In 2010, Jon Bell was an interaction designer in the Seattle office of Frog Design, the company that created the beige cases for some of the iconic early Apple computers. Like many of his colleagues—and most of his profession—he worshiped Steve Jobs. While he’d owned a series of iPhones and MacBooks, he’d never purchased a Windows PC.
Still, in November 2010 curiosity led him to the mall to check out a Samsung phone running Microsoft’s brand-new Windows Phone software. It looked different from anything else on the market, a lively grid of different-sized rectangles with smooth transitions between apps. “I just had this spidey-sense that I couldn’t put into words,” says Bell. He bought the phone. Minutes later, he texted a friend at Microsoft to ask about jobs there. Bell, 33, joined in January 2011 and is now a Windows Phone design lead. His colleagues were aghast. “Unanimously, they said, ‘They’re doomed, that’s it, turn out the lights,’” he recalls.
Over the last few years, Microsoft has been working to replicate Bell’s conversion on a broader scale. From its start, the company reflected founder Bill Gates’s engineering mind-set, resulting in functional, unsexy products that Apple lampooned in its “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ads. Microsoft could use some pizzazz: Sales of its consumer software have struggled as buyers swoon over iPads and shun notebooks. Revenue at the Windows division has fallen short of analysts’ estimates in four of the five quarters through December 2011. In mobile, the hottest segment of the tech sector, the situation is far more dire. According to researcher Gartner, not only do Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems have greater U.S. market share than Windows Phone, so does Samsung’s Bada—a piece of software few Americans can even name.
To win, or even just to survive, in what has become a consumer-driven industry, products need to be eye candy that force shoppers to take a second look. Microsoft has roughly doubled its design ranks to 600 employees over the past five years and lured talents like Albert Shum, who developed technology-centered products at Nike before becoming Windows Phone design chief in 2008. The company has also rethought how it builds things. Steve Kaneko, a top Microsoft designer, says engineers and executives have ceded more authority to designers. They’re organized in small teams under the belief that democracy is the enemy of good design, and regularly switch groups to allow ideas to percolate. “It’s a huge, dramatic change compared to five years ago,” says Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research. “They’re realizing design is absolutely essential to the experience.”
The primary evidence of this amassing of talent is Metro, a new way for interfacing with Microsoft products, from phones to PCs. The design is influenced by the fonts of the Swiss typography movement and stylings of airport and road signs. While many software products strive to resemble digitized versions of real-world objects—think of the curling pages in Apple’s iBooks app—Metro does away with the faux realism. Users navigate the touch-based interface through colorful blocks, which display live information such as the weather and new Facebook updates and, at a touch, expand into full-screen apps. The visual reference points that have defined Microsoft software for decades are gone: There are no frames, no desktop, no drop-down menus, no X’s to close out of programs.
Microsoft has been gradually rolling out Metro on its major platforms over the past few years. It arrived on Windows phones in 2010, when it caught Bell’s eye, and took over the Xbox interface in 2011. Earlier this month it got its most public outing yet with the highly publicized debut of Nokia’s Lumia 900 phone. In the fall, it’ll come to computer and tablet screens everywhere with the launch of Windows 8. Young Kim, an industrial design manager for Microsoft, says the company is taking cues from Metro for future hardware products as well, including the next Xbox. To Gadi Amit, principal designer at NewDealDesign, the San Francisco-based agency behind products like the Fitbit activity tracker, Metro is the best design work Microsoft’s ever done. “From a purely design standpoint, it’s really superior to Apple,” he says.
Microsoft may have picked the right moment to push Metro. Some of its design elements were pioneered in the Zune, the Microsoft music player that flopped in the marketplace but won accolades—including a 2010 International Design Excellence Gold Award. According to Amit, when Zune came out in 2006 people didn’t want a new idea; they wanted an iPod. That’s changing, he says, and many users are bored by Apple’s ubiquity.
Changing the perception of Microsoft as a fusty software company will take time. That’s as true of professional designers as it is of consumers. “Microsoft doesn’t have a big presence in the student brain around design,” says Bill Burnett, executive director of the Design Program at Stanford University. He calls Metro an example “of Microsoft getting it right,” but adds that his students still think “Microsoft is so their parents’ company. They don’t have any Microsoft products in their life.”
Metro is a big enough break with Microsoft’s past interfaces that it may jar some users and software developers, says Mark Rolston, the chief creative officer at Frog Design. Microsoft is “sort of trapped by their own aesthetic,” he says. To keep the experience consistent for users, app developers have less flexibility on Windows Metro than they do on platforms such as iOS, making the software far more uniform. “It’s like country music,” says Rolston. Vary the composition slightly and “it starts to look like something else.”
The real test for Microsoft is whether it remains committed to the changes. Microsoft recruited designers from places such as MTV to build the Zune; when the device failed to catch on, the division was cleaved in two and its workers shunted off to different parts of the company. Microsoft’s top-secret design incubator in downtown Seattle created an early tablet computer, but the company canceled the project in 2010 and shuttered the studio. Ralston says the company hasn’t always responded well to setbacks. “If the market says, ‘Hey, we like it, but we need some changes,’ do they move on that, or do they flinch and go back to the drawing board?”