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Metro: A Make-or-Break User Interface?

October 9, 2012

This blog is principally about metadata management.  But I work in high tech, and as someone who does I’m occasionally allowed to nerd out about developments in the industry.  Particularly when they relate to Microsoft, where I worked as a contractor doing taxonomy management and user experience design for a couple of years.  And even more particularly when someone makes assertions about Microsoft as bold as this one by Michael Mace or this one by Wolfgang Gruener.

Before I begin, I should note that my work at Microsoft turned me into something of a fanboy.  I bragged on Facebook about my trip to the brick-and-mortar Microsoft Store in Santa Clara, not that any of my friends cared. I own both a Zune HD and a Windows Phone, and I will probably buy a Surface in short order when they debut in a few weeks.  All of these devices share the Metro user interface; I like using it, and I find my friends and coworkers like it, too, when they ogle my phone, though they swear they would never consider buying one.  I’m eager to remind them that, with the upcoming release of Windows 8, they’ll eventually be using Metro whether they mean to or not.

These commentators seem to think that Windows 8 will be a wedge which drives desktop users to other platforms, precisely because its user interface was not designed for desktop computing.  A big part of this argument rests on the notion that the shift to Metro is as disjunctive as the shift from MS-DOS to Windows was. I don’t know if I agree — GUI to GUI does not seem as profound to me as command-line to GUI — but it’s tough to quantify.

I’d argue that Windows 95 was in many ways a big disjunct from Windows 4.0/NT (notably through the introduction of the “Start” button). Customers griped about that shift but still bought it. That’s largely because of the extent of Microsoft’s market penetration in desktop OS, which hasn’t shifted all that much since 95 rolled out. I’m not convinced it will drop because Metro leaves a bad taste is some folks’ mouths initially.

Indeed, I think if anything the hump is likely more easily gotten over now than it was fifteen to twenty years ago. Microsoft’s user base are growing more and more inured to these kinds of disruptive interface changes due to the growth of the web and web-based applications and are adapting to them more quickly. Everyone whines about Facebook every time they roll out a UI change, but Facebook still has 850 million users. Tech bloggers didn’t use Timeline as an occasion to speculate on Facebook’s demise. And Microsoft, like Facebook, is focused on pushing quality product with the intention of leading users, not coddling them.

All that said: I agree that Metro may not readily translate to a desktop environment, even having enjoyed using it on my Windows Phone for over a year. Clearly part of the play with Windows 8 — perhaps the biggest part — is anticipating ongoing diminution in the PC market, but PCs are inevitably going to be with us for some time yet.

If Metro doesn’t play nice with that category of devices, or the legacy business applications run on them, or their older and less flexibly disposed user base, then Windows 7 may be with us in the desktop world for a long time to come. But then again: Windows 7 has still not supplanted XP in many markets (including high-tech customers like my employer). That’s not something that Microsoft’s thrilled about, of course, but nonetheless those folks aren’t migrating to other platforms. They still use Internet Explorer. They still use Office.

Bottom line: Windows 8 with Metro is still a super gutsy and super risky move for Microsoft. If it doesn’t pan out it will hurt them, though I’m not sure how much, or who will benefit from their pain. And lastly, I will snarkily observe that when Microsoft’s competitors take comparable risks they are lauded as visionary, while Microsoft is taken to task for being incautious.  Bias much?

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