Why is Microsoft obsessed with live tiles, and why doesn't Apple care?

Why is Microsoft obsessed with live tiles, and why doesn't Apple care?

Summary: Wherever you go, Microsoft puts the Start screen and live tiles front and centre when it comes to Windows 8 and Windows Phone. But Apple seems nonplussed about ripping off the idea. Why?

TOPICS: Windows

Can you spot the similarities between these two Windows 8 machines from Lenovo and HP?

HP and Lenovo side-by-side
A Lenovo Yoga and HP Envy side-by-side.

That's right. The screenshots are the same. In fact, the screenshots from all of the OEMs are always the same. It's always Friday 8, you've always just got an email from Wendy Teo, and it's always 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

And it doesn't matter whether it's a desktop, a tablet, a hybrid, an all-in-one, or anything. It's always the same image.

Wherever you go, whatever you look at, Microsoft's position on Windows 8 is that you will look at the Start screen and you will look at live tiles.

This theme continues over on Windows Phone. Official product shots from HTC, Nokia, and others always put the Start screen with live tiles front and centre — although these guys seem to have more leeway about what image they show.

The fact is that the Start screen and live tiles has become the "totem" in a reimagined and reinvented Windows.

But this week much has been made about how with Apple's iOS 7, despite apparently borrowing inspiration from various quarters, Ive and Co have steadfastly refused to rip-off live tiles or even their closest analogue on the market leader by sales: widgets on Android.


Just to be clear, I think live tiles are over-thought, unhelpful, and offer little value to the owners of post-PC devices. Similarly, I don't think that widgets on Android are particularly helpful either. I wasn't surprised that iOS 7 doesn't have anything like it and continues to stick to the simple, baseline usability of what some people call "a sea of icons."

But regardless of what I think, don't you think it's interesting that we have the following situation:

  • Apple is the market leader in producing consumer-focused compute devices. Their products are celebrated and enjoyed around the world by consumers and have been for many, many years. However, when rebooting iOS, they avoided doing live tiles or widgets.

  • Microsoft does not have similarly demonstrable capabilities around producing consumer-focused compute devices. (Windows Phone does not sell as well as iOS or Android, and Windows tablets do not sell as well as iPads. Xbox does better.) Yet Microsoft's marketeers have aligned their entire representation of their consumer products in the market around this one, single, unifying image of Start screen and live tiles.

Or to put it more simply: "Company A, which is the best in the world at consumer usability, sees Company B's offerings and utterly ignores it."

Why would Apple ignore the Start screen and live tiles if they were such a good idea?

We know that it won't be an (entirely) emotional decision. Apple isn't a collective of hippies, it's a corporate behemoth full of some of the smartest technicians in the world. Apple's engineers are not going to avoid replicating the Start screen and live tiles because of pride.

An advantage of working in a more mature market is that competitors are out there trying ideas that you can steal. Apple hasn't stolen Microsoft's approach, despite the fact that Microsoft is a) hungry for it to work, b) must have thought about it as a great idea, and c) must have been able to quantify it as being a great idea.


What got me thinking about this was this fantastic piece by Wes Miller: "Content, not chrome. Apps, not the phone." In this piece, Wes talks about how pro and amateur industry-watchers seem obsessed about the iOS 7 "shell" (i.e. the bit that launches apps), whereas the story with iOS is and always has been about the apps.

Or, more to the point, it's about the data behind the apps. When someone is using their phone, they're actually trying to get at data. On post-PC devices which are relationship-centric, they're always actively working to get through to the people and things that are important to them.

In the context of driving relationships, the shell becomes something that you simply want to fade into the background. You don't take your phone out of your pocket to "launch the Facebook app." You take your phone out of your pocket to "connect with people on Facebook."

Part of Microsoft's challenge as they face a post-PC world is that they're undoubtedly, stonkingly good at doing enterprise stuff, but consumer stuff is much more of a challenge.

If you look at the Start screen/live tiles from a certain angle, you can see something...

It's an enterprise dashboard, much like you might see on a corporate intranet.

Except for rather than showing you what the last week's sales in the western region were, or what the average waiting time for an operator to handle customer calls is, it's showing you your next appointment, or the current weather, or your last email, or a news headline, or whatever.

Now that I've written that, it seems quite a helpful approach. "OK," you may think, "I can glance at my phone and see that headline dashboard information."  

But is it? Is anything shown on a live tile actually helpful within the context of why you've accessed the device in the first place?

If you're using it on a PC, frankly who cares about live tiles? A PC is about focused work. The reason why you're sitting in front of it is to do something, and unless what you're doing is a watching-paint-dry-like activity such as actually waiting for live tiles to update, you're going to blast through Metroland to get to the actual, useful, usable part of your PC.

And if it's on Windows Phone, as per my previous point, your objective is to get to a deeper and more meaningful collection of data.

Take the email tile. That's utterly useless. What's the point of showing one email? If I'm checking my email I need to know the totality of what's outstanding. The only useful information the email live tile can show me is that "I have zero emails."

The problem with the dashboard approach on post-PC devices is they rail against the "monochronicity" which is central to what makes those devices usable. Monochronicity means "one thing at a time," and puts front and centre this fact: the reason why you access your smartphone or tablet is to drive down into an app. The shell should, in monochronistic operating systems, which all post-PC operating systems are, fade into the background.

This is the central thrust of Wes's article that I called out earlier and why, I believe, Apple ignored live tiles and widgets in their iOS 7 reboot.


I don't really care whether the Start screen-slash-live tiles-slash-dashboard approach is a good one or not, what I care about is that this approach has become the whole story in terms of what Microsoft talks to the market about when it comes to Windows 8.x and Windows Phone.

If you look at what Apple does, it doesn't do this. Apple's marketing on iOS devices is always about the relationships. The latest TV spot they're doing around music on the iPhone is about the user's relationship with themselves and their relationship with music they love.

This is what Apple gets, and Microsoft doesn't, and moreover what Microsoft needs to get if it's going to appeal to consumers. These devices are about relationships, about deep connections with people and things that you love.

They are not boxes designed to tell you, at a glance, what the weather is outside.

People have a thing for doing that already. It's called a window.

Apple's "Music Every Day" ad — the focus here being the user's relationships with their music.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Lenovo, HP

Topic: Windows

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  • Neither Fish Nor Fowl

    Android has static icons and live widgets on its home screens. Microsoft had the idea to combine both. Unfortunately it did it in a stupid way, limiting the available sizes--Android not only allows more sizes of widgets, it also supports resizable ones on 4.0 and later. The result is that Windows tiles just end up taking too much space for the information they display.

    And it's a hoot to see "live tiles" dancing around even when they're blank: "Hey, look at me! Nothing to see here!"

    I get the feeling the whole of TIFKAM was designed by lawyers: they figured no self-respecting vendor would admit to being the inspiration for such a monstrosity.
    • How do your live tiles dance around?

      Mine don't seem to change except when they change information in the square. No dancing or moving at all. Given your love of linux and foss I highly doubt you regularly deal with any live tiles.
      Sam Wagner
      • He's a troll.

        Just ignore him, and move on.

        Personally, I don't like live tiles.

        However, I dislike static icons even more than I hate Microsoft's implementation.

        I hate having to open an application just to do something, only to close it 5 seconds later.

        This is why I enjoy using Android and WP8 devices.

        With Android, you're given widgets.

        You're not forced to open a Weather app just to check a simple number.

        With WP8, the simple ability to glance at your phone and turn away is a killer "feature" in itself.

        Also, checking the weather outside is less than ideal if you're in the center of a building.

        You can't see through a window if you're far away from one, after all.

        Did the author think about that?
        • Agree with you about widgets

          Looking at my Note 2 screens, here are the widgets I have:

          HD Widgets Weather
          Favorite Contacts (3 across)
          Gmail Widget
          Samsung's Calendar Widget
          Flipboard Widget
          Appy Geek Widget
          T-Mobile data usage widget
          SoundHound Widget
          Assistive Light Widget (basically a flashight)

          Normally I agree with Mr Baxter-Reynolds but I have to be at odds with him here. I can't tell you how many times I've used the SoundHound widget. It's also nice to see how much data I've used without opening an app. Why open the Calendar when it will tell me everything I need for that day or in the next few hours without opening anything. FlipBoard shows me what's happening now and if it grabs me, I go deeper. And if I must use the flashlight widget (Assistive Light) - and I have needed it in a hurry - why scroll thru a bunch of apps when it's right there.

          May Mr. Baxter-Reynolds doesn't have apps with useful widgets on his phone if he has an Android phone as a daily driver (I suspect Android or MS isn't his primary device). While I am not sold on Windows/Windows Phone, I like that the option to use Live Tiles exists should I want something different.
      • You have to give them

        food and water or they die. If you feed them stuff they like then they will dance around.
        • Indeed

          Like a proper Tamagotchi should perform.
          • Apple is the real tamagotchi

            they make sure they don't deny you the opportunity to swipe, tap, tap, home, swipe , tap, tap, tap, swipe, home, tap, tap, home, tap
            instead of just looking at the screen and getting all the information with no lag
          • Guess you should have read the article

            then you could have posted something that might have been relevant, D'oh!
          • I don't get it

            Swipe tap tap, home... You must have the attention span of a two year old.
          • Might I ask how a trackpad.....

            which other manufacturers liked so well (and was copied) and marketed for PCs as well (see logitech's site) has anything to do with a Tamagotchi and you're easily bruised Windows user bias ego? Oh and by the way I bought one of those logitech trackpads to replace a mouse on my Windows XP workstation (at work) and I like it as much as my MacBook Pro trackpad.
        • Odd that you claim everyone else dances, when your very name

          says that you enjoy it far more then most.

          I guess that's what happens when they feed you stuff you like, right DancingTamagotchiTroll?

          LOL! I like that name for you!
          William Farrel
      • live tiles are like glass jars

        they show information about the content's texture, shape, size, quantity so you don't have to label the jars or open them up to find out if you are running out of multiple items. When you need more interaction with the content, you open the jar and can smell the coffee beans.
        With the iOS kitchen cupboard, you have to open each ceramic jar to get any information about the content. And you need to label the jars, and maybe add static picture to ease indentification. Your pickles may have turned black in the jar, but the picture on the jar looks fresh all the time.
        This is information lag
        • ..and that must be why

          Start 8 and Classic shell are such popular options on a Windows 8 desktop (because everyone just loves those tiles...;) SARCASM X 10 INTENDED !!
          • Apple and Microsoft Developer

            The smart tiles are well..Smarter than static icons no matter Windows or IOS. Much more useful. I own Mac Book Pros, a Windows Phone and Windows 8 along with all previous window iterations going back to XP. People sound moronic making a big deal out of the Win8 start screen when it is no different than a Windows XP desktop screen except with more useful information thanks to smart tiles. The and showing the user a red circle with a one or star or whatever as indicators is so last decade-ish. And to the Start Button idiots, boo frikity hoo. You don't to click a button to see your programs because the Start Screen presents them to you. A simple swipe from the bottom (or short key) gets you access to all apps installed. So learn to swipe from the bottom as opposed to clicking. It could change your life!
    • Android widgets

      The Android widgets are far more than you give them credit for.
      • WTF

        I've used tiles and widgets. I definitely think the author of the article has never ever really used them, or he's just trolling to get clicks.

        - No, opening a weather app is not better than just having it presented on the homescreen.
        - No having to go through settings to enable tethering is not better than toggling it with a single tap on the homescreen
        - No, not being able to see what emails I got is not better than being able to see what emails I got from the homescreen.

        And yes, blatantly copying a core feature of a rival operating system is not just an issue because of patent litigation, it's also a possibly very bad marketing move.
        • No one uses Windows phone

          Look, No one even owns a Windows Phone. Microsoft like only sold three Windows Phones so these are all Microsoft employees here talking up Microsoft because they are in fear of Microsoft going under. Businesses are already moving their applications to the loud in preparation for Microsoft going out of business. Linux, unlike Windows can never go out of business because it is Open Source. Linux will live where as Windows is already showing signs of an imminent death.
          • What?

            Are you smoking something?

            Imminent death?
            Michael Alan Goff
          • not imminent

            lingering, long after all the would-be mourners have gotten tired of the death scene and left
          • Microsoft should soften its' stance

            It would have been polite to say not everyone wants a Windows phone. I personally don't want any smart phone (by any manufacturer) nor do I want a smart phone operating system on my desktop. Microsoft should allow for the installation without Metro as an option. The standard desktop GUI could have all the performance benefits of 8 without tiles, full screen apps, and the awful mail program running default on it.