How 20 Years Of Failed Designs From Microsoft Shaped Its Newest Product

Windows 8 start screen

Photo: AllThingsD

Last month, Microsoft showed what the next version of Windows will look like on tablets.Although it was only a canned demo, and Windows 8 won’t ship until next year at the earliest, it showed that Microsoft is doing some fresh thinking about interface design.

But unless you follow the company closely, you might not realise that Windows 8 descends from a long line of other Microsoft ideas.

A lot of these were experimental products. Some never made it to market. None became popular enough to challenge the old “icons on a desktop” model that’s been around since the early 1990s, and has spread from the Mac and Windows to the mobile world.

But they are all a part of Microsoft’s history — and intellectual property — and they all contributed to the thinking behind Windows 8.

Join us as we take a look back at the Windows 8 family tree.

Windows for Pen Computing kicked off Microsoft's tablet efforts back in 1991.

Windows for Pen Computing was an app that let users control Windows 3.1 with a stylus, and included basic handwriting recognition. Microsoft followed up with a version for Windows 95, but it never sold well and was eventually scrapped.

Bob was released in March 1995 as an optional layer for Windows 3.x. It was supposed to make computing easier by replacing of icons on a desktop with rooms populated by animated characters.

Reviewers hated it -- it seemed condescending and silly -- and Bob is now considered one of Microsoft's greatest flops. But a lot of the ideas stuck around for years -- including virtual 'assistants' like Clippy in Office and that little dog in Windows XP.

Interesting fact: Bill Gates's wife Melinda (then Melinda French) briefly led the team that oversaw Bob and some other consumer products.

(By the way, the original product didn't have flames in the living room. This is a parody created by a Microsoft manager. But the background and dog are original.)

Pocket PC 2000 eventually became the ill-fated Windows Mobile.

Released in 2000, this was meant to let Microsoft's hardware partners compete with the Palm Pilot. Like Windows for Pen Computing, it required a stylus.

It later evolved into Windows Mobile, Microsoft's first portable phone OS. Windows Mobile sold pretty well for a few years, but the iPhone and Android leapfrogged it and Microsoft had to start over with Windows Phone.

Windows XP tablets came out way back in 2002, but never sold well.

This special version of Windows XP was released in 2002, and Bill Gates talked it up and was a big internal supporter.

Maybe it was ahead of its time, or maybe the stylus turned a lot of users off. Whatever the reason, the first crop of Windows tablets sold slowly, and eventually Microsoft built this functionality into Windows Vista and stopped promoting it as a separate product.

This picture shows Jeff Raikes, who led Microsoft's Office unit, and actor Rob Lowe.

Windows Media centre introduced the horizontal and vertical menus.

This was the other special version of Windows XP, and let users control their PCs with a remote control to watch TV and video and play music. Its system of horizontal and vertical menus is now in a lot of other Microsoft products -- and will be a big part of Windows 8.

Media centre had some big fans, and a lot of hardware makers shipped Media centre Edition as their standard consumer OS after 2005. So Microsoft can claim hundreds of millions sold, but it's not clear how many people actually USED the Media centre features. It was later built into high-end consumer versions of Windows Vista and 7.

Here is a 2003 picture of Media centre being demoed by its product leader Joe Belfiore. He is now one of the VPs Windows Phone -- and has much longer hair.

The Portable Media centre took the menu system and made it portable.

In 2004, Microsoft created software and a hardware spec called the Portable Media centre. They were the ftirst portable product to use the system of horizontal and vertical menus introduced in Windows Media centre.

Although they had video almost a year before the iPod, the first-generation hardware was huge and clunky. They only lasted for about two years.

During the run-up to Windows Vista in 2006, Microsoft announced a new kind of touch-screen device that would support finger touch while running a full version of Windows.

But the first Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs) were a weird hybrid -- the touch screen features didn't extend to a lot of apps, and the devices had none of the sleekness that later made the iPad a hit. With Windows 7, Microsoft built finger-touch capabilities into the OS and stopped promoting it as a separate feature. With Windows 8, Microsoft is going back to the drawing board.

The Zune laid the groundwork for Windows Phone.

After the Portable Media centre and other similar devices failed, Microsoft decided to try building its own hardware. The first Zune was introduced in late 2006. It refined the menu system from Media centre and introduced the font that is now showing up in Windows Phone 7, Windows 8, and other products.

In 2009, the Zune HD added a touch screen -- two years after the iPod Touch -- also showed how Microsoft would integrate apps into its new type of menu system.

The Zune was too little too late, and never captured more than 2% of the market for portable media players. Microsoft never officially canceled the product, but the marketing for it has disappeared and it's probably not going to release any more new versions.

Surface showed that Microsoft, too, understood touch interfaces.

Microsoft unveiled this touch screen table in April 2007, between the time Apple announced and released the first iPhone. It introduced a lot of gestures -- like swipes and pinches -- that will be part of Windows 8.

At launch, it had no hardware partners, no system for developers to create apps, and customers couldn't even buy it unless they went through a special Microsoft approval process. In other words, it felt like Microsoft rush-announced it to show the world that Apple wasn't the only one who understood touch screens. (It also may have helped Microsoft boost its patent and intellectual property position in that area.)

Five years later it's a real product with a full development platform and customers. Although it hasn't taken the world by storm, it is occasionally seen in places like hotel lobbies and casinos.

Windows Phone 7 is the direct predecessor to Windows 8.

After the iPhone made Windows Mobile look irrelevant, Microsoft took three years to come up with an answer. Released last fall, Windows Phone 7 uses the horizontal and vertical menus introduced in Windows Media centre and later refined through the Zune, and has a lot of touch gestures pioneered by Surface.

It isn't selling very well yet, but Microsoft's deal with Nokia, and the slow collapse of Research in Motion, give Microsoft a chance of becoming the third-place mobile platform after Android and Apple.

A lot of the ideas in Windows Phone 7, including 'live tiles,' the menu system, and even the font, are going to be part of Windows 8. But the two products are built on different technologies, so Windows 8 might actually spell curtains for Windows Phone.

So that's where WIndows 8 came from. Now, check out what it looks like.

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