The Future of Software Looks Like Media

Microsoft unveiled its first preview of the Windows 8 user interface at the All Things D D9 conference last week.  It was a thrill to see it.  And my first reaction was that it looks more like media than software.

But upon further reflection, it’s more than just Microsoft.  It’s been the theme of the recent wave of operating system overhauls on mobile devices, which are now taking root on the desktop, too. It’s happened on the iPad, on Palm/HP’s WebOS, and now finally on Windows’ mainstream interface. User experiences are showing more design heritage from print and media, and less from software roots.

It’s an important marker.  Going back decades to the beginning of the personal computing revolution, software was written by programmers, who were doing their best to make machine instructions controllable by end users.  It was an inside-out approach:  starting with the microprocessor’s constraints and translating them into displays that were at least interpretable by end-users.

Now, programmers have the luxury of fast processors, sophisticated graphics systems, and advanced libraries – not to mention the development of the new field of user experience.  So, instead of starting with microprocessors and asking users to adapt, we are seeing design go the other way:  we are starting with real people (consumers) and making the software conform to them.

When we do that, the “a-ha” to me is that the consumer-first approach is a media approach, not a software approach.  It doesn’t start with the machine; it starts with the audience.  And that’s exactly what the expertise of media is.  The result culminated in Steve Sinofsky’s demo of a complete overhaul of Windows 8’s interface, that looks so much like a media property, and not so much like any desktop software interface that we are used to.  Indeed, the “desktop” metaphor of previous generations of Mac, PC, and Unix interfaces is blown up entirely, replaced by a start screen with so many content tiles, each formatted richly and compellingly in a glossy, high-production-values sort of way

The future of software is looking a lot like media.