User Interface – We’re still in 1990

Here is what Windows was in 1990.

Windows 3.0 - A GUI long lived

Windows 3.0 - A GUI long lived

 

That is Windows 3.0. I only touched Windows 3.1 and later 3.11 but they are more or less the same GUI wise. It was a simple launcher. All your applications could be defined into different program groups and you launch them with a simple double click. I did spend quite a lot of time ensuring my program groups were lined up perfectly. OCD during primary school days I think.

The First Recognizable Smartphone OS GUI

This is what the popular Palm line of smartphones had as their GUI.

Palm OS launcher - The first popular smartphone UI

Palm OS launcher - The first popular smartphone UI

This is a coloured version. I personally used a Palm Zire and then Palm’s Treo 650 and there was nothing much different from Windows 3.0. Obviously you couldn’t have program groups tiled out because of the smaller screen estate but there were still program groups for organizational purpose. A simple tap launches programs.

Let’s have a look at the old Windows Mobile. This was a rival to Palm. I never owned one of these but you can see that there wasn’t much of a difference from Windows 3.0 or Palm for that matter. Same rule applies, screen of icons, tap to launch.

Windows Mobile - The Old

Windows Mobile - The Old

‘This Changes Everything’

You can understandably see why most geeks didn’t really get Apple’s tagline when iOS was launched with this interface. It is the same damned idea again.

Apple's OS. It's been the same from v1 to v5.

Apple's OS. It's been the same from v1 to v5.

And.. Android was not much different.

Android OS - Apple claims Google stole their UI. Hmmm.

Android OS - Apple claims Google stole their UI. Hmmm.

Separating Launchers

I have to cut Google and Microsoft some slack here. They had more than just a screen of icons. Windows Mobile 6.5 and before copied Windows 95’s GUI. The difference between this and the screen of icons is that the UI now included 2 elements instead of 1. You had a ‘desktop’ with shortcuts for often used applications. And then you have the ‘launcher’ or ‘start menu’ for a longer list of applications. In this sense, there was a separation from an all in one launcher. This was Windows 95 inspired. Many people were confused when Windows 95 more or less sent the Program Manager to the Recycle Bin. In a sense, one could say that Microsoft was leaning towards the Mac. The Start Menu was Microsoft’s version of the Apple’s Dock.

Now that was an interesting move but what did most users end up doing to their desktop? Did we see a desktop only having shortcuts to programs / files that were often accessed? Not really. This was what happened.

Oh the Clutter!

Oh the Clutter!

In short, people were resistant to change. They preferred their old way of having everything they wanted right in front of them even if that meant they had one helluva messy desktop. It must be observed that this became less prevalent in Windows Vista and 7 when app launching via keystrokes after firing the start menu caught on. But still, basic mainstream users had appalling desktops that actually gave rise to a product called ‘fences’ by StarDock.

Mobile

It is interesting that all mobile platforms bar Android took the old route of a Program Manager type of UI. I guess it is fair to say that it was most logical because such a UI is the very basic primary step that one could take when designing a new device. What is interesting that iOS has not changed in any way since that. This is coming from a company that derided the clutter of Windows and vainly pushed for their Dock styled launcher. One could make the argument that because screen estate was signficantly reduced it was smarter to go for the good ol’ screen of icons. Maybe.

Android followed the desktop and dock styled UI. You had an applications menu that mirrored the start menu. In fact, when I was explaining to my mom how to use her Samsung Galaxy S2, it was easiest to draw comparisons to current day Windows. Android brought widgets into play. Basically, it was exactly the same as widgets on a window’s desktop.

Minor Innovations

Of course, Apple and Android innovated a little. Apple brought in folders which more or less represented Program Groups. Both Apple and Android had ‘badges’ on top of icons to tell you how many messages were unread and the like. But that is about all.

The Next Step

Microsoft, often not credited with innovation, is making the boldest change forward. But it is occurring on both desktops and mobile platforms with Windows 8 and Windows Mobile 7.5. I won’t call it a quantum leap but it still represents a much larger leap compared to everything that has been done. I mean if you are comparing with adding badges, it’s not really hard to be seen as a larger leap.

Metro UI - Huge innovation but no paradigm shift

Metro UI - Huge innovation but no paradigm shift

Changes

Icons are still here. But they are no longer icons. They are like little standard sized widgets. They provide plenty of data and launch programs when tapped. The initial programs will not be well optimized as you can see in the screenshot above. The pictures metro icon should be a slide show. The facebook one should have text feeds running horizontally one by one. You get the idea.

The dock or start menu is kind of gone. The dock in a sense is till there. You get on the left swipe-able side of the metro interface and you have the taskbar in the desktop interface but there’s no start button and no start menu. I say good riddance to the start menu. Before Microsoft implemented a searchable start menu, most power users were already using Launchy. If you have not used Launchy before, go try it. It’s such a simple yet powerful productivity boost. It makes the gigantic start menu look like poo. I concede that Launchy is for power users who are fast typists. Mainstream users who are more visual and like the point and click style will not like it.

Inertia & Progress

Everyone hates it. Ok the majority does. They squeal at Microsoft for changing the Start Menu, I’m really glad its going away. It was a crap list of applications and should be removed. Metro UI will only become awesome when developers come on board and make full use of it. We’re looking at really well thought out widgets here not the simple ‘Now Playing’ type of widget. If the widgets remain as icons than the whole metro thing would be retarded.

All on Microsoft’s Developers

Microsoft has to incentivize developers to make full use of the Metro interface for both Windows and Windows Phone. If it ends up looking like a macro version of icons with badges, it will fail. It’s all in their hands now. If they can pull it off, we’re looking at the next major innovation in UI design again.

And I’m looking forward to moving away from a 22 year old user interface.



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