What does Microsoft Courier mean for UI developers?

So now the rumors of the Microsoft’s next stab at the tablet market seem to be getting more meat around them. And while Courier may never even see the light, it’s a good time to stop and think about the potential developer impact.

If all of the above was unfamiliar to you, check out Gizmodo’s breaking article on Courier. The video will also give you an idea of what to expect.

Here’s the but: Microsoft hasn’t traditionally been providing great device experiences. Xbox 360 is probably one of the best, and it’s taken almost four years to mature to this point. Instead, Microsoft is a platform company. So, in essence, most of what they do is to provide a platform somebody else can build software on.

People are learning to yearn for the CSI-style user experience: multi-touch everywhere, smooth animations, radical visualization of information. Great, but are we as developers up to the task? Could you develop an app for something as radically different as Courier is?

As if we weren’t confused yet…

Look at the stack of new UI technology we’ve seen already!

First, they introduced WPF and Silverlight. A great possibility for a facelift on Windows, but developer competence is gained slowly. The past-ingrained patterns of forms programming are not the core of future application UIs, but who’s teaching the new stuff? Heck, where do you even find visionary designers who can come up with the ideas? Most of us still struggle with the notion of animation in our UIs!

Second, we saw Surface. Much of it is fundamentally based on WPF concepts, but there’s something new as well. Surface table units could conceivably used by many users at the same time, from many different directions. The UI would no longer be simply oriented in one direction, but rather, several views intended for several different people would be rendered on the same screen – and from a “normal” viewport perspective, some views would be at arbitrary angles. Again, that’s nothing WPF wouldn’t do pretty cleanly – but who’s up for designing a UI that has a 90 degree diagonal corner at the bottom (i.e. is used on a Surface from a corner position)?

Third, we have multi-touch. Although already present in Surface, Windows 7 will bring this to the masses. It will take quite a few years more, but it’s coming. Normal single-touch UI can still be regarded as mouse input, but to truly take advantage of multi-touch takes more (take a look at some Channel 9 videos if you want to go deeper). And again: While developers have traditionally doubled as designers when drawing forms, how many developers are able to postulate a decent guess on what kind of gesture would a business app user want to use for a “promote lead” action? For that matter, how many designers would do that?

And now we have dual screens. Courier’s notion of two screens is different from dual monitors as we know it. It is two applications running simultaneously, each occupying one screen and then co-operating seamlessly. This won’t be hard technically, but again – two screens on a tablet form factor means new usage patterns to be learned. Would this thing work more easily if my CRM client list were on the left and my notes on the right, or should it be the other way around? What if I want to juxtapose a spreadsheet and a 3D model – which layout would prove most logical to use? How should 3D rotation work?

Courier apps, anyone?

It’s early to speculate, given that we don’t know if the product is ever going to launch. Even if it does, version one may not even have a programming API. But still, the problems are there, and somebody will be solving them even for the possible initial release. Even if that somebody is inside Microsoft, it will still set standards for a new kind of user experience.

It has taken many years before the laws of human physics have started to have an impact on technology – think how long cell phones were designed for near-perfect vision, for example! But given the way things are now, it’ll soon take more than passing technology competence before you can call yourself a User Experience professional. The psychological and physiological understanding of human learning and limitations will become a key element in the education of future software designers. Developers wanting to keep up had better not slack either.

September 23, 2009 · Jouni Heikniemi · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: General

One Response

  1. Heikniemi Hardcoded » More on future UIs - September 28, 2009

    […] while ago I wrote on Microsoft Courier and the UI design implications such a form factor would have. A bit farther in the future, it’s […]

Leave a Reply