Microsoft will officially release Windows 8 to the public on Friday, and although company executives would never say so, they must be at least a little bit nervous about it. After all, the user interface (formerly known as Metro) is the most radical redesign of the operating system since Windows 95.
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The risk, of course, is that customers will respond with confusion, or worse: outright terror. The new Start screen looks entirely different from the traditional desktop (though that interface still exists), with floating, blocky tiles instead of files and folders. And it's almost entirely chrome-less -- even basic things like the battery indicator and clock are hidden from view until you touch a button or the screen.
Believe it or not, Microsoft doesn't delight in freaking out its customers, and there is a reason it went with an interface that's so different and mind-bogglingly Spartan. This is Windows designed for the connected user, from the ground up.
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"We started looking at big trends in the industry and asked, 'How does Windows fit in?'" says Sam Moreau, director of design and research for Windows. "Most of the Windows metaphors -- the desktop, the taskbar, the control panels, the start menu -- all those things were invented in the Windows 95 era. Windows 95 didn't even have a browser."
As computing evolved over the last two decades, the Internet and shared media played a larger and larger role, elevating the browser from a mere app to the centerpiece of the connected experience. However, the system it was running on stayed stubbornly the same.
"All the things since then that you care about -- like a browser, like an MP3 file, the PC as a communications device --- none of those things were native to the UI of windows," Moreau points out. "An application created a file, and you could put a file in a folder. That was basically what the operating system did."
Microsoft set out to modernize the PC experience with Windows 8. Instead of static icons, apps now have animated "live tiles" on the Start screen that serve up fresh information at regular intervals. It's a far cry from when the only thing connected to the Internet in a dynamic way was the browser.
"There's tons of stuff on the Internet," says Moreau, "And your PC basically has this little straw -- Internet Explorer -- to see all this. We didn't think that should be the case. The whole PC should be about that. Part of what the Start screen is really about is making all this activity -- these people that you care about, and all this information -- sort of explode so you're immersed in it."
That immersion comes at a cost, however, and there are few clear signposts on how to do things, such as how to call up your tabs, change your PC setting, or just shut the darn thing off. Moreau explains why Microsoft would choose to leave new users with few visual clues about the capabilities of the UI.
"We have a design philosophy, and one of the aspects of it is putting the information that you care about at your fingertips. Everything else we want to recede. It should be the best presentation of the thing the person cares about. It's their photos -- it's not wrapping it in big buttons that say it's a photo. You don't need that," he says.
"[Visual cues] are good for one-time discoverability. But then that's always there -- it's kind of always barking at you, in your periphery, that [the UI] can do these things."
What do you think of user interface design in Windows 8, and the philosophy behind it? Share your thoughts in the comments.
BONUS: A Tour of Windows 8
New Start Screen
The Windows 8 Release Preview has many more dynamic live tiles, with new apps like News, Sports and Travel adding images and headlines to the mix.
This story originally published on Mashable here.