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Microsoft's new interface for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, formerly known as Metro, is based on squares and rectangles of flat colour arranged on a seamless panoramic canvas; a complete break from the traditional desktop metaphor.
The new interface is a stylistic development of the look developed for Windows Phone 7, something that caused confusion when it was announced in 2010.
"When I first saw the Windows Phone UI ... I was genuinely surprised. The flatness of it, an awful lot of white space ... I mean, it was clearly a shift in direction from what we've been seeing on the other platforms," said Shane Morris, formerly a Microsoft user interface evangelist, but now a user experience designer with Automatic Studio.
"I literally thought that Microsoft was being very clever and not revealing the final user interface. Instead, it put in place these square, coloured placeholders where the user interface would be revealed," Morris told ZDNet.
But the interface was real, and the abandonment of the familiar desktop metaphor was also real. Microsoft believes that it's appropriate in the era of digital natives.
"We're at a point where our users are sufficiently confident with using information technology that they don't need the reassurance of those references to real-world objects. That would be Microsoft's argument," Morris said.
"That's why the new user interface has what a lot of this what we call chrome [borders, shading, textures, and the like on user interface elements] stripped out, the argument being we can just focus on the actual information now," he said.
"You manipulate the content itself. You drag it, you drop it, you poke it. As an old-school usability guy, I found that quite confronting. Traditionally, my job was to provide enough signals onscreen to communicate to users what you're supposed to do."
In his presentation at Microsoft TechEd 2012 this week, Morris showed how the Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 interfaces have evolved from Microsoft's previous content-focused interfaces for Media Center and Zune.
"Those applications similarly don't have a lot of chrome, the focus on the content, there's a lot of animation, a lot of use of text," he said.
The inspiration for Microsoft's new visual style can be traced back to design schools from the middle of the 20th century, including the International Style or Swiss School, the Bauhaus movement, and motion graphics such as the cinematic title designs of Saul Bass, as well as the wayfinding signage used in airports and urban transit systems.
Stilgherrian attended Tech.Ed Australia 2012 as a guest of Microsoft.
The desktop metaphor, with folders of files and overlapping windows, is now more than three decades old. Developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), it made its first commercial apearance in the Xerox Star (pictured) in 1981, before its evolution through the Apple Lisa, Apple Macintosh, and Microsoft Windows to the many variations we see today.