Microsoft’s Windows 10 unveiling yesterday lasted about 40 minutes, but the most interesting part was a single slide that was displayed for less than three minutes.
In discussing Microsoft’s new flagship operating system, Terry Myerson, head of the company’s operating systems team, said users will have “the right experience on the right device at the right time,” meaning Windows 10 will be different for each product type.
“We’re not talking about one UI to rule them all,” he said. “We’re talking about one product family – a tailored experience for each device. Across this breadth of devices, we’re delivering one application platform for our developers, whether it’s building a game or a line of business applications. There will be one way to write a universal application that targets the entire product family.”
When discussing this philosophy, a slide was displayed on the wall behind him that hit Myerson’s point home. On this slide, different Windows 10 interfaces were shown for smartphones, phablets, small tablets, tablets, hybrid devices, laptops, computers and Xbox One. Additionally, Azure servers and Internet of Things devices will run Windows 10. The fact that Windows 10 will run across this vast range of products with tailored interfaces isn’t surprising, however, as I theorized as much nearly a year ago. What’s really noteworthy is the interface on each device.
Microsoft won’t shock anyone when it comes to the interfaces on hybrids, laptops or computers. The latter two device types will keep the standard Windows desktop and see the return of the Start menu, while the former device type will have a mixture of Windows 8’s Metro environment and the traditional desktop, depending on what mode it’s in. Microsoft’s mockups of interfaces on smartphones and phablets are also largely as expected, though there are some slight changes, such as colored backgrounds now available, whereas Windows Phone devices only support black or white backgrounds.
Microsoft said it will have different interfaces for different devices, but the specifics on each interface have yet to be revealed.
At the far right of the slide, an Xbox One can be seen running Windows 10 with an interface that differs in rather drastic ways from the console’s current dashboard. Users will apparently receive a highly customizable dashboard when Microsoft pushes out its first major Xbox One update, including colored backgrounds and the ability to completely alter the console’s home screen, including pinning tiles of various sizes and in different locations instead of having an area solely for pins.
Again, however, this isn’t a major surprise. Microsoft consistently updated its Xbox 360 with new interfaces, after all. Dell and other Microsoft partners also previously dropped significant hints that the next version of Windows would come to Xbox One, as they frequently noted that Microsoft had told them Windows apps would soon run on the platform.
But what about tablets?
When noting some of the shortcomings of Windows 8, Joe Belfiore, leader of the Windows product definition and design team, said the dichotomy between the Metro and desktop environments caused problems and “we don’t want that duality.” He wasn’t specifically discussing tablets, but Windows tablets are perfect examples of why that dichotomy is a problem, as touching a screen doesn’t work well when it comes to traditional desktop applications.
“In Windows 8, when a user went and launched a ‘modern’ app, it sort of carried with it a different environment,” Belfiore said. “They went into the modern UI environment, which at first didn’t have the taskbar and offered different ways of switching between apps. And when they launched a desktop app, it took them to the desktop environment. We don’t want that duality.”
This about-face from Windows 8 is welcome, if relatively late, as users have lambasted the dual environments since before Windows 8 launched. When Microsoft first offered the Windows 8 preview, for instance, I wrote about how the two interfaces seemed like a hodgepodge that didn’t work very well. But the dual interfaces were only part of the problem with Windows 8. The other major problem with Windows 8 was when the interfaces didn’t fit the device type, which makes Microsoft’s tablet interface mockups – yes, two tablet interfaces – all the more interesting.
Tablets have been a struggle for Microsoft, and it appears the company may combat that with different interfaces for small and large tablets.
In Microsoft’s Windows 10 device mockups, a small tablet (likely representing tablets with screens smaller than 9 inches) and large tablet (likely screens 9 inches or larger) have different interfaces. The smaller tablet has an interface identical to the smartphone, whereas the larger tablet simply has a desktop – the same desktop that didn’t work well on early Windows 8 tablets.
Microsoft didn’t talk about Windows 10 on mobile devices, which makes the mockups even more fascinating. Does the larger tablet simply represent devices with Intel and AMD processors? If so, why didn’t its mockup feature the continuum interface, as Microsoft did with the hybrid device mockup? If the smaller tablet has the smartphone interface, will its home screen only operate in a portrait orientation, as with current Windows Phone devices? That would be a drastic move from current Windows tablets, which tend to work better in landscape orientation, though they also support portrait orientation.
The answers to these questions and several others that result from the slide may not be answered anytime soon. Information on the consumer features of Windows 10 isn’t expected until early next year, but Microsoft’s answers may help consumers decide if Windows tablets are something they will want, as the company’s early tablet offerings weren’t exactly wildly successful.
The slide wasn’t the only interesting aspect of the event when it came to information – or the lack of information – about tablets, however. Myerson and Belfiore refused to discuss was what will happen to ARM-powered Surface tablets when Windows 10 launches. When asked that specific question, the duo dodged the issue entirely, saying the company plans “to update the vast majority of devices out there.” Given that ARM-powered Windows devices have only existed for two years, they obviously don’t encompass that vast majority.
ARM-powered devices will still be supported, as Windows 10 will be available on smartphones. Belfiore even stressed the company’s commitment to mobile devices, though he didn’t give any hints for tablets specifically.
“If you look at the broad spectrum for Windows 10, certainly mobile has grown a ton,” he said at yesterday’s event. “People have gotten incredibly comfortable with touch experiences on really small devices, up through tablets. And the phenomenon of two-in-ones – devices that are very laptop-like but sometimes are tablets – we think is a huge opportunity for our OEM partners, all of whom are building lots of really innovative devices, and for businesses around the world to go make productive people even more productive.”
So what will Windows look like on tablets next year? Probably not like what it looks like on tablets this year, and that’s where things will get really interesting.