Metro on the PC: Utter Bliss or Absolute Insanity?

I’m a huge fan of the Metro interface that Microsoft has used with the Xbox Dashboard and Windows Phone 7. It’s stylish, modern, and functional when it’s used for these two purposes, and now Microsoft is bringing the Metro interface over to the PC with Windows 8.

I’ve got some mixed feelings about this, and I’d like to share them with you today.

At Least It’s a Change

While it’s clear that Microsoft has changed Windows from its roots, the basic design paradigm of using, well, windows hasn’t changed much. You have a task bar on the bottom, windows in the rest of the screen, and there you go. Sure, there are things like Aero (introduced in Windows Vista) but even that feels like an iteration of the existing system instead of a new way of thinking.

Right now we’re looking at a point in time where technology is evolving rapidly, leaving behind the old ways of thinking and taking advantage of the sheer computing power available that wasn’t around decades ago. I like that Microsoft is making a change, and if it serves to improve their core product (or, the base for their core product, Office) I’m all for it.

Don’t Half-Ass It

Unfortunately, Microsoft is being Microsoft and holding on to the old ways of thinking as well. Instead of going full out, balls-to-the-wall with the Metro interface, Microsoft is allowing users to use the Metro look and the ‘classic’ look. Oh, sweet lord.

While I understand why they may do this (which I’ll get to in a minute) it doesn’t make Metro’s future seem very bright. If they genuinely believed that Metro is the future they would fully commit to it and tell their users that this is where Windows is going. You can choose to not come along for the ride, but the train is boarding.

Like I said, I’d love for Microsoft to fully embrace Metro, but I understand why they feel like they can’t: market share.

An Apt Metaphor Involving Goliath

Microsoft is huge. While the Mac market share is on the rise (and both are being eclipsed by iOS and Android) most people have a Windows PC, be it a laptop or desktop, at home and at work. Everyone from my mother to my grandfather, from dentists to nurses and teachers, is running Windows. There are exceptions (and the fact that it’s so ubiquitous makes me want to pull my hair out) but it’s a fact that Windows is huge.

It’s easy to innovate when you’re small.

It’s easy to innovate when you’re small. Apple was able to change the way we think about smartphones with their release of the iPhone, and they could introduce something so radically different because they were a (then) tiny computer company with no mobile presence. Google was in much the same position when they released Android. iOS and Android are doing phenomenally well. You know who isn’t? RIM, with its BlackBerry line.

Why? Because RIM failed to see the change in the winds, and even when they noticed that things were changing, they were too slow to react. As one of the (if not the) leading forces in the smartphone industry when the iPhone was released, RIM had to try and change in a way that would please all of their customers. They thought that staying the same would help things, and it may have–for a moment. Now they’re bleeding money, losing CEOs, and the laughing stock of the industry.

Microsoft is on the same track with Windows. They have something great with Metro, and they’re thinking that it might be time to change, but they are so focused on what their customers think they want that they’re failing to completely innovate.

Who Cares?

Most people I know aren’t running Windows 7. Sure, the ones that have purchased a new computer recently are, but anyone that purchased a PC when Vista, or XP, or ME, or 98 was released probably hasn’t bothered updating Windows on their own machine. Why?

Well, probably because the process is a pain. CDs, license keys, long loading times, backups…all of these lead to a (expensive) headache that most people don’t want to deal with. Why would they, when they’re happy with what they have, and they’ll end up buying a new PC soon anyway?

Microsoft needs to find a way to force adoption.

Microsoft needs to find a way to force adoption. Offer discounts if someone turns in their old machine. Use those Microsoft stores for easy upgrading; make it free. Make money off of Office (which is what they’ve been doing) but make the platform (Windows) free or cheap. That’s the only way people will upgrade: if it’s a low cost, both time-wise and financially.

So.

As a technology geek, I’m excited for Windows 8. It may actually convince me to purchase a Windows PC (though that is, admittedly, unlikely). Honestly I’m just glad Microsoft is starting to push change, because they are still a large force in the computing industry and any changes are good for the industry as a whole.

That said, I’m not sure whether or not Microsoft’s current course is the right one. They need to commit to Metro or it’ll be dead in the water, used only by the people who are buying new PCs or willing to deal with a frustrating install process. While it’s hard for a company as large as Microsoft to forget its current and past success (though that is quickly falling) that’s what needs to be done in order to stay relevant.


  • http://www.wdonline.com Jeremy McPeak

    “Microsoft is being Microsoft and holding on to the old ways of thinking as well. Instead of going full out, balls-to-the-wall with the Metro interface, Microsoft is allowing users to use the Metro look and the ‘classic’ look….If they genuinely believed that Metro is the future they would fully commit to it and tell their users that this is where Windows is going. You can choose to not come along for the ride, but the train is boarding.”

    What you suggest would cause Windows 8 to fail before it launched. It’s impossible to do that when a large portion of your hundreds-of-millions user base are businesses who are heavily invested in the software they currently run.

    Windows 8 is the “all board” call to the Metro/future train.

  • http://twitter.com/garbaczd David Garbacz

    Metro is a set of guidelines for UI design and interaction. Straight from the Metro UI booklet “Metro is our code name for our design language. We call it Metro because it’s modern and clean. It’s fast and in motion. It’s about content and typography. And it’s entirely authentic.” Metro is all about cutting through UI and getting straight to the content and information you care about.

    Most of the applications you’ve seen so far in the Developer Preview and beyond (that are TRUE Windows 8 Metro-designed applications) illustrate this principal perfectly. Apps like Facebook, Twitter, News, Weather, the information you truly care about is usually the text.

    Not all apps are going to fall into this category hence why “Classic” mode is still needed.

    The other side of this being familiarity of interaction. If a user can hop from a tablet, to phone, to computer and have the same experience across platform, their efficiency with a particular application and environment is going to be much greater.

    Now with the current release of ‘Metro” design thrown on top of the next version of Office, I have mixed feelings about this. Metro is a nutshell is removing the chrome where needed, and letting typography and icons speak for your application. Sure it looks pretty, but functionally it straddles either side.

    • http://twitter.com/garbaczd David Garbacz

      Also I’d say that Microsoft is pretty committed to Metro. If you look around at some of their sister sites you can tell that they’ve tried to at least make it fit within semi-Metro guidelines.

      Ones that come to mind are Visual Studio’s site and the new Silverlight site.

      They have to start somewhere and start small. Once people become familiar with Metro, they can back it with much more strength.

  • Nick

    I COMPLETELY AGREE. From what i’ve seen so far, the metro thing is a different half to the computer… I don’t like how they didn’t metro-ize everything… They REALLY REALLY need to change the ugly explorer windows, and how new programs on windows will look. If you look at Mac, so many programs look exactly the same, I LOVE THAT. I love that the mac window is super simple, the layout of a program pretty much follows the simple guidelines of “big icons go up here, tons of small icons to the left”… I’m so bummed that windows didn’t decide to do the “big icons up to – when hovered over, it produced a fade in speech bubble” or something beautiful like that. Don’t get me wrong, windows 8 definitely looks better… but it seems like they’ve had tons of time to make amazing ui improvements, and they haven’t. That ribbon in win8 with the TONS of different sized icons is basically vomit on the screen… They could have made it beautiful, but some jerk got his hands on it and decided he liked the windows 95 look.. or something like that.

    The zune music app for windows is definitely a good start for a metro looking windows program, they REALLY should embrace the metro look throughout the entire system, so it seems like one system, not like “I have a tablet version of the start menu, but then I have normal windows… why am I being forced to use the tablet version start menu… where’s my damn simple little start menu!?”… I would love the metro start menu if they had metro-ized the rest of windows, now it just looks like a mess of “we don’t know if we want metro or not”.

    I also agree that Windows would do itself a HUGE HUGE HUGE favor by making the OS SUPER CHEAP… I’m really hoping they do with windows 8. ALL of the people I know, are still using windows 8.. I don’t know many tech enthusiasts. They see the 100$+ price tag of windows7 and think “why do I need that? What I have works for me”.. If it was 30$, they would jump on it instantly… 30$, what do I have to lose? Then Microsoft can charge through the new app store and make it up that way… but nobody on windows 7 or lower will have the app store, so if they price win8 high, they’ll miss out on all those people who would have bought it if it weren’t so expensive.

    Not to mention, they could keep the corporate OS cost the same.. My fathers company pays something like $50,000 a year to have a license to install any windows app/os on any of their computers in the building… that’s SOO EXPENSIVE for how many computers they have…

    They need hard core adoption with windows8, and pricing it cheap would help that, a LOT. But seriously they need to just give MS office away, Google Docs is available for free…. and I would use gdocs ANYDAY over office… The only real chance they have at countering google with office is to just give it away..

  • Viktor Benei

    Sorry, but I have to disagree. I’ve tried the Win8 Dev Preview and although metro on Desktop is kinda usable it has it’s limitations – as every other system based on exclusively on the ’1 window at a time’ concept. It works, it’s just not productive at all (compared to the Win7 UI).

    I think what MS does is not bad – but of course it’s not the best either. Maybe a separate Metro only and a non-Metro version would be better – but in this case you would miss out great Metro apps.

    What i’ve experienced during testing the Win8 Developer Preview: Metro is great, but I won’t use it frequently on my work machines. It’s just simply less productive – the lack of the Task Bar is more like pain in the ass than a relief (with keyboard and mouse).

    Also the Win8 non-Metro UI improved a lot since Win7. I use Win7 almost every day, and it’s one of the best UI if you prefer productivity over animated nice-looking task/app switching. I have a Mac as well (I use it for work as well) and I still prefer Win7′s fast and easy ‘window based’ switching system (Mac’s ‘app based’ system is a bit slower when you’re working with lots of apps with multiple windows). And the Win8 desktop UI even improved the ‘classic’ Windows experience! There’re tons of (mostly) less significant changes, and I already want the new desktop UI!

    I used the Developer Preview for about 2 weeks, every day for a couple of hours (I’m a developer, and I have to keep myself up-to-date) and I love the ‘new’ Desktop experience. I like the Metro concept as well, I just had to realize that I ignored it almost every time when I had the chance to switch to the ‘classic’ surface. For example: I preferred the desktop Internet Explorer over the Metro one – because I could manage my (tons of) tabs easier and faster.

    Maybe that’s just me, maybe I’m too obsessed with productivity, but I’m glad Microsoft kept the ‘classic’ system as well.

    P.S.: I just had an idea / concept: I would really try metro apps in windows (I mean, with ‘window frame’). With a Mac (Lion) like ‘fullscreen’ button it would be really interesting to try it.

    That’s my 2 cents.

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