Microsoft wins design battle, loses war

The Microsoft Zune

In 2006, Microsoft introduced the Zune, its ill-fated portable music player. But the Zune legacy lived on with a fresh approach on interface design that led to the launch of Metro, the interface now prevalent in everything Microsoft does, from its mobile efforts, to its flagship Windows operating system, to the Xbox, and even to the visual identity of the company.

At its core, this visual identity is based on the Swiss graphic style, which emphasizes typographic elements and clean, sparse graphic treatments, with an emphasis on reading. Their guidelines explain that the focus should not be on the interface (also known as the Chrome) but on the content or experience. But when they originally announced they would take this approach, some of the biggest supporters of the iPhone approach scoffed. John Gruber, at daring fireball, said:

Just about any new UI would be better than the existing Windows Mobile UI. But basing the new Windows Phone 7 UI on the Zune raises the question of why they think it’s going to fare any better than, well, the Zune.

Mike Elgan, in Computer World, saw the UI as dated:

So comparing the Zune UI to the iPod Touch UI isn’t like comparing AM radio to FM radio. It’s like comparing radio to television.

But somewhere along the way, something major happened. Microsoft’s view of a flater color palate, along with a higher emphasis on typography and a move away from showcasing one’s interface started gaining followers. The Metro UI, once reviled, started appearing more appealing to some people. In 2013, flat design, originally considered an over-simplification when Microsoft pursued it with its devices, started trending up, as renewed interest in typography and new approaches to presenting information on mobile devices had developers revisiting some older ideas.

Google Now Cards

And then, all of a sudden, Microsoft’s ideas on design were everywhere: Google, in its new products, started to adopt the spare typographic-centric approach, more recently with Google Now (The redesign of Gmail on tablets and mobile devices followed the same route and eventually); Other companies started removing interface elements and increasing whitespace, with an increased emphasis on the content; Color palettes went more neutral.

And pretty quickly, the outlandish ideas that Microsoft had pushed forward were not so outlandish anymore. When Android Jelly Bean was introduced in spring 2012, the UI went flatter, and Google’s guidelines for the OS’ iconography asked developers to develop a visual language that was “Neutral, flat, and simple.” When Blackberry released its new OS, its design was flat and heavy on typographic queues.

But there was one lone hold-out.

iOS7 Music interface

As one of the thought leaders in the mobile space, Apple could afford to do anything it wanted. Its legions of fans would generally follow the company in whatever direction it takes them, buying incremental guys as radical reinvention. But this week, at the WWDC, Apple showed a facet of itself that had not been seen in a long time: that of a company refining its offerings to match what the competition already had on the market.

And then, there was the interface, leading blogger Om Malik to quip on Twitter:

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