Over the past week, both Microsoft and Apple previewed their new desktop operating systems. Both explicitly pull their interactions from their respective smartphone user interfaces. Here’s Microsoft’s Windows 8: The start screen appears to be a super-sized version of the Windows Phone 7 user interface, with tiles that provide summary information about "apps" (apparently we can’t call them "programs" or "applications" anymore). The desktop interface can be manipulated through various touch gestures (or quaintly via mouse), much like Apple’s forthcoming Lion OS, previewed here: Apple’s new desktop OS is clearly mapped from the iOS of its handhelds in visual appearance and behavior, and it even has its own version of the app store.
The constraints of limited screen sizes and inputs drove more creativity.
It may seem counterintuitive that smaller, handheld devices are influencing the interaction design of larger, more powerful laptops and desktop systems –- especially since it used to be the other way around: earlier versions of smartphone operating systems, such as Windows Mobile, were desktop operating systems that had been shrunk to fit onto handheld devices. As a result, users struggled with miniature menus and other interaction elements that simply did not scale down well. Alternatives, such as the Palm Treo smartphones, provided touch interfaces that were designed more effectively for their size but didn’t integrate directly with more familiar Mac and Windows desktop experiences. Smartphone and tablet interface technology developed rapidly, as consumers updated their phones more frequently than their laptops. For interface designers, the constraints of limited screen sizes and inputs drove simpler and more creative solutions that could subsequently influence interaction design on larger screens. But rather than thinking of this as a one-way influence, it is more accurately described as a convergence, with the goal of making desktops as simple to use as smartphones, while smartphones become as interactively rich and powerful as desktops. In the long term, this might eventually enable Apple and Microsoft, and others, to each provide and maintain a single operating system to serve across the range of their product platforms. In the short term, new operating-system features will sell more hardware and software. But there are potential benefits to consumers as well: Consistent interaction experiences across different types of devices can improve ease of learning and ease of use, as well as increase efficiencies in sharing apps and data across devices. So it’s not surprising that both Windows 8 and Lion are being influenced by smartphone and tablet interactions and terminology. And while Apple and Microsoft have been borrowing interface ideas from each other for years, it’s striking how their next-generation desktops are focusing on many of the same specific details. For example, both operating systems are emphasizing full-screen application views, and gestures for switching between running applications. Both even provide an ergonomically split keyboard for touchscreen typing: Separated at birth? Which features will ultimately prove the most useful on either operating system remains to be seen. Convergent interaction design has it benefits, but potential usability and ergonomic limitations as well — the keyboard/mouse paradigm has been tough to unseat (for good reasons) for over a quarter of a century.