Microsoft, the tastemaker?
Apple has long held the design crown among PC and consumer electronics makers. Its sleek and understated approach to industrial design helped propel the company's iPhone and iPad to record-breaking sales. The MacBook Pro's distinctive style has spawned countless Windows-based clones.
Yet when it comes to operating systems, Apple may be following in the footsteps of its long-time rival Microsoft.
Apple is widely expected to show off a "flattened" user interface when it unveils the latest edition of its popular operating system, iOS 7, during its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), which takes place June 10 to 14. According to numerous reports, iOS 7 will stray from its skeuomorphic roots.
In computing, skeuomorphism is the practice of mimicking the look of a real-world object, surface or texture. Examples include file folder icons on a Windows desktop, or in the case of iOS, the lined, yellow notepad background in the Notes app—complete with the remnants of "torn away" pages.
As Apple's mobile OS embarks on a flatter path, Microsoft is trumpeting its role as a trailblazer. Managing to avoid overtly mentioning the Cupertino, Calif.-based competition, Steve Clayton, Microsoft's chief storyteller, noted that flat design and Microsoft go back a long way.
"Though 'flat design' is a popular meme right now, there is something much, much deeper going on here at Microsoft. With my own lifelong passion for design, I immersed myself in the community and got a front-row seat on a journey that has its roots as far back as the late '90s with Encarta's bold use of typography and clean interface," wrote Clayton in an article for Microsoft/stories, a collection of behind-the-scenes accounts.
He added that the design language "truly sprang to life in late 2010 with the launch of Windows Phone and in the last few weeks has advanced even further with Windows 8.1 and Xbox One."
According to Clayton, Microsoft's new user experience design principles are guided by three foundational external influences. They include the Modern Design Movement (The Bauhaus), International Typographic Style (or Swiss Style) and the field of Motion design, whose early pioneers include Saul Bass, the graphic designer behind many of the most iconic logos and movie posters.
Microsoft's design principles can be summed up by four concepts: pride in craftsmanship, fast and fluid experiences, doing more with less and being "authentically digital." The latter defines the company's battle against skeuomorphism.
"In software, traditional visuals such as beveled buttons, reflections, drop shadows and the use of faux materials such as simulated wood grain, brushed metal and glass are attempting to mimic real-world materials and objects. Microsoft is pushing those notions aside—our designers are celebrating the fact that software is digital and made of pixels and elements such as typography, color and motion-enabled experiences that aren't possible in the real world," wrote Clayton.