Thoughts on Metro

Windows 8 with Metro UI was unveiled this week and you have likely seen most of the UI and little tricks Microsoft is using to “re-imagine” Windows — and apparently Microsoft itself.

If I am perfectly honest Windows 8 excites me a bit. Metro UI is anything but boring.

I am not excited about Ribbon UIs and other UI monstrosities that Microsoft has jammed into their aging OS — I am very interested in everything that has to do with the Metro UI paradigm. It is something very original that is coming out of a company better known for “copying”.

Metro UI is a risk for Microsoft, and that’s something that you can’t say about most of its products. The last risk was Windows Vista and that was a risk done by necessity so that the OS could keep up with OS X’s speed. Before that they gambled on Zune and Xbox. Both introduced well after the markets for each device was established.

Metro is Microsoft acknowledging that Apple has something with iOS, but instead of Microsoft copying iOS (as they typically would have done) they decided to let their imaginations run wild.

There is quite a bit about Metro that I think is darn clever and quite a bit that I hate. By and in large Metro is not an iOS clone, from what I have gleaned from playing with Windows Phone 7, erm, phones — Metro is a refreshing change. 1

There’s a few things that I think are worth pointing out about Metro at this point, so let’s go through them.

Copied from iOS

There are two really interesting “concepts” that Microsoft took out of the iOS playbook: multi-tasking and Flash. There will be no “true” multi-tasking, instead Metro will kill off apps after a bit — much in the same way that iOS 4+ does multi-tasking. This was obviously done for battery-life and performance reasons, but I still find it very interesting that this approach was taken by Microsoft.

The second thing is the lack of Flash in IE 10. In fact just like in mobile Safari there will be no plugins that the user can install — again for battery life and performance reasons. I wonder if Adobe is still feeling pretty smug?

Note that I don’t have any intention in calling Microsoft a copy-cat for taking these features, I just want to point out that these are very interesting (and often controversial) features to bring to Metro. It would have been far less controversial to let users install Flash is they pleased and to run down their own batteries by keeping a ton of apps open.

Microsoft was faced with a choice of trying to please every one and trying to do what would be best for the user experience — they chose the latter, that’s interesting.

Grid App Templates

One of my favorite parts about iOS is the creativity that an App UI design can put forth. From the textures of Reeder, the crazy cards of Twitter (iPad), the awesome MLB At-Bat and more — they can all look very different. Certainly the apps can be made to look like first-party apps by utilizing many of the features built into iOS (button controls and bars), but even Apple goes outside the box on apps like iBooks. It’s fantastic.

That’s why I was a bit worried while watching the Microsoft Build presentation about how any developer can make their apps beautiful by “dropping” them into the “Grid” template that Microsoft includes in Metro. There’s a joke to be made here about Windows developers and their eye for design, so in that light perhaps such a template is a good thing?

I think it is potentially very bad. It is selling Windows developers short. I am sure you don’t have to build with that Grid template to get in the Microsoft store, but — and this is a big but — what will the Metro user think of non-grid apps?

If 90% off all apps are built off the Grid template (which I think is a safe assumption given Windows apps I have seen) then wouldn’t a user be off put by an app not using this template?

On iOS users tend to reward innovative and unique UIs, but will they on Metro when Microsoft is so heavily pushing and promoting that things all look uniform — right down to the baseline grid that the text sits on?

What Metro apps end up looking like should be an interesting thing to watch and my guess is that (sadly) they will all look the same. I hope this isn’t the case.

Landscape First

I’m certainly not the first to mention this, but when it comes to tablets Windows 8 (and Metro) certainly look like they were first and foremost designed as a landscape UI. Certainly they rotate, but they are 16:9 widescreen and made with the “home” button on the bottom when you hold your device in landscape.

I find that odd especially given this post that I wrote about tablets giving some power back to users through not forcing users or developers to pick an screen orientation.

The only explanation that I can come up for this is that Microsoft really thinks of Windows 8 tablets, not as “tablets” but as laptops minus the keyboard bit.

That is, I don’t think Microsoft sees users really using Windows 8 tablets as anything more than a slightly more portable laptop — that’s an interesting take for such a forward thinking Metro UI, it almost seems counter-intuitive to a Metro UI.

Timing

The unfortunate bit of all this Windows 8 talk is that the OS is at least another year away. By then iOS 5 will be out and we will certainly be awaiting the arrival of iOS 6 and perhaps even a new Mac OS X version as well.

So why is that bad? Well, for starters, while Metro looks great now, in 2011, will it still look that good in late 2012?

Perhaps you think that is the fanboy in me talking, but let me ask you this: does iOS 3 still look good to you?

  1. This would be in contrast to Android, which just feels like the Microsoft clone of iOS in my opinion. Ergo Metro is more like the difference between WebOS and iOS.
Originally posted for members on: September 15, 2011
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