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Introducing Windows Phone 8 : A Different Kind of Phone

12/9/2012 11:25:25 AM
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When Microsoft originally unveiled Windows Phone many skeptics expected the phone would simply try to play catch-up with Apple’s and Google’s offerings. Microsoft had other plans, though. The new operating system for the phone was a departure from existing offerings from the other mobile operating system vendors (primarily Apple, Research in Motion, and Google). Instead of just mimicking the icon pattern screens that iPhone and Android seemed to love, Microsoft thought in a different way. Application and operating system design is defined in a new design language. This design language defines a set of guidelines and styles for creating Windows Phone applications. The design of the Start screen laid out by this design language is similar to other smartphone designs in that it is a list of icons. Instead of separating the icons into pages, Windows Phone lets users scroll through the icons. Windows Phone is also differentiated from other smartphones in that each icon can include information about the application. These icons are called Live Tiles, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Windows Phone Start screen

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Windows Phone 8 ups the ante to include features for the next generation of phones including support for multi-core processors, Near Field Communications (e.g. NFC), support for high-resolution screens, built-in support for Skype and development of native game applications using the same APIs that are used on the Xbox (e.g. DirectX). Windows Phone 8 is apt to be the turning point in the maturation of the platform that will bring broad adoption of the phones.

Probably the biggest change in Windows Phone 8 is not obvious at first glance. The underpinnings of the operating system are now the same as Windows 8. That means that the operation system that runs the Windows 8 RT tablets powers the new phones. A single platform will allow for better scalability and performance than previous incarnations of the phone.


What Is a Design Language?

Developers think about a language as a set of textual expressions that describe some machine operation(s). For designers, it is a set of rules for defining the look and feel of a set of applications (or an entire operating system in this case). Wikipedia.org defines it more generally as “. . . an overarching scheme or style that guides the design of a complement of products or architectural settings.


The Start screen should be a place where users can quickly review the status of the phone. The Live Tiles will give user information such as the number of missed phone calls and the number of email or SMS messages waiting, or even third-party information such as the current weather. When you develop your own applications you can either create a simple icon for the Start screen or build a Live Tile for your users.

For applications, the Windows Phone screen is divided into three areas in which the user can interact with the phone: the system tray, the logical client, and the application bar (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Phone screen real estate

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The system tray area is managed by the phone’s operating system. This is where the time, signal strength, and alerts will appear to the user. Most applications will leave this area of the screen visible to the user. Some applications (e.g., games) may hide this area, but you should only do so when critical to the success of your application.

The logical client area is where your application will exist. This area shows your user interface and any data and points of interaction.

The application bar shows options for your application. While using the application bar is not a requirement, it is a very common practice as it gives users access to your application’s options and menus. For example, Figure 3 shows a simple note-taking application that uses the application bar to allow users to create new notes or show the menu (note that the ellipsis can be clicked to open the list of menu items).

Figure 3. The application bar in action

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One big distinction that users will see in many of the applications built into Windows Phone is the use of hubs. The central idea of a hub is to provide a starting point to get the user to use natural curiosity to learn what is available in the application. Usually these hubs take the form of applications that are larger than the phone screen. Instead of the typical page-based applications that are fairly commonplace on smartphones, the UX design language introduces something called a panorama application. For panorama applications the phone is used as a window that looks into a larger application surface. You’ll notice in Figure 4 that the content of the screen takes up most of the horizontal real estate, but the next section of the panorama application shows up on the right side of the screen to help the user understand that there is more content.

Figure 4. Panorama application

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As the user navigates through the panorama application, the virtual space is moved within the window. For example, in Figure 5 you can see how, after sliding the application to the left, the rightmost part of the panorama becomes visible.

Figure 5. Last pane of a panorama application

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The use of the panorama application results in a simple but powerful user interface design that users should find very intuitive.

By following the guidelines specified by UX Design Language, you can create applications that should be consistent with the rest of the phone, while giving you the freedom to create applications of any kind. In this way, the UX Design Language helps by defining basic ideas of how a Windows Phone application should look so that the user can see complete consistency. At the same time, the UX Design Language says you can simply take over the entire user interface and not use the basic ideas of the phone chrome, leaving you the flexibility to create either custom experiences or applications that look like they belong on the phone.

Figure 6 shows example apps with and without the chrome applied.

Figure 6. Using Phone chrome, or not

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