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Microsoft opines: Vista was 'cheesy'; drops Aero

Microsoft has ditched Aero Glass for the Windows 8 desktop.

Windows 8 desktop.
Windows 8 desktop.

Microsoft published a "brief" history of the Windows interface in a blog post today that offered some flashes of candor about Vista and Windows 95 and argued that the tablet as we know it today is one device too many. Redmond also said it was dropping Aero Glass.

First and foremost, Microsoft said it has "moved beyond" Aero Glass on the Windows 8 desktop, in Friday's Building Windows 8 post.

"We spent a lot of energy carefully considering how substantially to update the appearance of the desktop in Windows 8...Our primary goal was to bring visual harmony to Windows, while still preserving much of the familiar feel of the Windows 7 desktop and not sacrificing the compatibility of existing apps," writes Jensen Harris, director of program management for the User Experience team at Microsoft, who penned the blog.

"In the end, we decided to bring the desktop closer to the Metro aesthetic...We have moved beyond Aero Glass -- flattening surfaces, removing reflections, and scaling back distracting gradients."

Harris also lays out "a brief history of the Windows user interface" that is anything but brief. (True to the blog's prolix style.). Then takes a tour of the interface from Windows 1 to Windows 8.

Some highlights of "Creating the Windows 8 user experience":

  • Windows 1 and the "dubious value" of the mouse: Windows 1, released in 1985, was a "rough graphical shell around DOS, primarily to be used with the keyboard," Harris writes. And the mouse was doomed to fail from the beginning, according to pundits at the time. "Mice are nice ideas, but of dubious value for business users" (George Vinall, PC Week, April 24, 1984). "There is no evidence that people want to use these things." (John C. Dvorak, San Francisco Examiner, February 19, 1984).
  • Windows 3 and 3.1 and File Manager: File Manager arrived. "This upgrade bet big for the first time on most users having a mouse," he writes. And Alt+Tab came into vogue then. "Because getting to...minimized apps often required moving a bunch of windows out of the way first, the Alt+Tab keyboard shortcut became a very popular way to switch between running programs."
  • Windows 95 and the nonstarter "Start" button: That Start button didn't live up to its initial billing. "The Start button was so undiscoverable that, despite having the word Start right on it...text had to be added to the taskbar after early test releases so that people could figure out how to get started using the programs on their PC." And an interesting sidebar about the IBM Simon mobile phone. "The first ever mobile phone with PDA capabilities, the IBM Simon, was introduced around this time. It weighed almost 1.5 pounds, ran DOS, and the only app ever designed for it sold only two copies."
  • Windows XP a "garish" experience for some: Not everyone loved Windows XP. "Although Windows XP eventually became a major success, some people at the time were frustrated with the changes to the user interface. They found the Windows XP experience to be garish, and users inquired about how to 'downgrade' to previous versions," Harris writes.
  • Windows Vista now looks "cheesy": Microsoft's most panned OS. Harris has relatively little to say beyond describing the Aero as having the "appearance of highly rendered glass, light sources, reflections, and other graphically complex textures." But he does add this: "This style of simulating faux-realistic materials...looks dated and cheesy now, but at the time, it was very much en vogue."
  • Windows 8 means not having to carry around a tablet, necessarily: Converge the tablet and laptop and, presto, you don't necessarily need a tablet. "Windows 8 imagines the convergence of two kinds of devices: a laptop and a tablet. Instead of carrying around three devices (a phone, a tablet, and a laptop) you carry around just a phone and a Windows PC," Harris writes. Of course, this attempts to refute Apple's argument that convergence doesn't always work. "Anything can be forced to converge, but the problem is that products are about trade-offs, and you begin to make trade-offs to the point where what you have left doesn't please anyone," CEO Tim Cook said last month.

And Harris touches on Windows RT, the version of Windows that will run on ARM processors from Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments.

Harris argues that the tendency for phones and tablets to "show only one app on the screen at a time" is strictly done to "manage the background activity on the device so that only apps you are actively using can drain the battery."

Harris continues. "We did feel like only offering 'one-at-a-time' in the Metro style experience was a bit of a constraint, and not totally true to the Windows history of multitasking. So we evolved Snap for Windows 8. This feature lets you run any two WinRT-based apps side-by-side, so that you can watch a video while you browse the Web."

Windows 1 was released in 1985.  Mice were still a novelty.
Windows 1 was released in 1985. Mice were still a novelty. Microsoft
Windows 3 introduced the File Manager.
Windows 3 introduced the File Manager. Microsoft
A Windows 8 Messaging app 'snapped' next to the Maps app. 'Two apps at once, even on a tablet.'
A Windows 8 Messaging app 'snapped' next to the Maps app. 'Two apps at once, even on a tablet.' Microsoft

Updated on May 19 at 1:15 a.m. PST: adding discussion about Aero Glass.