A major wave of computing products launching with Windows 8 was announced this week, at IFA. It’s exciting, not only because the PC ecosystem is demonstrating its belief in a renewed selling cycle, but also that, for perhaps the first time, we’re seeing hardware designed from the get-go to be tailored to the operating system at its heart. Touch-first devices are everywhere, but so is the emphasis on content creation and productivity, in addition to content consumption.
The focus on making SoC systems work great in Windows 8 has manifested itself in the various Windows RT and Windows 8 PCs, based on Intel’s latest SoC product. Traditional clamshells are taking advantage of the resolution scaling work as well, and then adding touch. And perhaps best of all, PC makers are starting to build brands and awareness around their suite of products. Samsung ATIV, ASUS Vivo. It’ll certainly be easier to remember and associate than (ASUS) Tablet 810.
We also saw the very first commercial Windows Phone 8 device, the ATIV S from Samsung. It seems to have taken the Galaxy S III’s components, for the most part, and slipped them into a nicer, more premium shell. I’m looking forward to more Windows Phone announcements next week, with Nokia’s Wednesday event.
Over the past couple years, the Hotmail team made some changes to the user experience of the webmail client. However, it still had numerous design challenges, like multiple layers of action/navigation toolbars, colour gradients, and too many borders and lines explicitly dividing the page (busy). It was distracting from the main purpose of the experience, reading and writing emails.
Outlook.com significantly reduces these extraneous visual flairs and simplifies the interface significantly. The search box is now located where you navigate through folders (it used to be top-right, above the email previews for some reason), the header has been reduced in height to free up space for content, and the multiple rows of navigation links have been reduced to a single, context-aware set.
The focus is on content, and that’s great.
I don’t receive a whole ton of email, but they do range from personal emails to newsletters from some store or another. The sweep and mailbox cleanup functions are fantastic for clearing the inbox out of old, crusty content. Then, to further tease out the really important emails, there are some predefined filter views, which will highlight shipping notifications (tracking numbers), emails with document or photo attachments, or any other flagged content.
Again, it’s about breaking through
Ads have become far less intrusive this time around. In Hotmail, ads were colourful, prominent and irrelevant. That’s the most basic and crude way of getting someone’s attention, but almost always, it did so in a negative sense.
In Outlook.com, the focus appears to be on surfacing deals. There is only a limited attempt to make these relevant (and in fact, Outlook.com says it’s explicitly not reading personal emails, only newsletters, which is a pretty good indicator as well). It appears to occupy a similar amount of space on the right-hand side of the screen, compared to Hotmail’s ads.
It occupies this area until you move into an email from a human. Then, the ad suddenly transforms into the sender’s latest social update, if you’ve linked something like Facebook or Twitter with your Microsoft Account. (Ads only appear when no email is selected or the email is from a mailing list, newsletter, etc.) It’s a pretty neat feature, certainly much more contextual and relevant than the ads. There are inline buttons that allow you to take action on their updates, but for the most part, open up a new tab to the service’s site to perform the action. Facebook “Likes” appears to be an exception, and can be done without leaving your emails.
Then, there’s the little message bubble icon that will replace all that with an integrated Messenger sidebar. You can kick off conversations, stylized in the Windows Phone or Windows 8 app manner. It fits well and feels integrated, as opposed to the little floating windows at the bottom of the page. Even more, message history can be saved into a folder.
Also more publicized than before is the idea of email aliases. If you don’t want to give out your primary email address, you can create an alias, which can be filtered to a subfolder. You can then send email from either the primary email account or from the alias. It’s simple way of keeping your private and more public identities somewhat separate, but conveniently access it all from a single interface.
Sometimes, I feel as this guy does. No, I’m not going to Google nor am I extraordinarily fascinated by Identity (with a capital I). I share his gripe that there are simply too many interesting things happening at my place of work that I cannot write about. There was a point in time, long before I even worked at Microsoft, much less Windows, that I thought, if I get a sweet job, on the inside, I’ll finally have so many interesting things to write about, with a unique perspective.
But that’s not the way it works. NDAs and social writing guidelines aside, I only rarely itch to chime in or counter someone else’s internet arguments on this major event or that news item, relating to Microsoft or Windows. And, it’s not for a lack of interest.
There are times that I read an article that is so offensive and misleading, that I want to hastily reply in counter. Everyone has their opinion (myself included, like I’m writing, here), but the difference in recent years with the explosion in internet usage, that opinion can now be easily amplified and touch many more people, be it worthy or worthless (and sometimes, plain, outright malicious).
I work directly with Windows ecosystem partners, so I fully understand the importance of appropriate disclosure and confidentiality. While, everyone has an opinion, the appropriate use of disclosure helps companies and brands more effectively build an opinion that they want. Leaks are nearly by definition a sneak peak at an incomplete set of information on some topic. People naturally fill in missing context and information in a manner that makes them content. Whether that means speculating with optimism or FUD depends on what side of the fence you’re on.
But, allow for appropriate confidentiality and a planful message and more often you get closer to the desired outcome and interpretation. That’s why I’ve liked the approach Microsoft has taken in recent times, and, despite sometimes wanting to yell out my thoughts and opinions, it would undermine the message.