In a presentation at last week's Mix 09 event in Las Vegas, Microsoft designer Stephan Hoefnagels traced the evolution of the company's new Windows 7 operating system.
"This was a pretty wacky brainstorm that we had early on," Hoefnagels told the crowd. But, he said, it wasn't just a bunch of designers going crazy. Even these early sketches represented a collaboration across the technical and design ranks. "In this brainstorm for instance, all the disciplines were involved...developers, program management, user research. Everybody was coming up with these crazy ideas."
Much of the early work in coming up with the Windows 7 desktop was done not at a computer, but in freehand drawings. Some was on whiteboards, others on notepads or scraps of paper. "We would sketch on anything available, Hoefnagels recalled.
To help set the context for what was popular in 1985 when Windows 1.0 was released, Hoefnagels showed this "Back to the Future" poster, played Wham's "Careless Whisper," and showed a picture of the cast of the "The Cosby Show." "Windows is old," he said. "It's actually very old."
Hoefnagels noted that even the earliest Windows, Windows 1.0, had a place at the bottom to indicate multiple running programs.
"What are those big icons?" he asked during his speech at the Mix 09 conference last week. "Is that the Apple Dock? No, this predates the Apple Dock by 15 years. This even predates the NextStep OS on which the dock is based by two years."
"In Windows 3, we kind of went away from the taskbar," Hoefnagels noted. However, it was Windows 3.0, circa 1990, that added the ability to have overlapping windows, as well as to minimize programs to the desktop.
Windows 95, along with IE 4 in 1997, added the notion of a Quick Launch area as well as the current notion of a Windows taskbar and start menu. "This is when we really introduced the very first taskbar," Hoefnagels said.
With Windows XP, Microsoft turned the Quick Launch feature off by default, but added the notion of grouping related items on the taskbar as well as featuring the most frequently used programs more prominently in the Start menu.
Vista added a bunch of new concepts, but didn't reach Nirvana. For example, in this screenshot, Hoefnagels noted eight distinct notifications all being generated by Microsoft Outlook. On the positive side, he said, with Vista "we brought back the Quick Launch. Also, we introduced search in the Start menu, for instance, another attempt to make it very fast to get to the programs you want to use."
In this prototype from late 2006, Microsoft experimented with putting the thumbnail of a window, rather than an icon, on the taskbar. At this size, however, the thumbnails were too indistinguishable from one another.
"Most of the time they just turn into these white squares and don't help you find the window you are looking for," Hoefnagels said. That sent Microsoft back to the drawing board.
In this February 2007 prototype, Microsoft first introduced the concept of using the window itself as a preview mechanism, connected to the taskbar via a spotlight a la Batman. Using this approach, it was easy to tell two documents from one another, Hoefnagels said, even if they were two long text documents.
"We were pretty happy with this idea," he said, noting that it was rolled out to the entire Windows organization, who found it was too distracting when the mouse accidentally hit the bottom of the screen.
Bat signal gave way to Aero Peek, the preview technology in Windows 7. Aero Peek offers first the thumbnail view above the taskbar. Then, if users need more information, they can hover over the thumbnail and get the full-screen preview.
Hoefnagels noted that in this example taskbar, all of the areas are crowded with icons, but still, all have an alert that there is more information than was able to be shown on screen. "There's just a lot of stuff crammed in a very, very space constrained (user interface)," he said.