Touch Screen

Our preferred interfaces breed not only loyalty, but conceptions of self

It is a remarkably strange thing to pick up an old smartphone, feel the weight of its familiar black, plastic body in its your hand, and be struck by a pang of nostalgia and loss. But each time I pick up my old Windows Phone and paw at its screen, loss is there nonetheless.

My friends ridiculed me for this affection — as well they should have. Windows Phone, or Windows Mobile as it’s now known, was Microsoft’s attempt to take on the smartphones of Apple, Google, Samsung and more. That I would need to explain this to you at all rather neatly indicates how successful the platform has been. Like much of what Microsoft does, it had interesting ideas, hampered by an arrogant, complacent corporate culture and poor, scattered execution. Windows Mobile still technically exists, but it will be officially killed soon. The company has long since admitted defeat.

At root interfaces are not merely mechanisms of interaction, but ways of channeling affect — of giving shape to the emotional dimensions of information

Microsoft has never been the sort of company who has elicited fervor or adulation. If Apple and its products are now inextricably part of the cultural signifiers for contemporary Western urbanism and its related fetishes of minimalism, productivity, and novelty, Microsoft are, by comparison, the Dockers-wearing dad whom you reluctantly visit in the suburbs. No one will wax poetic about Windows on a desktop, which is the digital equivalent of a washing machine: necessary, and otherwise irrelevant. But the smartphone, held as it is in the hand, produces a more immediately personal response, and it was the tactile, visual dimension of Windows Phone that drew me to it.

Unlike the desktop computer, which is mediated through the ubiquitous interfaces of a mouse and keyboard, the object that one caresses 100 times a day produces a bodily urge for a bodily relation. An interface is the meeting point of physical and digital, and its language is a series of muscular movements, memorized swipes and patterns of presses. Over time, one’s interaction with a phone becomes a series of muscle-memory patterns accompanied by visual and aural confirmation that, after a while, become almost Pavlovian. One might talk of interfaces as tool-like, or even ideological, but perhaps at root they are not merely mechanisms of interaction, but ways of channeling affect — of giving shape and process to the psychological and emotional dimensions of information.

Windows Phone was mostly frustrating overall — slower and less functional than other platforms, and missing many key apps people came to rely on. But when it worked, it felt good. Its digital-first, flat design was full of large, clean fonts that predated similar looks from Apple and Google, often arranged in an overlapping carousel design that would leave hints of further menus at the edge of the screen. It worked through a series of fluid swipes and transitions — a gentle flick up or down feeling almost stylish — and all of it matched by a set of chimes and beeps in the same, minimalist, futuristic aesthetic vein. Unlike the grids of icons on Apple and Android devices, the Windows Phone home screen was instead a collection of different sized tiles arranged in an asymmetrical collage, each with updating information, which meant that not only could you glance at the screen to catch up, you could also customize it to keep your most commonly used apps exactly where your thumb naturally fell. Windows Phone’s prioritization of movement, flat lines, and large text over poor skeuomorphic representations of physical things made its patterns of interaction feel somehow more natively digital, more immediately connecting the body to code.

I’m not alone in my affection for a failed digital platform. The Windows Phone subreddit had nearly 50,000 subscribers at one point (this number has since dropped to 46,000). It was a sort of reprieve for Windows Phone fans: The platform was, for understandable reasons, a subject of ridicule and criticism in the tech press; the Reddit group, as they so often do, functioned as a home for a kind of subculture, a place in which those who felt maligned or excluded from the broader world could gather in peace, sharing both problems and tips as well as paeans to their favorite tech.

To be clear, we are talking about people who purchased one kind of smartphone over another. But perhaps brand loyalty is not quite the same as loyalty to the interface. After all, like a language, an interface structures a relation to the world. If the apps that now dominate much of our lives each contain their own unique quirks — the little dopamine hits of the red notification number in Facebook; the pull and release of Twitter; the idle, envious scrolling of Instagram — they are all contained under the broader umbrella of the device interface itself.

The operating system is thus a sort of meta-interface, an abstracted organizing principle, always one level removed. If, say, Twitter is a way of relating the self to a particular construction of the world, the operating system is a way of relating the self to that — and to Facebook, and Instagram, and one’s bank, and Yelp, and on and on for as many pages as your particular device has. The interface is thus a proxy self, the mediating layer between a body and a set of information, into which we project a simple, intuitive understanding of how we relate to the world through a screen.

Windows Phone’s prioritization of movement, flat lines, and large text over poor skeuomorphic representations of physical things made it feel more natively digital, more immediately connecting the body to code

Is it any wonder, then, that the denizens of r/windowsphone still cling to their platform? iPhones and Androids are ridiculed in the subreddit in part because they are “boring” (the device has to elicit novelty, which static icons don’t allow), but also because they represent a foreign country, a system of unfamiliar rules and strange street signs. A collection of digital processes becomes an extension of oneself, a logic of connecting to the other — an abstraction of interaction. And like all avatars of selfhood — ideology, politics, national or ethnic identity — they must be defended at all costs.

More than that, though, there is a loyalty to how the interface reveals an ethos. While Apple have firmly committed to a specific interface for each device, differentiating phone, tablet, laptop, and watch, Microsoft have instead unified, spreading their flat design and rotating tiles to tablets and computers, too. Out of necessity, Microsoft has, again unlike Apple, moved its services onto every possible device, so that one might own a Mac computer and an Android phone and still use Microsoft’s services. Fans consider this democratic and fair, seeing Apple’s approach — such as limiting iMessage to its devices — as needlessly exclusionary and exclusive. To Windows Phone fans, these are less strategic business moves than sets of ideological or cultural precepts.

Windows’ consistency of UI across PCs, phones, and tablets represents an ideal in which software supersedes the physical object — each device is merely a different slab on which to perform the same function. Function and functionality, and their relationship to productivity, are part of the appeal; within a personal brand, device agnosticism suggests seriousness and business acumen. There is a commitment to the interface, but there is also the commitment to work, and the pleasure it elicits to both do and be seen doing it. Yes, interfaces may help structure a relation to the world, but the world is arranged and shaped through greater means — capital and productivity and fun all intertwined and made manifest in an arrangement onscreen.

In The Interface Effect, Alexander Galloway argues the screen and interface themselves become loci of desire, drawing out an affective response as we become fluent in their mechanisms, remaking ourselves in their image. There is an affective relation to the device, and the interface, as the tactile and visual substance, becomes the material substrate of this feeling. One’s love for another can be deep and real, but it is the feel of their skin that can leave one most intoxicated, obsessed, absorbed. Maybe this is why the current Microsoft CEO has said that he wants to “move from people needing Windows, to choosing Windows, to loving Windows.”

What keeps one loyal more than love? Eighty percent of iPhone owners would only ever consider buying an iPhone. This is brand loyalty most companies wouldn’t even dream of aiming for, let alone achieving. We generally understand such loyalty as a conscious and unconscious desire for a product, occasioned by the combined effects of quality, branding, and lock-in. But Apple in particular conjures a strange sort of loyalty, based not only on affection, but something closer to respect, or even a deference to authority.

An interface that promises total freedom, and another that relieves you from it, are simply reflections of each other. Each ideal holds a promise of idealized productivity

A cadre of tech analysts, journalists, and commentators have advanced this perspective —Benedict Evans, Neil Cybart, M.G. Siegler, but none more than John Gruber, who, on his (quite good) blog Daring Fireball, adopts a pose toward Apple like an obedient child might with a parent: in thrall to the effects of its power. It is only through a ruthless, perfectionist expression of power that one might produce an iPhone, or its interface. Apple products themselves evince a certain kind of authority — iPhones and iPads are notoriously closed, restricting what apps one might choose as default; how one arranges icons on a screen.

This restriction works on a practical level. It is why, despite the protestations of many, Apple products are simply better than their Android or Windows counterparts: It is easier to do more when the parameters of an interaction are fixed, so that the content at the center can be manipulated with less distraction. But the same fixity cultivates a certain kind of relation. There is a pleasure in this — no, a relief, a kind of jouissance that emerges from being liberated from the tyranny of choice. That is what interface design is: neither art nor craft, but the expert exercise of authority, a threshold that finds a line between choice and circumscription.

Perhaps this, more than the twinkly music in its ads or the seductive design of the devices themselves, is why Apple inspires such fervor: The company’s authoritarian streak frees us to submit. If an interface structures a relation to the world, the one that has control externally imposed upon it will give order to a world that forever seems to resist. The interface is thus less an illusion of control than an allusion to it, a gesture in a grid of icons for an interpretive frame that will finally rein in your life and bring it to heel. Windows Phone, of course, peddled a chimera of control — yours, not its own. Its customizable screen of tiles always promised the perfectly subjective interface, which turned out to be an ever-receding ideal. Android, too, promises this same freedom and customization, and as its equally zealous fans say repeatedly, this allows for creativity and openness beyond the walled garden of Apple.

But that is the problem with the false control of customizability: It condemns you to keep forever customizing, forever tweaking to get the perfect relation between a world of information and a system meant to organize it. You can, if you wish, reskin your Android phone to function almost like a Windows Phone, remaking one object into another in the hope that your personal desires for control can, through innovation and force of will, be made manifest. But an interface that promises total freedom, and another that relieves you from it, are simply refracted reflections of each other. Each ideal holds a minimally different promise of idealized productivity. This is why fans of various platforms mostly argue about which allows one to get work done best or get through messages most efficiently — not which is more beautiful.

Windows Phone, at least for me, functioned as a personal resistance to this fetish for a seamless relation between what was in front of and behind a screen. Its fluidity and cleanliness was betrayed by its clunky functioning and slow performance — the very poverty of the platform becoming a self-imposed limitation on the time I spent staring at a phone. This was an ideal quickly dismissed when, inevitably, I had to give up and get an iPhone. After all, I had work to do. One evades the binary choice of Android or iOS through using something demonstrably worse. It is, as rebellions go, a futile one, but a sort of tiny rebellion nonetheless.

That pang of nostalgia and loss I feel when I pick up a Windows Phone is because the world has moved on. A certain relation to my life has been taken from me, now reshaped and jerry rigged into a new rectangular slab. But eventually one must submit, and before long, one begins to enjoy the submission. It frees one to make further acts of obeisance, new muscle memories forming, rituals of penance and fidelity now found in flicks of a finger across a screen, catechisms of interaction as practices of faith. Now, with a phone that “just works,” I have far fewer reasons to put it away, to put it down in frustration. The flow of information flows uninterrupted. Apps and services that were once denied me are now there, not just whenever, but wherever, too — and all of it framed by the pleasingly restricted frame of this new OS, a new language, a new frame through which we view reality. In such freedom, it’s worth at least wondering what exactly one is submitting to.

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. His writing has most recently appeared in the Atlantic, New Republic, BuzzFeed, and the Globe and Mail.