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.