Interview: We chat with Vectorform about Toolbox for Windows 8

While Modern Windows 8 apps allow users to work with two apps at the same time via snap view, many Windows 8 owners would like to work with more than two applications at one time, much like they can on the desktop UI. There's evidence that Microsoft is planning to add even more muti-tasking features in the upcoming Windows Blue update, but until then there's Toolbox, a free Windows 8 app from developer Vectorform that offers a way for users to have a multi-tasking app experience on Windows 8.

Toolbox is still one of the most popular Windows 8 apps in the Windows Store so we got in touch with Vectorform to find out more about the Toolbox app and their future plans. We received answers to our questions from Kevin Foreman, the Director of Product Development for Vectorform.

First, what can you tell us about Vectorform itself?

Vectorform is Part Think Tank, Part Lab and Part Studio. Our elite team of artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and technologists, invent digital products and iconic experiences for premier brands from around the world.  We change the way you experience modern life, in the car, at the hospital, at the store and on the phone.  Vectorform was founded in 1999 and has studios in Seattle, Detroit, New York, Munich and Hyderabad.

How did the idea come about to develop Toolbox for Windows 8?

We’ve noticed a trend with recent mobile operating systems in that they trade productivity and control for simplicity. For smaller devices, such as phones, this makes sense. However, for tablets and other larger-screen devices, we felt that there is an opportunity to take advantage of this under-utilized screen real estate. Our mission was to prove that simplicity and productivity are not mutually exclusive, and to provide a true multitasking environment for the touch computing era.

Windows 8 does allow two Modern apps to run at the same time in "snapped" view. How hard was it to develop an app that allowed for several functions to run at once?

Developing Toolbox was very challenging from both a technical and user-experience perspective. On the technical side, our windowing framework had to take into account all resolutions, device-orientations, form factors, screen DPIs, input methods (touch, pen, mouse, keyboard, etc), and view states. To accomplish this, we had to engineer each of our UI elements to be highly responsive, allowing them to adjust in real-time to the environment they live in. By drawing all of our UI in a vector-based format, we can dynamically scale and reposition elements on the fly, without worrying about distortion, pixilation, and other artifacts. With regards to user-experience, one of the biggest challenges was simply making multitasking in this new touch era feel right. Launching new tools, customizing each tool size, closing/switching tools, all need to happen quickly and efficiently, otherwise you lose the advantage of multitasking in the first place. During our prototyping phase, we came up with many different ways to accomplish these activities, and hand-picked the best methods that met the perfect balance between intuition and shortest time-to-task.

Perhaps the most useful "tool" in Toolbox is the web browser which lets users run more than one web page at the same time. What can you tell us about how this feature was developed?

The Web tool in Toolbox was the very first tool we developed, and is what solidified our direction for allowing multiple instances of the same tool to be launched. When tabbed browsing was first introduced, it changed the way we browsed the internet. However, since its inception, there really hasn’t been a successor to this concept. With more and more websites mimicking app-like functionality these days, we found that being able to multitask web sites was just as important as multitasking applications. When we tested our initial prototype of this feature, we knew we were on to something big. Combined with our Toolset feature, which allows you to save unlimited multitasking configurations, you can launch up to 6 websites viewable on screen at once with the touch of one button. This makes it easy to keep an eye on all your favorite social networks, news sources, forums, subreddits, etc at once. No other platform makes it this easy to consume the web in this way, and is one of the most powerful use-cases Toolbox offers.

What other tools have been the most used in Toolbox so far?

While everyone uses Toolbox in a different way, a lot of our users are really enjoying the Facebook tool. With our auto-refresh feature, people like leaving the Facebook tool open so they can keep up with their friends. In fact, this use case has allowed Toolbox to achieve an average use of 45 minutes per day per user.

At the moment, how many downloads of the Toolbox have you seen on Windows 8?

With our current download count per day, we’re on track to reach a million downloads within the next month.

You recently introduced in-app purchases for some tools. How did this idea come about and how successful has it been so far?

Toolbox is free, without ads, and we intend to keep it that way. At Vectorform, we work hard to bring great user-experiences to large audiences, and the idea of charging for the app or including ads conflict with that goal. Our in-app purchases monetization model allows us to keep the core experience of Toolbox free, without ads, and allows us to fund the development of additional tools to keep the platform growing with great content over time. We have just introduced 24 hour trials for our in-app purchases to give users a taste of our new tools, and have some exciting new tools in the pipeline, which will be released in the coming weeks. 8

Windows 8 has been in general release for over five months now and there's evidence that its growth in the PC industry has been slow so far. Are you worried that Windows 8 might hurt the PC market as a whole if it keeps this slow growth?

Not at all. Windows 8 brings with it a completely new way to interact with Windows, and this fundamental change will take time to be fully adopted by consumers. As more applications like Toolbox bring great experiences to the platform, consumers will find that this new interface paradigm has major advantages over the more traditional Windows interface.

Do you think that having products such as the ones sold by Vectorform might actually help sell more Windows 8-based PCs in the long run?

Absolutely. An operating system lives and dies by the applications developed for it. While having the familiar apps like Netflix, Twitter, Dropbox, etc is very important, applications like Toolbox, which take advantage of the unique attributes of the platform, is crucial in giving consumers a reason to choose this platform over others. With Toolbox, you can watch Netflix while keeping an eye on your Facebook feed, browsing IMDb, keeping an eye on the score of that important game, etc. Those unique advantages are what can push consumers to your platform. 

Vectorform also helped to develop the Accuweather app and the Rowi Twitter app for Windows 8.  What can you tell us about the making of those apps and how successful have they been?

The Accuweather app was a joint development between Vectorform and Accuweather.  Vectorform focused on the background which was direct 3D implementation and supported on some of the front end dev. The project was highly collaborative, and an overall great experience, which in result has lead to a stronger working relationship with the Accuweather team. Accuweather is also our data provider for Toolbox. Vectorform provided the design only for the Rowi Twitter app. Rowi was fantastic to work with and took our design considerations very seriously, utilizing our expertise. 

 What plans can you tell us about expanding the Toolbox app with more tools and features?

We’re hard at work on many exciting new tools. We’re in the final stages of testing four new tools that will be released in the coming weeks. We’re very excited with the features available in these tools, and we hope our users will enjoy the new additions.

Does Vectorform have plans for anymore Windows 8 apps?  

We have a number of Windows 8 projects in process, including projects that are primarily design and some that are both design and development. None we can disclose at this time. 

Finally, is there anything else you wish to say about Windows 8 in general and Vectorform's plans for the OS?

We believe that Windows 8 has brought some great new concepts to the table, and we’re very excited to have one of the most downloaded applications on the platform to date with Toolbox. With the addition of the app store, we can continue to bring great experiences to the platform, without having to worry about distribution, e-commerce, and storage. While it may take some time for the average consumer to fully embrace the new interface Windows 8 has introduced, Vectorform understands that touch computing is the future, and will continue to bring experiences that leverage its advantages.

We would like to thank Foreman for answering our questions.

Images via Vectorform

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