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Activity Centers Preview

In early 1999, Microsoft began work on a new user interface paradigm for Windows, dubbed "Activity Centers," that is designed to facilitate a task-based approach to personal computing. Though a large number of Activity Centers were originally slated for inclusion in Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows Me", see myreview of Beta 3), Microsoft quickly realized that it would need to scale back these plans due to problems implementing the feature, which is based on a melding of the traditional Win32 API and HTML. So though Windows Me includes a couple of Activity Centers (Help & Support and System Restore), it won't be until the Whistler release ( see my exclusive Preview), due in Q2 2000, that Microsoft will fully realize the Activity Centers vision (see my introduction to Activity Centers for more information). (Originally, the company planned for this feature to appear in "Neptune"--as seen in this design mockup, courtesy of ActiveWin--but that project was scrapped in lieu of Whistler.) This showcase focuses on Microsoft's internal design goals for Activity Centers and provides a preview of the functionality we'll see somewhat in Windows Me, but more fully next year in Whistler.

Design Goals for Activity Centers
Activity Centers are single-window applications, written in a combination of HTML and the Win32 API, that facilitate easy ways to complete common tasks (Figure). They are designed primarily for new and inexperienced users. Activity Centers facilitate the completion of common, infrequently repeated tasks, a design goal that may confuse some. The theory here is that if is task is repeated infrequently, then the user will need to relearn the steps needed to complete that task every single time they attempt to perform that task. So an Activity Center should present a simple, clear user interface that will help the user quickly complete specific tasks without going through this relearning process. Tasks that are repeated frequently, however, are not appropriate for Activity Centers because these new user interface elements stress simplicity and discoverability over efficiency.

Activity Centers are based on the following design principles:

  • Provide a seamless user experience across all tasks for a few key feature areas
  • Be task oriented so that options are phrased in terms of goals, not in terms of tools
  • Focus the user on a single task per "page" and clearly state that focus
  • Always make the next navigational step obvious
  • Enumerate the user?s options for doing something other than the main task
This is known as inductive navigation, and it stands in sharp contrast to the more traditional tools-based approach used in previous versions of Windows. The goal is to give the user an easy way to complete tasks, not present them with a bewildering array of tools. Advanced users, of course, will naturally turn to these tools, but Activity Centers will give new users an entry point to become more proficient with the OS.

Activity Centers and Windows Me
The original vision for Windows Me, then known simply by its code-name "Millennium," was that the OS would include a suite of Activity Centers, including:

  • Photo Center - Scan, modify, and manage digital images (Figure)
  • Music Center - Record, play, and manage digital music (Figure)
  • Gaming Activity Center - Configure and manage games and gaming devices
  • Help Activity Center - Replacement for online help that includes Web links (Figure)
  • Home Networking Configuration Center - Setup home networking, Internet Connection Sharing, and other dial-up and networking connections
However, by the release of Beta 1 in the fall of 1999 (see What happened to Millennium Beta 1?), it was clear that the underlying Activity Center technology wasn't going to be far enough along to provide the needed HTML hooks into the more traditional Win32 interface, so the plans were scaled back dramatically. Microsoft axed Photo Center, Gaming Activity Center, and the Home Networking Configuration Center before ever releasing them publicly to beta testers. Instead, these features are exposed through more traditional UI elements in Windows Me. For example, Microsoft provides traditional Windows Wizards for Home Networking and Internet Connection Sharing. An Activity Center-like AutoUpdate feature was also scrapped for a more traditional version.

However, some Activity Centers do remain in Windows Me. Microsoft had forged ahead with its Help Activity Center (Figure), which was soon renamed to Help & Support to decouple the program from the "Activity Center" moniker, as that was quickly de-emphasized in Windows Me. Microsoft was able to continue with Help & Support because it didn't require any serious hooks into the OS: Online Help was already in HTML format anyway, and the improvements expected in Windows Me--largely links to online help and support resources, were already feasible with the current generation Internet Explorer technology. In late 1999, the company curiously added a second Activity Center application, System Restore, which appears to run off of the Help & Support platform (Figure). It's unclear at this time why they did this, or what sort of integration with the traditional Win32 API this required; I'll examine System Restore more closely in an upcoming Showcase.

There's a third surprise Activity Center in Windows Me as well, though it's pretty stealthy: Music Center has been lightly redesigned and recast as Windows Media Player 7 (Figure), which now features all of the functionality originally expected in Music Center. For example, Windows Media Player plays virtually any kind of digital media, includes an online Media Guide, manages stored media with playlists and search capabilities, includes Internet Radio support, connects to portable devices such as Windows CE-based PocketPCs and RIO-style MP3 players, and is even fully skinnable so that the user might easily customize its look and feel. This is literally the feature-set for Music Center, redeployed to an application that can benefit users of all versions of Windows. There is one subtle difference, of course: In Music Center, Windows Media Player would have been embedded as some sort of contained ActiveX control. But in Windows Media Player 7, the look and feel (and functionality) of Music Center has been applied to the player, giving it the capabilities of an Activity Center. So if you've already downloaded the beta version of Windows Media Player 7, which became available on May 2, 2000, then you're already using an Activity Center; you just didn't realize it. The only thing that's missing is the navigational cues (described below), which arguably wouldn't be required in this kind of application anyway.

Going forward, it's unclear what Activity Center applications will be made available in Whistler, the consumer version of Windows 2000 that will follow Windows Me. Early alpha versions include the Help & Support application from Windows Me, but there aren't any clues about which other Activity Centers will be included.

Activity Center Navigation
Activity Centers open to a "home page" (Figure) by default, though this can be modified with command line parameters that will normally be used by applications within Windows. Microsoft designs Activity Centers to run full screen on an 800x600 screen, which is the minimum resolution of a new Windows Me system. However, custom sizing is supported and they appear to scale well up to at least 1024x768. Perhaps not surprisingly, the relation of Activity Centers to the screen is very similar to what you'd get with Web pages that are designed to scale up and down as the containing window is sized.

Activity Centers exists in a standard Win32 shell window, which provides the standard title bar and window controls for restoring, minimizing, and maximizing the window. The user interface of the contained Activity Center is then divided horizontally into a "navbar" and a larger content area. The navbar provides a simplified navigational scheme similar to that in a Web browser, so that "back" and "forward" buttons are provided along with other common buttons. The navbar shouldn't change in a given Activity Center regardless of the "page" the user is viewing. (Think of an Activity Center "page" as the equivalent of an HTML frame, and you'll get the idea. However, to the user, the content area will seem to be separate, logically, from the navbar, in the same way that the content in an IE window is separate from IE's toolbar. This distinction is artificial, however, as both the navbar and content area are created using HTML code.)

Curiously, the navbar is not the main navigational element in an Activity Center. Instead, Microsoft expects users to use the links off of the home page to move through the tasks offered by the Activity Center (Figure). As users become more proficient, they will likely use the navbar to mover more quickly to the exact location they desire, however. But even new users can benefit from the navbar, as it will provide a quick way to get back to the home page if they get lost.

An Activity Center home page will contain links to the top priority tasks exposed by the application. For example, Photo Center would provide links to acquire an image with a scanner or digital camera, view images that are already stored on the system, or search for pictures. A small number of secondary tasks will be available via teasers, and the user will be able to modify the Activity Center with custom tasks if appropriate.

Secondary Task pages (Figure) will provide the user with obvious ways to complete single tasks. The title on a Task page will generally be formed as a question ("Would you like to scan an image using the MicroTek ScanMaker 6i?") or description ("Select a picture to edit with Microsoft PhotoDraw 2001"). However the task is presented, it will tell the user exactly what the page does, using an obvious, concise statement.

Other Activity Center considerations
Microsoft is looking at a variety of other issues with regards to Activity Centers. For example, Web pages are notoriously difficult to navigate with the keyboard, but Activity Centers will need to be accessible to all users. So links in Activity Center won't be underlined, and the ALT+ method of selecting Win32 user interface elements will be supported using proprietary HTML extensions that Microsoft developed for Internet Explorer. Likewise, localization is going to be an issue, as Microsoft derives over half of its income outside of the United States. This also requires a number of proprietary extensions to HTML.

The Windows Shell team is continuing to advance Activity Centers through changes in Internet Explorer that necessitated the version 5.5 release, and it will be interesting to see how Microsoft markets IE 5.5 to the public as this version is almost completely about internal changes to the HTML rendering engine. But marketing issues aside, Activity Centers will be a huge boon to new and inexperienced users if Microsoft can pull it off. The early versions of Help & Support seen in Millennium Beta 1 and 2 were not exactly awe-inspiring, but the version found in Beta 3 (April 2000) is an elegant and useful application and, hopefully, a sign of things to come. Power users will likely scoff at Activity Centers once the newness wears off, but it's unclear how or if Microsoft will expose Activity Center tasks in the UI for advanced users. For example, if Microsoft finally implements the Home Networking Configuration Center (or its equivalent) in Whistler, will the Home Networking Wizard and Internet Connection Sharing Wizard still exist? Or will these features simply be left available through more traditional (and obscure) locations within the UI? This is impossible to say, of course, but this is just one of the issues Microsoft will need to wrestle with before it unleashes an Activity Center-based user interface on the world.

That said, I'm hopeful that this feature will be "done right." Early indications suggest that Microsoft has taken a hard look at the way people actually use computers and tailored these applications thusly. And logically, we ostensibly use computers to complete tasks, not wander aimlessly around a disconnected UI, hoping to find applications that will provide us with the functionality we need. And anything that facilitates this process is a welcome addition to an OS that is often illogical, inconsistent, and confusing.

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