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Microsoft takes on smartphone icons with Live Tiles

Microsoft is betting that Windows 8 Live Tiles will make icons look obsolete on smartphones and desktops.

Joe Belfiore, Steve Ballmer and Jessica Alba at the Windows Phone 8 launch in San Francisco
James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Windows Phone 8, the second pillar in Microsoft's rebirthing of Windows, finally reached escape velocity. A wide variety of Windows smartphones will be shipping soon, entering a market totally dominated by Apple (iOS) and Google (Android).

Steve Ballmer gave assurances at the launch event at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, named after rock music impresario Bill Graham, that after four years the company finally got Windows Phone right. "People all over the world are about to fall in love with Windows Phone," the Microsoft CEO said. "If you're one of the hundreds of millions of people who will use Windows 8, there is no better phone for you." Actress and entrepreneur Jessica Alba was on stage to endorse Windows Phone 8 and its new Kids Corner feature. It was like watching a few minutes of the QVC shopping channel.

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It was left to Joe Belfiore, manager of Microsoft's Windows Phone team, to articulate how Windows Phone 8 could leapfrog the well-endowed competition. His answer: "Windows Phone 8 "reinvents the smartphone around 'you,' and makes it the most "personal" phone available.

Live Tiles vs. Icons

The "you" and "personal' in Windows Phone 8 are most visibly expressed in how Live Tiles, which live on the phone's start screen and can contain real-time information. Users can "pin"  Live Tiles of people (their tweets, photos, etc.), song, websites, photos, email, notifications, Facebook and other items to the screen. "You can actually maintain a better relationship with people, because you get a sense of what they're up to at that moment," Belfiore said. 

Windows 8 phones with Live Tiles ready to sell in November James Martin/CNET

Belfiore also took a few shots at the competition in explaining Microsoft's design differentiation:

"It's the only phone that has live tiles, for the people you care about and the apps that you use all the time. It's a different story than iOS and Android.," he said. "The iOS 6 home screen is really just a sea of static icons. It's not people; it's not live data. 

"Of course, after five years, they have added one more row of icons. Android home screens typically present a complex maze of icons, widgets, and settings. But, they look a lot like iPhones, too. If you put a bunch of them on a table, it'd be hard to tell your own from the crowd. We felt there was a better way. Windows Phone 8 -- it looks different because we didn't make it for all of us, we made it for each of us."

But Microsoft is swimming against the tide in requiring users to learn a new way of interacting with their devices. The iPhone and Android devices are icon-driven, but they also have notification services that can provide real-time snapshots. And, it wouldn't be surprising to see "live icons" emanating soon from the Apple and Android camps. 

Belfiore's response: Icon-based interfaces are a "tired, old metaphor," and unable to give users an at-a-glance view of what is happening via their smartphone. "We do it more readily, conveniently and richly," he said.

With Windows Phone 8 devices getting into customers hands, Microsoft will see how well its Live Tiles fare against the smartphone icons.