Improving the Windows Desktop in Windows Threshold Part 0

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There’s a lot that can be said about the Windows desktop, I’ve been loving, hating and brainstorming about it ever since I got my own Windows XP PC a good ten years ago. With each new release cycle of Windows I was excited to see the changes coming up next, and with each new release cycle I’ve been excited and disappointed at the same time. I could write a book about it. In this blog series I’ll take a look at some of the things they’ve done and some of the improvements they could make in the next version of Windows, slated to be announced soon.

 

Today, I’ll be talking about high-level desktop windowing. The screen you see when you boot up your PC. The experience you know and use every day. This hasn’t changed much over the last 20 years. This blog post will serve as an introduction and the current state of the Windows desktop

First let’s take a leap trough memory lane.

When looking at the evolution of Windows, the most notable changes are the taskbar upgrade in Windows 7 and the removal of the start menu in Windows 8. You’ll also notice that Microsoft overhauled the UI a couple of times, and they never really did a good job in my opinion. It looked old in the Windows 98 era, like a cheap child-CG cartoon in Windows XP, and too Web2.0 gradient glowy drop shadow infatuating in Windows Vista.

 

They did a much better job in Windows 7. It looked modern, still holds up today but it also wasn’t too much. The Explorer shell was clean, everything was where you expected it. It didn’t have prompts and annoying UAC warnings and the taskbar improvements were highly welcome. Then things went downhill with Windows 8. They flattened the desktop and all their controls in the wrong way, added a hideous implementation of the ribbon and kept the Vista-style icons. Everything just looks out of place with tons of alignment errors, it is white, too white for people that use their PCs in dark environments.

 

When looking at applications today, they implement their own kind of window chrome. Chrome uses the redundant space in the chrome to display tabs while other applications such as Visual Studio and Photoshop have their own style. I share people’s belief that Microsoft should cut window borders. Having these thick borders make your application feel confined and depending on the color choices it can make me downright nervous. In some cases there’s just too much window chrome.

 

 

The “Aero” window borders were somewhat nice in Windows 7, being transparent and always a little different depending on whatever was underneath of it. In Windows 8 they ruined this by making them one flat color, and really evil minimize/maximize/close buttons. And I haven’t even started on the ribbon UI.

 

 

Here are some Windows 8 desktops with the explorer shell and some color choices. The first one drives me mad. The second one is better because it fits in more with the background. The third one is what I use most of the time because the dark color makes the taskbar and window chrome disappear a little. It even hides the minimize/maximize buttons

 

Here’s a small WinForms app showing what the default controls look today

 

These are some of the same controls in a Modern app

 

An official mock-up image by Microsoft when they announced that Metro apps will run windowed in the next version of Windows has me worried:

 

 

It just doesn’t fit. That image perfectly shows the sheer difference between the 2 styles. The old Windows Vista-era and the Modern Windows 8 apps. It doesn’t feel coherent or connected as one experience. If Microsoft keeps it like this there will be two different styles of icons, 2 different styles of buttons, 2 different styles of scrollbars (yes, there’s a difference between the desktop and Metro gray scrollbars). The Mail app feels like it runs in a virtual machine.

 

Why is Microsoft afraid to remove window chrome, replace the old boring controls and icons by their modern Windows 8 style variant? Some simple tweaks like that would do wonders and would automatically give the desktop a modern and fresh look. Applications such as Photoshop, Visual Studio, Zune or Office 2013 already do this.

 

 

 

There are tons of great concepts out there for the future version of the desktop sharing this vision.

 

(Jay Machalani, Windows 8.2 Concept and great blog post)

 

Another great one is a concept by Sputnik8  from the Verge forums.

 

The above image is a neat concept, but it also changes completely how the explorer works (and we all know people hate change). This isn’t always necessary. A forum user on WinUnleaked (site taken down) took his/her inspiration from the Office apps to improve the Explorer and it’s ribbon UI.

 

 

Right away this feels much better. It’s modern and fresh even though the changes compared to the current explorer were minimal. The ribbon’s icons were updated along the same lines as other Windows 8 icons. Redundant items and borders around the search box were removed so everything feels less crammed together and more like a single experience.

 

I’ve edited the above concept slightly, adding a subtle gradient to get rid of some of the white, and making some small tweaks here and there like moving the search icon to the right where people expect it to be..

Some of the concepts online are very refreshing to see, and I hope Microsoft hires some of these people and uses these designs as an inspiration for the next version of Windows. I hope they don’t completely overhaul how things work, with people still getting used to the ribbon and clicking on the desktop tile on the Start Screen, but rather improve upon what’s already there and getting more of that “Windows 8 Modern style” in the desktop so everything feels like a single package.

 

Windows 9/Threshold is currently in development, with a preview release rumored for release later this year. While UI redesigns usually happen late in the development process at Microsoft, I hope to catch a glimpse of this when the OS is officially announced soon.

 

Thanks for reading, more Windows and GameDev related post coming soon.

 

Nick

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