Does Microsoft have a UI spring surprise up its sleeve? Redmond has been telling closed beta test groups that new icons notwithstanding, the Whistler UI isn't finished yet, leading to some rampant speculation that the converged Windows desktop could see a major overhaul between now and its final release.
Well, from our enquiries, it doesn't look like anything that dramatic is likely. But Microsoft Research has been doing some intriguing work that could ease Winders, a derivative of the 15 year old 2D Mac desktop, into a real 3D environment. And do so fairly painlessly.
As its name suggests TaskGallery is a Microsoft Research project that drops the user into a 3D space, with Windows represented by reduced-size thumbnails. The MSR team took advantage of a specially engineered kernel and GDI libraries in Windows 2000 - having the work blessed at an early stage by Bill himself must have helped - and renders a 3D polygon.
Windows are reduced to thumbnails that can be "hung" in a room, giving the user context associations. It sounds clunky, but amazingly, isn't.
"One of the main stumbling blocks to 3D hasn't been a hardware or a market problem - but applications," says MSR UI designer Daniel Robbins. "A PC card costing $200 will blow away an SGI workstation from two years ago, which is great."
And the TaskGallery demos show that this is possible using fairly low-end hardware. Despite the introduction of a new rendering stage, and a new layer for receiving mouse and keyboard input, the demo fizzes along on a 1998-vintage mid-range desktop PC.
However applications still cleave to simple two-dimensional metaphors. With 3D many of the aspects that newbies find intimidating about computer interfaces could be made intuitively easier, he argues. Today's 2D UIs present users with dramatic but barely perceptible modal shifts, particularly between views; make different objects such as shortcuts, folders and file icons fairly homogenous; and fail to distinguish between context.
TaskGallery can hang Windows in various rooms, and navigate between the rooms using the keyboard as well as the mouse. New buttons are added to each active window to aid navigation: Move, Bring Forward, Ordered Stack, Loose Stack, Add to Selection, as well as Maximize and Close.
The team isn't involved in skinning Whistler, but wants to influence its successors, says Robbins.
However, the MSR objective is to produce UIs that can be used across different types of devices, not just PCs. Which immediately set off a little alarm bell for us. With Windows CE versions 1 and 2, hadn't Microsoft discovered that the Win9x UI didn't really travel all that well? Well tactfully, Robbins said the goal was to find metaphors that could.
In The Beginning, You Dragged The Floppy to the Trash
"There's has been some metaphorical shear," agrees Robbins says, since Apple introduced the desktop UI to the masses, acknowledging Neal Stephenson's term in his In The Beginning Was The Command Line: "You realize you've been living and thinking inside of a metaphor that is essentially bogus," wrote Stephenson.
Fair enough: "Those aren't really a metaphor, more if a symbolic language", says Robbins. "We want to find the overlying metaphor. Those big sweeping metaphors are ones we were interested in - metaphors that scale up, and that can encapsulate time. Like browsing collections of digital photos example."
Personally, Robbins says the UIs he most admires are found in computer games: where designers have to communicate an analogy very quickly. Before the gamer gives up. He cites the 3D hand in Black and White, and FarGate as good examples.
The team is likely to present its latest work at the CHI 2001 Conference in Seattle in March. As one Whistler beta tester told us, surely Microsoft would love to counter the launch of Apple's Mac OS X - with its own whizzy but very traditional Aqua user interface - if only for pride's sake.
And we couldn't help noticing that CHI will tee-off with a keynote from a prominent local software entrepreneur, famous for his amnesia in video depositions. Don't say we didn't warn you. ®
Where it's at with Whistler
What Whistler looks like
MS: 'you need to buy Whistler because Win-9x sucks'
MS Whistler copy protection climb down begins - in Germany?
Copy protection on Whistler easily cracked
MS opens up on Whistler copy protection