What Metro Needs to Make it a Powerhouse

Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8, has caused a lot of dissent since the release of the Consumer Preview. After all, the ambitious new UI, loosely called Metro, isn’t exactly standard fare from Redmond. Still, Metro has been seen before in the Zune, Xbox, and Windows Phone 7, so it’s to be expected that Windows would eventually don Metro’s look and feel as well.

But Metro is far more than just a fancy new look, it’s an entire paradigm shift in the way Windows itself functions. Unfortunately, it has some rough edges. Below are eight of the most crucial applications that the Metro half of the computer needs to succeed at real work.

In Microsoft’s ideal world, users would use Metro Windows 8 almost exclusively. Sure, the desktop is there, but it would treated like just another app, and you really shouldn’t have to go in there very often. Everything you need to do, save really heavy work like video editing or graphics work, should be done in the Metro half. This is what Microsoft is proclaiming to consumers and business users alike.

But that dream-land hinges on one single word: apps. Microsoft only needs to take a good look at WebOS, Meego, and Blackberry to see what happens to new platforms with no applications. And the same outcome could hold true for Windows Metro, unless Microsoft pushes as many apps as possible into their new ecosystem. If they don’t, most users will still use the desktop for the majority of their work. And with the transition between Metro and desktop as jarring as it is, that’s something that Microsoft needs to avoid. Read on for applications that Windows Metro can’t do without.

Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office Icon

This is so obvious that Micrsoft’s omission is perplexing. By not introducing a Metro version of Office at the same time as they did Windows 8, Microsoft is communicating that Metro is not capable for “real” work.

If Microsoft had had a Metro version of Office even partially ready by the time Windows 8 was sent to beta, they would have communicated, to businesses especially, that their new operating system is still equally capable at handling complex applications, and real work. Instead, they will lead more businesses to continue to rely on desktop software, or not even upgrade to Windows 8 at all. It’s incredible to think that Microsoft overlooked this. Unless…

Browsing the (admittedly, mostly empty) Windows store communicates much the same thing. There are very few actual complex applications in the Store. Soluto, for example, has a PC Cleaner application in the Windows Store. This Metro Style app appears, at first glance, to do everything the desktop app does, but is really a ridiculous, simple application that does very little. No one is going to install a bunch of stripped-down apps on Metro and hobble along with them. No, instead they will continue to use the Desktop versions, and be thrown in and out of Metro constantly. Which is exactly what Microsoft doesn’t want.

A more disturbing scenario is the alternative that Metro apps simply aren’t capable of being very complex. This is equally dangerous for Windows 8’s prospects. Fun, simple applications may be fine on tablets, but computers are for getting real work done. And if that real work is going to be done, it’s going to have to be in the Desktop side of Windows 8. Which, again, is exactly what Microsoft doesn’t want.

A Full Control Panel

Contral Panel Icon

Again, this is a no-brainer. The double control panel in the Windows 8 consumer preview makes Windows 8 seem schizophrenic. It also communicates, again, that Metro isn’t “really” for working. If Microsoft were really fully committed to Metro, they’d take every opening they could find to prove that it was capable of everything the Desktop half was. Instead, we get the feel that we need to jump into a mangled and crippled Desktop half every time we need to get work done. It’s the worst of both worlds.

There are also an insane amount of settings in the (older) control panel, so it’s understandable that they might not all be set up by the time of the Consumer Preview. But it is imperative that Windows 8 ship with a Metro Control Panel which fully replaces every aspect of the old Desktop control panel.

A Calculator (Or, all first-Party Apps)

Calculator Icon

How are we supposed to work in Metro if most of the default applications that ship with Windows have no equivalent? The Calculator, for instance, is absent on the metro side. Perhaps even Microsoft realized that a full-screen calculator would be ridiculous.

As the Windows 8 and Windows Phone codebases grow closer, I suspect that the state of full-screen apps will change. It’s possible that in Windows 9, or even the final version of Windows 8, we will have support for multiple tiles of applications, ranging between mobile-phone-screen size all the way to taking up the entire computer screen. Or, it’s possible that in Windows 9 Microsoft will backtrack and allow Metro applications to be windowed, and overlap just as old Desktop apps did.

The fullscreen applications work for ninety percent of the work we do. This blog post is being typed in a maximized Microsoft Office window. Firefox is open, maximized. Zune is open, maximized, and Photoshop is open, maximized. I switch between the applications using Alt+Tab – adjusting to Metro shouldn’t be too hard. But for the few apps that do require a non-fullscreen presence, the option for windowed windows needs to be present.

Windows Live Suite

Windows Live Icon

Even if Windows 8’s focus is on “fun,” simple apps, some of Microsoft’s own are lacking. Notably absent from any of Microsoft’s announcements is word of Windows Live. There have been a smattering of rumors, but it is not known if the next version of Windows Live will run on Metro or not.

For a suite of “fun” tools like a movie maker, blog writer, and messenger (which should ideally, be or integrate with the default messaging app that comes with Windows 8), it’s absolutely essential that they run on the Metro half. It’s just one more set of tasks that will be able to be accomplished on the new half of the operating system, the half that Microsoft is hoping everyone will use.

Of course, Windows 8 comes prepackaged with a few applications that do some of what Windows Live does, such as the Calendar and Mail applications. And granted, these are ‘preview’ apps and not final releases, so it’s possibly that Windows 8’s default apps will have all the functionality of the old Windows live applications. Still, news of Movie Maker, Writer and other more advanced Windows Live apps would be good.

Skype

This would be another bonus. Skype is used by milllions of people, and now that it’s owned by Microsoft it’s an excellent opportunity to reassure business users that real work is possible, and reassure developers that it’s possible to create complex applications.

The format of Skype — chatting and video-conferencing — lends itself well to the fullscreen format, and the simplicity of Metro as well. A docked version would do equally well, with an emphasis on chat and perhaps a small video screen at the top. And besides, it’s a huge opportunity for Microsoft to get another feature of the operating system rounded out.

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop Icon

It will be interesting to see the tack Adobe takes towards Windows 8’s mish-mash of Desktop and Metro. If Adobe releases a “touch” version of Photoshop or any of their applications for Windows 8, it’ll communicate the same thing Microsoft is communicating: the Metro half isn’t for real work. On the other hand, if Adobe releases a full version of Photoshop or Illustrator (even if it lacks absolutely all features), they will get in on the ground floor of Windows 8.

Besides, Windows 8 Metro apps shouldn’t have to be optimized for touch. If it isn’t possible to code a non-touch optimized Metro app it is something that Microsoft needs to address with all speed. Some applications are too complex for touch gestures and need to have smaller controls for a keyboard and mouse. If Microsoft recognizes this, then vendors like Adobe can create robust, Metro applications without being constrained by huge buttons and other touch-specific controls.

Even if Adobe only releases a “beta” version of Photoshop, with the promise to add more features to bring it up to the par of the older, desktop app eventually, it will be a great step towards solidfying Metro as the “real” part of Windows 8.

Windows Explorer

Explorer Icon

Real work cannot be done without access to the filesystem. Granted, Windows 8 has access to the filesystem through the Desktop, but something as simple as organizing files needs to take place in Metro for users to take it seriously. A full-screen, Metro-style Windows Explorer could be beautiful. The ribbon is, design-wise, easily transposed to Metro’s full-screen paradigm. Different open folders could be shown through tabs instead of in separate windows. But access to the filesystem is crucial. Business users will need it, and anyone more than the most casual home user will need it as well.

Home Screen (and Multitasking)

Multitasking Icon

This isn’t technically an application, but it counts as one, given its importance in sorting and displaying applications. Windows 8’s weakest link is multitasking. Task switching is difficult even on tablets. If Windows 8 applications don’t need to be “closed,” then a task switcher is useless. Every app you’ve opened since the computer booted will be shown. It’s laughable that Microsoft expects us to work with this.

This could be easily solved in one fell swoop: cards. Some simple alterations to the Start Screen would be easily done to show a scrollable list of “cards,” very similar to how WebOS (and Windows Phone itself) handles multitasking. Applications would be easily switchable, and, easily closable, also. Thus, the task switcher in the upper left corner can be retained, and it can be actually useful because it will show only your open applications.

Better yet, the Start screen could have two ‘tabs’ or ‘states’ that switch between a view of all open programs, a la WebOS, or a view of all your programs (the current “Start” screen). Tablets could even have two physical buttons to easily access these two areas.

Conclusion

In short, every thing the computer does out of the box needs to be on the Metro half. Switching to the Desktop to run third-party apps that aren’t Metro-optimized is tolerable – switching to the Desktop to access components of the Operating System itself is most definitely not. When users must switch to the Desktop to accomplish basic, operating system-level tasks, this communicates that the Metro side is not for real work; when, in reality, Microsoft hopes to shove as many people off of the desktop and fully into the Metro side of Windows 8. This needs to be addressed, so that all the basic tasks of the computer can be accomplished in the Metro half of Windows 8.

Until Microsoft includes these apps or features in Windows, it’s as good as useless trying to convince us that the Metro half of the operating system is useful for anything other than Angry Birds and some light web browsing. If Microsoft can successfully surmount these obstacles, than the Metro half of Windows 8 will be the real meat of the operating system, and the Desktop can be relegated to what’s it’s good at; running legacy applications. And that’s all.

This post has focused mainly on Microsoft’s own applications, rather than third-party programs – what applications does Windows 8’s Metro half absolutely need before you can use it for real work? Let us know in the comments.


  • http://www.iatemycomputer.com StrAbZ

    I totally agree with this. I should say that I think Microsoft should have splitted the desktop and the Metro Windows.

    I know they may have done that so they can leverage their actual user base. But have both the Desktop UI/UX and the metro one, is going to be a pain in the ass for a lot of people.

  • Jordan Pakrosnis

    You are completely right. I am a web developer myself, and I see Windows 8 metro + Desktop + Dual monitors as a complete screwup by Windows so far (after trying CP of course). Metro is pretty much useless and also awkward with keyboard + mouse. Throw in a second monitor and it is even more awkward. If they make windows 8 ALL METRO, and include things like this, I would love it.

  • Morris

    Couldn’t agree more.

    It’s quite puzzling in that MS seems to be moving away from business use, which has for so long been their bread and butter. WIndows Phone 7 has this same problem in that a user can’t sync the phone’s contacts with Outlook directly, but must use a Hotmail/Windows Live account to do so via their Outlook Hotmail connector. I got around this myself by using a 3rd party application Companionlink, but its a puzzling move by MS. There’s a lot of business users very angry about it if the online forum reactions are anything to go by.

  • Mike Jones

    As a Microsoft programmer I am very leary about Metro. I tried the CP, for about a week. It was a toy and I had no time for it, I was constantly switching back to Windows 7 mode. And I am not happy about learning another framework. .Net works well for me, why do I have to go to Win/Rt?

    Steve Balmer, please retire.

  • Alexandru Vornicescu

    Hope Windows will be available in Windows 8 with metro and Windows 8 Pro without metro.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003406205068 Francisco

    That’s a smart answer to a tirkcy question

  • http://windows.appstorm.net/general/opinion/what-metro-needs-to-make-it-a-powerhouse/ Gina Bearden-Dombrolowski

    Well-stated objections, Andrew.

    I’ve been using 8 in the various previews for about 4 months now, having previously used 7, Vista, XP, 95, and Windows 3.0.

    There are considerable annoyances to the Metro regime, ones that Microsoft is intent on forcing us to suffer through.

    I find it absolutely ridiculous, for example, that I can’t switch a Metro app to move to my second (larger) monitor. Whenever I open a PDF file, Microsoft Reader launches on my laptop’s cramped screen and completely ignores the large 24-inch monitor I’ve attached to it. No amount of right-clicking or chicken-licking gets Reader to move to the more spacious screen.

    Now Reader is a fine app. I find it displays PDFs better than Adobe Reader, Foxit PDF, or SumatraPDF, so I would be _happy_ to use it (and other Metro apps) if it behaved the way I want it to.

    When I ask for help on this on the Microsoft sites, every single official or semi-official reply boils down to “that’s not how Metro apps work, and you have to be thankful that we’ve given you Metro.”

    Ugh. I despise the sanctimony of those kool-aid drinkers more than anything.

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