Microsoft’s unlikely stamp of approval

It’s been a pretty huge week for tech. The iPad mini was announced a week ago and it’ll be in stores within 24 hours. Windows 8 has already ratcheted up a few million sales in a handful of days, and if it wasn’t for hurricane Sandy, Google would have held its Android event.

All great developments. But they don’t come close to being the most important announcement of the week – an announcement that may just give Microsoft an edge when it comes to software design.

Consider a sentence that was buried in Apple’s announcement on Wednesday about iOS head Scott Forstall being shown the door; and in the third paragraph, no less:

“Jony Ive will provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his role as the leader of Industrial Design.”

This sentence is a huge validation for Microsoft and perhaps the most important revelation of this entire week.

Let me explain.

Jony Ive (Sir Jonathan Ive to give him his full title) is Apple’s lead designer. He’s responsible for the design of the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, and known for his emphasis on sleek, minimalistic creations with no fuss. Simplicity is beauty, in his eyes. Customers agree.

But Forstall and Ive haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. In fact, it got so bad this BusinessWeek report suggests they wouldn’t attend meetings together when Tim Cook wasn’t there.

Who knows, they probably had a personality clash. That’s not the key dispute – the problem is that these two men were diametrically opposed when it came to software design.

Forstall was a proponent of a type of design called “skeuomorphism”. It’s essentially representing real objects on-screen. That’s why the iBookstore looks like a book shelf, or the Game Centre app looks like a leather binder. Steve Jobs was a big fan of this type of design, and Forstall implemented it any way he could.

Jony Ive, on the other hand, was not a fan. As you can tell in this interview earlier this year, he wasn’t too thrilled to talk about the more realistic design elements, including some “stitching” used to decorate some apps.

“My focus is very much working with the other teams on the product ideas and then developing the hardware…in terms of those elements you’re talking about; I’m not really connected to that.”

Except, as John Gruber points out, he is very much involved now.

So what does this have to do with Microsoft?

Microsoft has been pursuing a clean, tile-based design for its “Metro” theme, across all of its products: desktop, tablet, mobile and the Xbox. It’s a slick look and it’s been praised for its innovation.

And as Fast Company explains, there’s a growing divide in the design community between Microsoft’s clean look and Apple’s increasingly tacky skeuomorphism. Even plenty of Apple employees don’t like it.

Apple may have reached a low point when Forstall showed off how its new Passbook app deletes old coupons – by putting them through a virtual paper shredder.

Microsoft doesn’t have design flowing through its veins, so it’s not going to beat Apple any time soon on that front. But consider the fact Jony Ive – a man who stands more on the side of Microsoft’s latest “less is more” strategy – is now head of human interface at Apple.

That’s a big move. It shows Apple is moving from the skeuomorphism favoured by Jobs and Forstall towards a more streamlined approach – similar to its hardware.

The last week has been all about Apple. But by putting Ive’s design ethic at the forefront of its software, it may have just inadvertently given Microsoft a pat on the back.

You can follow Patrick Stafford on Twitter @pdstafford.


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