Windows Phone: Key Themes
Part 3: Guiding Principles

In this third part of my Key Themes series, I am examining what Microsoft calls its "red threads," the guiding principles by which it is designing Windows Phone. These principles are much higher-level than the differentiators we discussed in part 2 and the Metro user interface at the heart of part 1. In fact, we're going to veer off into some unfamiliar territory here, territory that is part marketing, yes, but also part high concept.

So what is a "red thread"? I haven't asked Microsoft about this yet, but will so I can include that explanation in Windows Phone Secrets. My take on this is that "red threads" refers to an ancient Asian myth (common to both China and Japan) called the red thread of destiny. In this myth, those who are destined to be soul mates are tied together at the ankles with invisible red thread.

"An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break."


In other words, these are the principles that tie together Windows Phone at a high level, and these principles can never be broken by lower level hardware or software implementations. Presumably, as Microsoft is designing Windows Phone, it is doing so with an eye on these principles, ensuring that everything it does satisfies those needs and ties these elements together in a seamless way. The red threads provide the context within which Windows Phone is being designed.

There are three red threads, or guiding principles: Personal, Relevant, and Connected. It's that simple.

Personal

If you look at today's popular smart phones--the iPhone, Android--they look like PCs. That is, there's an OS with a user interface, and to get things done, you dive into applications, or apps. When you want to do something else, you exit the app and dive into another one. In, out, in out.

These phones all look the same, and when I think about Google's Android platform in particular, I see a smart phone that is designed to simply ape the iPhone usage model, albeit on a wider range of devices that are available from a wider range of wireless carriers. That's a small improvement, but it doesn't speak to the very real problems with these devices. That is, they are simply mini-PCs.

But phones aren't PCs, and it's just because they're smaller. It's because they're more intimate. You carry them around with you at all times, so they're there when you're making memories, either explicitly with the built in camera, or implicitly, when you're using social networking services, SMS, or email to discover what others are doing and telling them what you're up to.

Put even more simply, phones are personal. And they should be designed to be personal, not to simply copy the design of another pre-existing device which, despite its name, is not personal at all. These phones should be simple and intuitive. And both the hardware and software should work the way you want, not the reverse.

Consider that "in, out" app model I mentioned earlier. On the iPhone, when you want to see what your friends are up to, you have to remember which social networking services they use, find, download and then navigate to those apps on your device, launch them, and find out what's up. If you have to use multiple apps--one for each service--that's a lot of bobbing for apples. In, out, in, out, and you're the one doing the work, thinking about which apps you need to get things done. Why doesn't the phone make this easier?

Windows Phone seeks to move beyond this PC usage metaphor, focusing on the end user and the things that matter most to them, and reflecting each user's unique personality and needs. Microsoft calls this "Your day, your way," where your Windows Phone contains your life, and is as unique as you are. The idea here is that you're not diving in and out of apps (though you can of course do that). Instead, the information you want is available upfront on the Metro UI's live tiles, and via panoramic experiences called hubs that surface information into the phone UI and don't require you to dive deeper. Unless of course you want to.

Finally, Microsoft wants Windows Phone to be delightful and fun. Sure, it's a tool. But it's also that intimate device that always with you. For it to be successful, it should cause spontaneous smiles. You should want to use it.

Relevant

By making a phone personal to each user, Microsoft also hopes to make the phone relevant to them. So instead of being confronted by an unimaginative static grid of icons (as you are on the iPhone), Windows Phone lets you highly customize a grid of live tiles on its start page, dynamic packets of information that provide live updates about those things that are most important to you.

For you technical folks out there, this means that Windows Phone is task-centric, not app centric. It helps you organize your life around the things you want to do, not force you to think in terms of which apps do what.

Microsoft calls this, "Your people, your location," a nod towards the notion that it will surface information about the people and things you care about most (via live tiles and hubs) and will use the hardware's GPS capabilities to ensure that the information you receive isn't just timely but is also relevant to where you are physically.

Connected

If today's smart phone applications were closed siloes with no connection to the outside world, they wouldn't have jumpstarted a new industry phenomenon. The reason mobile apps are such a big deal, of course, is that they're connected. They're connected to social networking services, of course, but also to other online services, including email/messaging, storage, and more. And it is this pervasive connectedness, I think, that has driven sales. People want to be connected, not just with services, but with each other.

Microsoft calls this, "Your stuff, your mind." Here, your Windows Phone connects you to what you need and keeps it safe, across the PC, the web and beyond. This is, of course, a nod towards the company's oft-stated "three screens and the cloud" mantra, which is a more technology-centric way of looking at this scenario. (The three screens are PC, TV, and phone.)

Phone connectivity is, of course, an obvious concept. But by Microsoft's approach to connectivity--again, via live tiles and hubs--is of course quite unique. And it is this connectivity that enables these specific UI features to do their magic. As your friends and other contacts are doing things in the real world and updating their social networking status, as friends are playing games online, as email and SMS messages arrive, the phone is updating itself automatically, providing you with a real-time view of those things are that are important to you. And it's doing so in a non-complex way that, again, doesn't force you to work the way the phone does.

Final thoughts

While these guiding principles are, by design, high level, they do provide an interesting insight into how Microsoft is thinking about its smart phone platform and the ways in which it will take on the competition. Combined with the differentiators and innovative user interface we discussed previously, a more complete picture emerges. With Windows Phone, Microsoft really has started over from scratch, rethought what a phone means, both to it and to its customers, and has already accomplished something pretty impressive as a result. It remains to be seen whether Windows Phone will be successful in the marketplace. But one thing is clear already: This is a compelling platform, one that is well designed and, unlike some competitors, is not a knee-jerk, me-too copy of what came before. For this alone, Microsoft should be applauded. But Windows Phone isn't just different to be different. It's been designed to be better. And that, to me, is even more exciting.