WP7 and the Anxiety of Influence

iphone wp7

When Microsoft put together a design team over a year ago to come up with “Metro” – the design language for their new Windows Phone platform – they were faced with a difficult challenge.  After years of ignoring Apple’s iPhone and trying to heap features onto the Windows Mobile platform in an effort to compensate for a lack of  design savvy – to the extent that even owning a Windows Phone was considered a career limiting move for Microsoft employees – a sudden change of direction occurred within Microsoft.  All at once, design values seemed to matter.

But what should the new phone look like?  Led by people like Albert Shum from Nike, the new design team could not afford to ignore the iPhone.  Ignoring the iPhone was in part the source of Microsoft’s decline in the phone market up to that point.  They also could not simply copy the iPhone’s look.  An iPhone knock-off would quickly kill the venture.   Finally, they faced the danger of trying too hard to design an anti-iPhone.  This would be just as deadly as creating something that looked too much like the iPhone.

The literary critic Harold Bloom coined the term “anxiety of influence” to describe a similar problem that faced the great Romantic poets.  Byron and Keats learned to be poets by reading and emulating John Milton.  At some point, however, they had to find their own voices in order to become great poets in their own right.  What greater horror can there be for a poet that leaving of the footsteps of a greater poet and making a new path.  The tracks of the master are sure while the new steps are difficult to evaluate – are they brilliant but different or merely random steps that eventually end in the gutter?  What must Shakespeare have felt as he stepped from behind the shadow of Christopher Marlowe and first tried to pen something original and truly Shakespearean?

As the release date for Windows Phone approaches – as developers wait for the WP7 Marketplace to start accepting applications – phone developers must decide what sort of apps they will build for the device.  Will they copy the great apps of the iPhone – the fart app, the beer app, the squealing cats app – or will they come up with something original?

Writing a phone application is not quite the same thing as writing poetry.  The goal of the one is to create art that edifies and glorifies while the goal of the other is to make money.  So everyone should definitely take some time to write a copy of an Android app that is a copy of an iPhone app that was a bad idea in the first place.

But what do we do after that?

Phone apps are a genre unto themselves.  They have to work within a small display.  Ideally they should be simple.  They must be easy to use since users of phone apps have short attention spans.  Yet people continue to copy ideas that are native to to PCs and game consoles.  It is worth emphasizing that a phone is not a light-weight PC and it certainly is not a light-weight console (that’s what the Nintendo DS is for).

Is it talking in circles to say that the apps we write for the phone should be guided by a notion of what works well on the phone and nowhere else?  To paraphrase Bill Buxton, any idea is good for something and terrible for something else.  For this reason, with the phone we should be wary of ideas that work well on other platforms.  If they work best on other platforms then there’s no need for them on the phone.  The real breakthroughs will be with game concepts that are horrible for the PC or the game console – or even for the iPhone – but which might just work great on Windows Phone 7.

And then there are the ideas no one has thought of yet.

To that end, here are links to some rather crazy, idiosyncratic games.  They may simply be frustrating or, potentially, they could be inspiring.  Here is an article from the New York Times to accompany them.

Erik Svedang’s Blueberry Garden

Cloud by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago

Jason Rohrer’s Passage

The WP7 design team in the end were able to overcome the anxiety of influence by setting up a manifesto, of sorts, outlining their design philosophy and building up from there.  Where the iPhone design philosophy is dominated by icons and gel buttons, the WP7 core philosophy, called Metro, is built around text and flat, “chrome-less” design.  The overwhelming spirit is one of minimalism.  The Metro design even has precedents in the Bauhaus movement and the works of Frank Lloyd Wright – a return to simplicity in design and an eschewing of ornamentation without purpose.  At times, the Black Book even reads like Adolf Loos’s famous 1908 essay Ornament and Crime.

6 thoughts on “WP7 and the Anxiety of Influence”

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