a lot of things right in his piece but not the above. Windows RT didn't fail because it didn't allow you to change it to regular Windows. And Windows S isn't Windows RT done right because it does. If it was, you wouldn't be able to upgrade it to Windows 10 Pro. To be fair, and as Zac does point out, Microsoft has managed to address many of RT's shortcomings with S, possibly all that they actually could do something about, but not arguably the biggest which they can't: what's available on the Store. Yes, it has improved, but approaching its fifth birthday, it still has a long, long way to before you can depend on it exclusively to meet your app needs.

I expect the first thing that a considerable percentage of new Surface Laptop owners will do is take up the free Pro upgrade offer. Imagine the much anticipated Surface Phone is announced and, like the Laptop, the hardware surpasses everyone's expectations. It runs Windows S. But you can upgrade it to a Microsoft flavoured Android. It makes sense because apps. I would buy it and switch. Others will too. The Store continues to be ignored. I know there are real benefits to staying on Windows S such as improved battery life, reliability, security, performance etc. If however there are apps that you depend on that are not on the Store, then those perks matter much less than being able to run said apps. Having said that, the PC is not as app-centric as mobile because most of our time is spent in the browser. For some, maybe all even. The problem then becomes Windows S' inability to run the world's most popular web browser: Chrome. Get it on the Store, and then that Pro (free) upgrade isn't as enticing.

BUYING MUSIC FROM GROOVE

You can't. Microsoft is prioritising the Groove Music Pass instead. There's actually no suggestion anywhere in Groove that you can buy music - not even buried in a context menu. And so for the few of us left who still like to own their music, we'll need to open the Store to buy from there. I can understand why the Pass is being pushed to users, but it's counter-intuitive for the music store to be absent from Groove. At the very least, I expect Groove to conveniently link me to the Store when appropriate similar to how Store section in the Xbox app works.1

1. On closer inspection, it seems you can actually buy Xbox One games from inside the Xbox app, whereas Windows 10 games are linked to the Store. O-kay.

RE: THINKING ABOUT THE FLUENT DESIGN SYSTEM

Paul Thurrott:

With its Fluent Design System, Microsoft is finally moving past the flat world of Metro and embracing a model that works with many more devices and input types. But are they just making the same mistakes all over again?

No. If they are making any mistakes, it's not the same mistakes.

During a conversation that Microsoft officials had with the press and bloggers at Build 2017 this week, the firm explained that Fluent is “not a revolution” but is instead a “journey to a new point.” But put in the context of Microsoft’s sweeping strategy shift with Windows 10 and its embrace of a heterogeneous world of devices, most of which it does not control, I feel that Microsoft is undercutting the importance of this new design.

Microsoft may have downplayed Fluent in private conversations with press and bloggers, but that's not the impression I (and I suspect most others) took away when watching its public reveal. At the same time, based on what I've seen of Fluent, I don't think it's a revolution either. But even if it isn't, that doesn't necessarily make it any less important.

At this point in time, Fluent is incomplete and it has no hard release date or milestones. Instead, Microsoft seems to be sort of making it up as it goes along, and implementing Fluent design elements in a rather haphazard way. For example, there are a handful of Fluent design touches in some Windows 10 apps in the Creators Update. And Fluent will not be fully realized, or completed from a design perspective, by the time the Fall Creators Update ships in September.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm relieved by this admission because although there are elements of Fluent already showing up in Windows, to fully realise the design vision set out by the system in the relatively short time between the spring and fall updates is asking for too much. And to promise otherwise would suggest this isn't a serious long-term play. However, much like how Microsoft's Surface hardware is in multi-year development before being announced, I'm curious why Fluent wasn't being fleshed out in secret in the five years since Windows 8's release. And for Build 2017 to have been used as the stage to finally drop Fluent not as mostly a concept with an associated set of goals, however ambitious, but as a proof-of-concept for developers to refer to immediately.

I wasn’t initially bothered by any of that. Mostly because Microsoft is doing a much better job of explaining its goals with Fluent than it did with Metro, its previous design language, back in 2010. At that time, Microsoft’s overly-pedantic designers beat us to death with overly-detailed and flowery explanations for why this design style—modeled after classic Swiss graphic design and transportation iconography—was so superior.

I disagree. Metro didn't need to be explained when it was revealed. It wasn't an abstract vision. It was elegantly executed.1 Fluent appears to be pre-pubescent in comparison. So much so, I'm still not entirely sure what Fluent is. And I don't think Microsoft does completely either in fact. Not yet anyway.

Microsoft never saw any real success with Metro, let alone in explaining it to the public. But this flat design style was later stolen by both Google (Material Design) and Apple (starting in iOS 7), and neither of those companies ever bothered to thank Microsoft for leading the way.

This paragraph bugs me.

Firstly, Windows Phone's failure isn't in any way connected to Metro. Android/iOS users didn't not switch to Windows Phone because of design xenophobia. As a design language it was a success. It is what drew me to Microsoft products. And I know many others.

Secondly, it is a gross over-simplification to suggest Google and Apple stole Microsoft's "flat design style". Not all design that rejects skeuemorphism is the same. Microsoft didn't invent this style; they may have popularised it digitally but it's such a broad style that I find it impossible to credit it to a single entity. Especially when there is a web of designers (pun intended) pushing new ideas on a daily basis.

Finally, Google and Apple hire smart people i.e. not the level of designers whose only reference point to guide their designs are their competitors'. Or I'd like to think so anyway.

Where Microsoft is stumbling, however, is in repeating some serious mistakes from the past. You may recall that Microsoft excitedly described a Longhorn future that would never happen at PDC 2003, and that the firm’s supposedly live code shown on stage was later revealed to be mocked-up demos that never evolved into an actual product.

Well, they’ve done it again. The Fluent designs that Microsoft showed off this week at PDC 2013, almost exactly ten years later, were clearly fake, and not running code. And it’s not clear that Windows or the other products that will utilize Fluent will ever look as good as those demos.

I don't know what demos Paul is referring to, but I don't think Microsoft were trying to mislead in the concept video. It was a vision they were communicating in a series of artifacts. Everything they shared after the reveal re-enforced this position. Having said that, I can relate with Paul's overall skepticism. Mine was softened though after watching a Build session showing off a sprinkling of Fluent goodness coming to Edge.

This is disheartening, and it makes my earlier points—that Microsoft is making this up as they go and has no clear schedule milestones—more troubling.

They are figuring things out. That's very different to making stuff up as they go. Design is a process. It is however puzzling, going back to my earlier point, that they haven't finalised the design many years after Windows 8.2

I’m not going to judge Fluent or Microsoft’s design intentions prematurely. But I do want to raise these issues now because the community is once again excited by a direction that may never be realized. And because the products that influenced Fluent—like HoloLens—will never be mainstream, leading me to wonder why the flat, 2D interfaces we actually do, and will, use should be changed unnecessarily.

Four of Fluent's five pillars (light, depth, motion, colour) can, if applied tastefully, result in a superior 2D interface. I have different concerns. And that is that developers are too excited by Fluent. The Windows UI team are absolutely killing it. But just because they now provide you with magic sauce doesn't mean you need to use it just so you can say you have. Restraint will be critical. Otherwise, all apps will look and feel the same. This lack of originality in apps will make for an inferior Store.

Consider the following: Back in the 1990s, Microsoft changed the toolbars in the key Office applications—Word, Excel, PowerPoint—to be as identical as possible so that users could transition from one application to the others more easily. This is the type of thing that makes sense to virtually everybody because it sounds logical enough. But what Microsoft later admitted is that this design change was done without any research at all—it just sounded right to them as well—and that when they later did do that research, they discovered a contrary truth: Human beings are pretty malleable, actually, and they have no problem using different user interfaces in different applications.

We probably lost decades of productivity to this mistake, and while it’s impossible to know how or if Word, Excel, PowerPoint or other productivity applications might have been made more efficient years ago, we can at least apply this learning to the present. And with Fluent, specifically, it’s unclear to me why a PC, phone, or tablet UI needs to be made consistent with a HoloLens or Mixed Reality headset UI.

Because they all run Windows. And Windows shouldn't feel different when it runs on PC vs any other device type. But that shouldn't stop it from having a bespoke UI that retains UI elements that make sense to and dumps and/or replaces ones that don't.

Consider the live tiles that everyone seems to love so much. This kind of interface, which provides “at a glance” live information on rectangular surfaces on a home screen makes tons of sense on a smartphone or even a small tablet. But it makes zero sense on a PC, especially when that interface is hidden in a Start menu you need to manually toggle. Live tiles are a great example of a UI not scaling between different form factors.

This is sort of correct. Live Tiles on Windows 8 made sense - when the Start Screen relegated the Desktop to being another app. But with the Start Screen becoming a tablet afterthought in Windows 10, I agree Live Tiles' role has become questionable. But that doesn't mean Live Tiles' design doesn't work on a PC - their location inside the Start menu doesn't (glanceable information isn't only useful in a mobile context). What makes Live Tiles Windows-y isn't where they live but what they are and I'm unconvinced that there's nowhere appropriate within Windows for them to exist.

Now consider the flipside. As you must know, one of the central successes of Windows 10 is that some of the current UIs actually do scale very nicely between different devices types: Just resize a UWP app like Groove or News into a phone-shaped portrait rectangle on your PC screen to see what I mean. So Microsoft may, in fact, be onto something, at least in some areas.

This is impressive, but not really something I take advantage of often. Mainly because I find in most apps' cases I never need to have them resized to be phone-like.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any answers here, I’m just raising the question. We’ll have to see how Fluent evolves over time, and how broadly Microsoft introduces these design elements into its various software products. For now, I’m a bit nervous that they are just making the same mistakes all over again, but I’m likewise happy that they are at least trying, and seem interested in feedback. If they can approach Fluent with the same customer focus that they use with the Windows 10 Insider Preview, this may all work out just fine.

It's cool that Microsoft want to involve Windows Insiders (i.e. outsiders) in helping shape Fluent. But I'm hoping they're going to be used mostly for validation rather than direction. Strong design has personality. Like Metro. That will be difficult to achieve if you're being designed by whatever thousand number of Insiders.

1. No doubt helped by the groundwork laid out originally with Windows Media Centre and later refined in Zune.

2. I'm primarily ignoring Windows 10 because as far as design goes I didn't consider it ambitious and maybe even a regression (Start menu's return aside). Windows 8 was confident but maybe too confident. Windows 10's current staleness on the other hand can be linked to its primary goal of making amends for Windows 8's perceived missteps more than anything.

CORTANA REPLACES WINDOWS PHONE

Wired:

Redmond put a lot of complicated tech behind this cross-platform strategy—it involves XAML and .NET and whatever the Microsoft Graph is—but wrapped it all up in a tidy bow called Cortana. Microsoft’s virtual assistant is by all accounts very good, better in some ways than Siri or Google Assistant. But it can’t compete with assistants baked into a phone. No one wants to download a third-party app when the same features are a tap of the home button away. And once you’ve started using an assistant, you have little reason to switch.

So Microsoft gave Cortana a job Siri and Google Assistant can’t do. Or, rather, all the jobs they can’t do. Now, Cortana is how you access that spreadsheet you started earlier. It is how you transfer a photo from your phone to Photoshop on your laptop. It stays in the background, and pops up when you need it.

I've been on Android for more than a year now, and have never felt the need to get Cortana. With the Fall Creators Update that all changes. Same goes for Swiftkey thanks to its integration with the upcoming cloud clipboard. For people who are not Windows users, these announcements may not make a difference to their pick of personal assistant and keyboard. But as a Windows user, anything that's a true enabler of the "mobility of experience" I won't be able to ignore. What this more significantly implies is I'll have one less reason to switch from Windows, whereas other Android users on a Mac in particular will now have a reason to switch to Windows.

TFW

That feeling when the app you've been working on what feels like forever is finally available to download, but you're afraid to make an announcement about it. And so you irrationally wait a few days before you do.

Appy Text is now available on the Windows Store.1 I hope you enjoy using it as much as I did building it.2

1. To celebrate its launch, the Premium in-app purchase is on sale for a limited time .

2. For the most part even. Remember, this was meant to be a weekend side-project. Once development overran by six months, it stopped being fun.

DON'T BE STUPID

Looking for the best gifts for the best people in your life? We can help! We've spent the year testing a lot of great (and some not-so-great) products to figure out our absolute favorite tech of 2016. And we've brought it all here, together, in one easy wish list, just for you!

I visit Windows Central almost every day. I understand that being a fan site means there's less objectivity involved in their reporting as their reader's personal preferences take priority. However, I really don't get how there's three Windows phones on their 2016 holiday gift guide. At the top too! If you're looking for a new phone these holidays, look elsewhere. I switched this time last year, and I felt pretty stupid for having waited so long to do so. Don't be stupid.

V2

One of my goals in 2016 was to write more on here. That hasn't worked out, mainly because the CMS which I had custom-built many years ago has been showing its age. I did briefly contemplate addressing its shortcomings, but quickly came to my senses and decided to look elsewhere for third-party alternatives. The one I went with significantly reduces the friction in publishing because every blog post is just a Markdown file. Great, but where do I write? Although there's a undoubted charm to Notepad's simplicity, it still thinks it's 1995. And as far as Markdown editors go, MarkdownPad seemed like the best choice, but I didn't consider writing to be its primary use-case. So I decided to build something myself. This was supposed to be a side-project to be completed over a weekend in between Appy Weather 2 work. A text editor - how much work could that be? Can't be much? Wrong, well, if you're me at least and don't settle for "good enough". It's been over 3 months now, and it's still not quite ready. But it's getting there. If you're interested in getting early access, please check out appytext.net.

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