Microsoft is trying to change users' expectations about applications in general by creating an environment that remains similar app to app, according to the developers, and that means complying with Metro style and tapping into features grounded in the operating system itself.
Dictionary.com, which has written a Windows 8 application for its search service, uses the Windows 8 Search charm - an icon - that appears on the right side of the screen. That way users who want to make a search of the machine don't have to call up the application and execute a separate search command, says David Wygant, vice president of product and general manager of mobile at Dictionary.com.
Similarly, salespeople go to the same Search charm when they want to look for a given customer's data in a custom CRM application that has been written by Sonoma Partners for one of its clients.
Over time users will learn that the search charm is where to look for the search function when they are on a Windows 8 machine, regardless of what application they want to search with so long as all developers follow Microsoft's suggestions, Wygant says. He calls this overarching search feature "persistent search."
Dictionary.com wrote its application at Microsoft's request and it is one of the apps available for free download when users download Windows 8 Consumer Preview. It was written with input from Microsoft on how the application should look and be navigated to fit in with the overall Windows 8 user interface, Wygant says.
Standardising designs for all apps in the Windows Store
Microsoft is promoting a global design standard for Metro-style apps so users will feel comfortable on Windows 8 machines regardless of what application they are using and no matter whether they have used it before. Functions specific to applications should reside in an application bar across the bottom of the screen that remains hidden until a finger swipe calls it up. In the Dictionary.com application, that includes a verbal pronunciation of words, favorites and pinning.
Having such features located in the same place application to application makes learning new ones faster, Wygant says.
His company's application also makes use of Live Tiles, a Windows 8 feature that places a tile - a coloured square or rectangle - on the computer's Start screen. It is said to be live because it displays dynamic content, such as Dictionary.com's word of the day. Users touch the tile to access the full application. "Live tiles let you consume part of the application without opening up the application," he says.
The Metro style strips away the chrome from applications, chrome being a term for the graphic decorations that can clutter a screen. "Dictionary is about words, content," Wygant says. "That's appealing for us. The user double-taps on a word within a definition, and it will look up the definition of that word without additional navigation."
Microsoft approached Dictionary.com in December 2011 to produce an application for Windows 8, and the company delivered it in January, a rapid turnaround time for one of its apps, Wygant says. Microsoft loaned Dictionary.com a Windows 8 touchscreen tablet to help in the process, but the company has been using the application on an iPad via Parallels and on PCs with a mouse and keyboard.
Wyant recommends picking the right programming language for the application being written. He says a graphics-heavy or processor-intensive app would better be written in C# than Java Script. Java Script works great for apps like Dictionary.com, but he would use C3 if he were writing a game.
As for the other application developer, Sonoma Partners, its application was written for a beer maker that has decided already to turn its mobile CRM application over to Windows 8 tablets. New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins, Colo., is a Microsoft shop and sticking with Windows for its mobile devices fits with the IT department's expertise.
Custom proprietary apps would stymie development
The brewers had tried a generic CRM mobile app for cellphones, but the app was so unwieldy that the 100-person salesforce -called beer rangers - didn't use it, says Jim Steger, a principal with Sonoma Partners. A slate proved too big, but a tablet the size of an iPad is about right, he says.
After riding around with beer rangers, his team got a good idea of what they wanted the application to do and wrote it up. The rangers need to tap into sales databases, check call schedules, enter survey information and drop orders into the backend workflow system.
The application is also hooked into the device's GPS so it can advise when a beer ranger is within driving distance of a prospective customer.
New Belgium's application, called Ultimate Beer Ranger, uses the Windows 8 Share charm to post entries to Facebook accounts the rangers have set up. They don't have to actually access Facebook, just enter the post and press a tile, Steger says. The app uses the Search charm as well to search CRM data.
It's still up in the air whether custom applications like Ultimate Beer Ranger will be allowed on Windows on ARM (WOA) devices, Steger says. Microsoft has said WOA machines will be maintained via Windows Update and will support applications only from Windows Store.
But having to put custom proprietary apps in the store would stymie development, he says. He wouldn't want to post such applications where they could be reviewed by competitors. He's told Microsoft about his concerns and he expects the company to address them by the time Windows 8 and WOA tablets are available, possibly sometime early next year.