Does that new Xbox 360 Dashboard look nice to you? Me too. Microsoft’s been very uncharacteristic, of late. It’s suddenly started to produce products that can be genuinely described as ‘attractive’, ‘enjoyable’ and ‘well thought-out’. Thanks to some talented (and presumably new) user interface designers, Microsoft’s about to see a 2012 where everything it offers is exceptionally pretty – a 2012 where it could very well claw the ‘coolness’ top spot of tech status symbols away from Apple for the first time ever.
Today we’ve been gifted a launch date of December 6th for the new-look Xbox 360 Dashboard. If it looks familiar, it’s because it borrows from the ‘Metro’ look found on Windows Phone 7. The Metro UI also forms the basis of Windows 8, which is set to land in April next year, and when that happens, Microsoft will be offering a PC and tablet operating system, a smartphone platform and a games console interface that all bear a striking resemblance to one-another.
It’s a cross-platform aesthetic that’ll mean you’ll instantly be able to recognise a product as belonging to Microsoft. It’ll be the first time that’s ever happened and it’ll be a revolutionary step in the right direction for a company that’s historically put far more focus on function than form.
The switch to this uniform of minimalist cascading tiles hasn’t been an overnight one. I remember showing friends a Windows Phone 7 handset shortly after the platform had launched; there was genuine shock when they discovered that this slick, animated and wholly different mobile experience had come out of the same Seattle campus as Windows XP. That’s how much of a shock it’d been, especially to a UK-based public who’d never used a Zune Player. Even Stephen Fry, famously an Apple cohort, conceded that Windows Phone 7 was a thing of beauty, claiming that it gave him “enormous pleasure” to use.
And it does, but for a while it was the left-field oddity of the Microsoft brand. It was as if the talented work experience kid had been allowed to do something different and his design somehow escaped into the real world. That’s how un-Microsoft it was. Then it all started to come together. Excited Microsoft exec Jensen Harris unveiled Windows 8 in a behind-the-scenes video in June 2011. It was radically different to Windows 7. It was essentially Windows Phone on a bigger scale.
The tiles were there, it was optimised for touch with big, finger-friendly buttons. The colours were fresh and bold. Microsoft were showing us a PC operating system so far removed from anything they’d ever done before that, if you subscribe to the idea of it being ‘the future’ as I do, Apple’s Mac OS X suddenly felt a bit old-school by comparison. It’s not, of course, but UI design is all about how something makes you feel and how much it can make you can forget you’re using a machine. In that respect, Windows 8 looks nothing like the computer we’ve been brought up using. Mac OS X still does.
Now, as mentioned, that tiled, side-scrolling Metro look is coming to the Xbox Dashboard on December 6th. Once that and Windows 8 are all available, it’ll be the culmination of some pretty serious and brave changes from within Microsoft HQ. I can only guess where this newfound emphasis on design and fluidity has come from, but my brain won’t process the notion that it’s Steve Ballmer. Whoever it is, in my opinion it all works. It’s a massive departure and a step towards a kind of aesthetic uniformity that Microsoft’s never achieved before.
I’d be interested now to find out what’s now going on in Apple HQ. With Steve Jobs’ passing rocking the company and a reshuffle putting Tim Cook in charge, there’s more pressure than ever to keep the innovation flowing. Apple’s been championing this cross-platform syncing for much longer than Microsoft, of course. The most recent example is Mac OS X lion, which tried its best to convince me I’d gone mad with its reversed scrolling, a la the iPad.
Launchpad is also ripped straight from iOS, and points to a future where the Mac and the iDevice move more and more in line with one-another. That’ll be a slow process, with many a Mac fan protesting at the over-simplification that seems to be filtering in. That said, it’s ‘simplification’ that has that pleasing effect of connecting you to the machine in a more symbiotic way, and in that sense I think Microsoft may have the edge by virtue of the massive and more immediate gear shift that is Windows 8.
There is one big caveat to all this, though. In previews of Windows 8, the Metro UI occasionally feels more like a skin for Windows 7 than a complete replacement. When you open Excel, for instance, you’re back to something instantly familiar and, in comparison to the new Start screen, a touch archaic. You could argue that this strikes the balance between simplicity and functionality required of a PC operating system, but I feel as though more design time needs to be shoved into Office than has been up to this point.
That aside, the crux of this whole piece is the idea that radical thinking has wormed its way into Microsoft for the first time. It’s been well documented that the perceived Apple has shifted or is shifting from the cool underdog to something of an anti-hero, and if Microsoft’s newly-found consistency and ease of use penetrates the mindset of the masses, 2012 could very well be the year that Microsoft becomes the leader in hipster terms as well as just for business users.
2012 could be the year that Apple sees itself relegated to second fiddle behind Microsoft for the kind of consumers who use tech as a status symbol, which is something I never, ever thought I’d say.
This might all come to nothing if Microsoft doesn’t do something about its famously dire adverts, but on that score: check out the cringeworthy Windows TV ad below and focus on the very end: Metro UI tiles flipping in and out. They’re preparing your brain for coolness. Couple that with increased attention to industrial design in the form of Intel’s Ultrabooks and, in my opinion, Microsoft will end up owning every computer market.
Agree or disagree? Let us know your thoughts below.