Co.Design

How Apple And Microsoft Borrow From Smartphones In New Desktop UIs

In an example of trickle-up interaction design, the computer giants are integrating features that work well on our tinier handheld screens.

Over the past week, both Microsoft and Apple previewed their new desktop operating systems. Both explicitly pull their interactions from their respective smartphone user interfaces. Here's Microsoft's Windows 8:

The start screen appears to be a super-sized version of the Windows Phone 7 user interface, with tiles that provide summary information about "apps" (apparently we can't call them 'programs' or "applications" anymore). The desktop interface can be manipulated through various touch gestures (or quaintly via mouse), much like Apple's forthcoming Lion OS, previewed here:

Apple's new desktop OS is clearly mapped from the iOS of its handhelds in visual appearance and behavior, and it even has its own version of the app store.

The constraints of limited screen sizes and inputs drove more creativity.

It may seem counterintuitive that smaller, handheld devices are influencing the interaction design of larger, more powerful laptops and desktop systems ?- especially since it used to be the other way around: earlier versions of smartphone operating systems, such as Windows Mobile, were desktop operating systems that had been shrunk to fit onto handheld devices. As a result, users struggled with miniature menus and other interaction elements that simply did not scale down well. Alternatives, such as the Palm Treo smartphones, provided touch interfaces that were designed more effectively for their size but didn't integrate directly with more familiar Mac and Windows desktop experiences.

Smartphone and tablet interface technology developed rapidly, as consumers updated their phones more frequently than their laptops. For interface designers, the constraints of limited screen sizes and inputs drove simpler and more creative solutions that could subsequently influence interaction design on larger screens. But rather than thinking of this as a one-way influence, it is more accurately described as a convergence, with the goal of making desktops as simple to use as smartphones, while smartphones become as interactively rich and powerful as desktops.

In the long term, this might eventually enable Apple and Microsoft, and others, to each provide and maintain a single operating system to serve across the range of their product platforms. In the short term, new operating-system features will sell more hardware and software. But there are potential benefits to consumers as well: Consistent interaction experiences across different types of devices can improve ease of learning and ease of use, as well as increase efficiencies in sharing apps and data across devices.

So it's not surprising that both Windows 8 and Lion are being influenced by smartphone and tablet interactions and terminology. And while Apple and Microsoft have been borrowing interface ideas from each other for years, it's striking how their next-generation desktops are focusing on many of the same specific details. For example, both operating systems are emphasizing full-screen application views, and gestures for switching between running applications. Both even provide an ergonomically split keyboard for touchscreen typing:

Windows Split Keyboard

iPad Split Keyboard

Separated at birth?

Which features will ultimately prove the most useful on either operating system remains to be seen. Convergent interaction design has it benefits, but potential usability and ergonomic limitations as well — the keyboard/mouse paradigm has been tough to unseat (for good reasons) for over a quarter of a century.

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4 Comments

  • Joe Boon

    It is not just visual metaphors Desktops can learn from. There is much to be learnt from smartphone OSes in the way they separate applications from each other. They each have their own user and own area of the filesystem. This was long overdue as in memory process protection has been mandatory since the time sharing mainframes of the sixties. Windows XP and later versions still allow programs (and in-doc macros) to write to files anywhere on the filesystem! Tbis is why they have useless security prompts asking whether you trustmthe website/application/document. Once you say OK computer, the software has free reign. This becomes evident once you look in the c:\windows folder or if you spend hours trying to remove viruses from a friend's PC. So yes, let's have filesystem protection on desktops.

    One other comment - how often do you see a webpage on a desktop and look for the 'Email this link' button that is universally available on smartpho es!

  • Paul Bryan

    Rob,

    Excellent article, and interesting perspective. Usography's research with millennials and mobile shopping has shown that younger shoppers are looking for digital ways to interact with stores. Until now, that meant using a smartphone or tablet of your own, which can be awkward for tasks other than swiping a QR code to read a web page on your phone. I think the design morph of larger systems in the direction of simpler user experience paves the way for more in-store digital interactions that are very intelligent about products, inventory, and marketplace-type near-field cooperative retailing. With NFC, the information cycle is complete. 

    /pb

  • Harvey

    Rob, there is a huge difference in the design philosophies, and therefore the user experience, between Windows 8 and Lion.

    As can be seen in the video, Windows 8 simply sticks "a super-sized version of the Windows Phone 7 user interface" on top of Windows 7. There is absolutely no thought given to functionality. Once you get past the introductory tiles, you are back in Windows 7 using the Windows Explorer and Windows programs (like the example of Excel shown in the video).

    It seems that Microsoft can't decide whether Windows 8 should use a Windows phone UI or an unaltered Windows desktop UI, so they just glued them together and call it "innovation".

    However tablets (Windows 8 is designed for tablets as well as for desktop/notebook computers) don't use either a phone OS or a desktop OS. Microsoft has not learned from experience, or from looking at their successful competitors in the tablet sector, that tablets require not just an entirely new UI geared to users' needs and the scale of tablets, but also applications that are re-written to meet the same requirements.

    Microsoft's philosophy seems to be to paste a phone UI onto the same Windows OS and applications that they tried to use in "Tablet PCs", which were a marketing failure for the same reasons.

    Apple's design philosophy with Lion does not try to shoehorn the iPhone's UI into a desktop OS, but rather to make the desktop OS more multi-touch friendly and transparent (the file system becomes almost unnecessary, and application windows and menus disappear... only becoming available when the user needs it).

    In Lion, only the aspects of iOS that are most appropriate for use in a desktop/notebook OS are used. And they are used not only in the operating system itself, but also in the applications that run in Lion.

    What APple has done may look at first like they just decided to make Lion look more like iOS, but Apple has actually taken a design approach (from the top down) to make desktop and notebook computers much more user friendly and geared for multi-touch usage throughout.

    With Lion (in league with iOS 5 and iCloud), Apple has made the hardware secondary. The personal computer becomes just another device like smartphones and tablets. It is users' data (documents, music, videos, etc.) that is forefront, while all devices automatically share data with each other, getting out of the way so that users have everything they need everywhere they go, no matter what device they are using. And it all "just works".