I’ve been absolutely fascinated over the last few months with the developing cohesion of the respective Apple and Microsoft ecosystems. On the one hand, Apple is attempting to unify their user experiences across their mobile and desktop platforms via cloud services and UI interaction models. On the other hand, Microsoft is unifying their user interfaces across mobile, desktop, gaming, online services, and server platforms, and unifying the settings in each device category via cloud services. I’d like to detail my perspective on the design path for each ecosystem.
With the introduction of iOS, Apple unveiled a brand new UI model. Many pundits have theorized over the last few years about Apple unifying the two platforms, similarly to how Microsoft has attempted to sell ‘Windows everywhere’.
While I’ve always admired Apple for their tightly integrated user experiences inside OS X, and the tightly integrated user experience inside iOS, the two platforms seemed very distinct and separate over the last few years. By rights, they are two very different platforms, with very different interaction models.
Apple made its first real attempt to unify the available services across the platforms with MobileMe, a less than stellar ‘cloud’ service intended to unify communications content across the platform, as provide hosted media sharing services. The service failed miserably, and Apple moved on.
Over the last year or so, with the introduction of iOS 5 and OS X Lion, Apple has positioned iCloud as a unified content service, bundled with any new Mac or iOS device. Developers can plug their OS X apps and iOS apps in, and expect the same content to be accessible (streamed or synced locally) on any device the user is signed into. There is also limited cloud front-end for some of Apple’s own apps, but I suspect that in a year or two we may see the iCloud front end open up to developers, and enable users to sign into a web portal to access their content.
In addition to unifying the accessible content across their platforms, Apple has also been unifying design elements across their platforms. The latest versions of OS X Lion and OS X Mountain Lion borrow design elements heavily from iOS. However, while certain design elements are heavily borrowed, OS X remains oriented toward keyboard/trackpad usage, and iOS remains heavily oriented toward direct touch interaction. They look visually similar, enough to put a new user coming from the other platform at ease, while still maintaining their respective, functional interaction optimizations. Add the user’s content being automatically available via iCloud, and a new user will feel right at home.
Microsoft has lagged behind in the mobile market over the last few years, having gone back to the drawing board after the success of iOS. With the introduction of Windows Phone 7 however, Microsoft unveiled an innovative new design language now called ‘Metro’, optimized for touch interaction.
Windows Phone 7, while not a mass-market share success, was well received and praised by critics for the UI. While very different from iOS, it was unique, very fluid, and felt very natural very quickly. Unfortunately however, it entered the smartphone market very late in the game, and was forced to compete with iOS and the various Android copies/competition.
This past year however, Microsoft began to implement the Metro design language across its platforms. The Xbox 360 saw the Kinect add-on and a firmware update, which changed the console UI to a virtual-touch UI model. Windows 8, client and server, were unveiled with dramatically changed UI’s. Gone is the old Start menu, replaced with a very in-your-face fullscreen Metro Start menu. Leaked screenshots of Office 15 also appear to signal a shift inside the office applications toward Metro. Microsoft has also been pushing developers very strongly to shift toward the Metro design language.
Microsoft has been positioning Windows with Metro UI as a single operating system and UI across their devices. Using Windows Live ID, users have their desktop settings synced from desktop to desktop, Xbox to Xbox, tablet to tablet, smartphone to smartphone, and so on. Content optionally can be synced via the Windows Live Skydrive, and is accessible through a web interface, while Office documents can be modified via Office Web Apps.
‘Windows everywhere’ means that a user will see the same UI across desktop and mobile, and have the same settings for their type of platform (gaming, mobile/desktop, smartphone), no matter where they sign in. This provides a consistent user interface across the Microsoft ecosystem. The issue with this approach however, is that the design of Metro UI is not really suited toward keyboard/mouse, but toward direct touch interaction. In addition, users used to the interaction model from the last 10 years of Windows OS, are now being forced to transition to a UI model that is not even tailored for their mode of interaction.
In summary, each approach is very similar, yet subtly and fundamentally different. Apple has opted for having the user’s content accessible to them everywhere, while interacting with that content through different, albeit similar, design interfaces on different device types. Microsoft on the other hand, has opted for the route of universally consistent UI interaction, and consistent settings within the individual device types, while optionally making content accessible across devices.