In previous versions of Windows, applications were represented by icons, simple graphical objects that offered almost no form of dynamic or expressive content. With Windows 8, however, Microsoft is adopting the tiles system pioneered in Windows Phone, offering users glanceable, dynamic information from your favorite apps, even when they’re not running. And if you’re not already familiar with Microsoft’s mobile platform, the expressive nature of this user interface element may surprise you.

Tiles—called Live Tiles in Windows Phone—live on the Windows 8 Start screen and represent Metro-style apps, desktop applications, web pages, Explorer folder locations, and other items, including information that is “deep linked” from within specially written Metro apps. (More on the latter a bit later in the article.)

In their default form, tiles are simple opaque rectangles or squares, and they’re arrayed automatically on the Start screen in a grid-like pattern.

tiles-01

Tapping (or otherwise selecting) a tile will launch the app or other experience that’s represented by the tile. So if you tap the Mail tile, of course, the Mail app will run.

Users can configure these tiles in various ways. You can add and remove tiles, move them to new positions on the Start screen, create and modify groups of tiles, enable/disable live updating, and so on. These aspects of Start screen customization were previously described in my article Windows 8 Feature Focus: Start Screen.

What’s more interesting about tiles, perhaps, is that they can be—and most often are—designed specifically to display real time information dynamically, even when the underlying app isn’t running. To communicate this information, the tile can use various kinds of text in different layouts, images, including full-tile images, and status badges (for displaying the number of unread emails, perhaps, or similar).

Consider the Calendar app. Once you’ve synchronized this app with one or more accounts, it will begin dynamically displaying upcoming appointments on its tile. Oftentimes, that information is all you need to know, eliminating the need to actually launch the app and view the appointment manually.

caltile

The Mail tile works similarly, though it will cycle through up to five of your most recent emails and provide a badge, in the lower right corner, that displays the number of unread emails.

mailtile

Other app tiles provide full-tile images. For example, the Desktop tile will display the desktop wallpaper, while the Photos app tile rotates between various images it finds in your photo sources (on disk and in various online services).

pictiles

Of course, the user can resize tiles so that they are smaller (square) or larger (rectangular). Square tiles have less onscreen real estate and thus usually aren’t as expressive as the larger, rectangular versions. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t dynamic. As you can see here, the Photos and Weather apps still provide useful live updates when in the smaller size.

smaller

How an app reacts to this sizing is up to the developer, so not all smaller tiles will be this useful. The Mail app tile, for example, doesn’t offer any useful information in smaller size, while the Calendar app just shows the date. And of course the user could simple turn off live updating, which returns the tile to its default, static state.

Apps can offer even further customizing through deep-linking, providing a way for the user to add a new tile for the app, from within the app itself, which causes the app to open with a specific experience displayed. For example, the Weather app lets you create new secondary tiles for individual locations. And the Mail app lets you create tiles for individual email folders:

mailtiles

This is accomplished in a consistent manner in all apps that support this feature. Simply display the app’s app bar (by right-clicking or accessing the top or bottom edge UI) and choose the Pin to Start button. A flyout lets you name the secondary tile as you see fit.

pintostart

Incidentally, secondary tiles appear in the All Apps list alongside “real” apps, so that they can be found with Search.

allapps

Once you’ve started using Metro-style apps, you’ll find that the Start screen—originally a blank slate of opaque tiles—suddenly springs to life. And while this shot does little to convey the interesting effect of these tiles updating continuously in real time, you can at least see that a fully engaged Windows 8 Start screen is much more alive than the one you first see.

tiles-02b

I’ve been a fan of live tiles in Windows Phone since the beginning, and the improvements that Microsoft has made in Windows 8 are interesting. In this desktop- and device-based OS, Microsoft is providing for bigger, more configurable, and even more expressive tiles. They’re also a lot more colorful, with app makers being able to configure tile colors rather than being bound to a single accent color as in Windows Phone. (Why users can’t customize these colors, however, is unclear.) The only real concern with tiles, of course, is that they’re not particularly useful on a desktop PC, and since the Start screen can’t be snapped next to the Windows desktop, few desktop PC users will likely benefit from these useful interfaces. But those with tablets and similar devices will likely grow to appreciate them as much as with Windows Phone.