Microsoft’s new user interface and development platform, Metro, is coming. It is due for wide release later this year, and the preview release has been available since the beginning of June. I’m going to get into some detail on the various new aspects that are a part of it, but I want to lead by saying: this is Microsoft swinging for the fences. The approach may not succeed, but this is the company’s boldest move since Windows 95. I would say in some ways, even bolder.
With 95, everyone knew the GUI was coming, and to a certain extent, it was expected and necessary. In 2012, we do NOT know that a consolidated user interface “language” across all devices is what people are looking for – but it says a lot about the pressure Microsoft is under that they are willing to gamble so much on the idea that it is.
And a note about the name – I’m not sure what Microsoft intended with it, but it’s hard to avoid the allusion to Metrosexuals. I assume the marketing people are looking for some hipness as well as a bit of edge, but they are also communicating what is a fundamental aspect of Metro: a blurring of formerly distinct lines (in this case, between desktop and tablet, tablet and phone), and an introduction of style and some flare to something long considered utilitarian, a bit dull and rough, although maybe efficient. Microsoft is signaling a lot about what they are doing with the name, and the boldness of their vision.
“Go Anywhere” Developer Toolkit
Just to be clear. This review is about the software platform. The Surface announcement last night is intriguing and might make Metro / Windows RT even more compelling because it has a purpose fit hardware solution to go with it. That combination has been a hallmark of Apple and was clearly compelling enough for Google to bring Motorola in-house even at the risk alienating its hardware partners. So Metro has a platform to work from. It may turn out to be an asset. However, it is the features and approach of the Metro / Windows RT software that makes it truly distinct. These include:
- A coherent, consistent, well-defined approach to UI/UX design
- A unified development platform across all devices, with a single API
- Introduction of Win RT
Coherent, consistent, well-defined UI/UX design
Here are the style guidelines provided by Microsoft:
- Content before chrome. Content is at the heart of Metro style apps, and putting content before styling is fundamental to the design of Metro style apps.
- Fast and fluid. User interactions and transitions are quick and intuitive, and animations are deliberate and purposeful.
- Support for multiple states. Metro style apps support a full-screen, immersive state, and a minimal, snapped view that runs while a second app takes up the majority of screen space.
- Support for the right contracts. App contracts provide a way for apps to work together that lets users search across apps or choose to share content from one app to another. Their experience improves as users add more apps that support contracts to their PC.
- Live tiles. Useful information appears on the app’s tile on the Start screen even when the app isn’t running.
- Settings and user context roam via the cloud. Users get a great, continuous experience, regardless of where they sign in.
Interesting stuff, right? And a significant departure from Microsoft’s previous design style, which could be paraphrased as “Step 1: Load magazine with buttons, menu options, and sub-windows. Step 2: Shotgun fire at screen.” Developers (backend ones, at least, the dominant species that emerges from modern computer science classrooms) loved this design guidance, but users less so. It’s great to see MS moving away from this, but have they gone too far?
Their paradigm is very oriented towards tablets and phones, with lots of swiping and tapping. How much sense does it make for desktop? Here’s a strongly dissenting opinion: Windows 8 is Like a Bad Blind Date. My own take: they’ve over-specified things, and the live tiles apps will get monotonous quickly. But they’ve created an iconic and highly usable look and feel, one that puts them in a conversation with Apple for design primacy and pushes them in front of Android. At the same time it still lets grumpy olds devs hack out their “one-hundred dialog box, 0ne-thousand button and menu option” apps if they so choose (they just won’t run on mobile devices).
Can Microsoft Shift Prevailing Mobile Winds?
So I have laid out the argument that Metro has the potential to usher in big change. It is more than just the potential for a cross device (PC + smartphone + tablet) platform, it is a different approach than what is available today with Apple iOS and Google Android. Tomorrow I will elaborate on some of the changes to clarify how different the approach is to past Microsoft offerings and current competitors.
Will Metro change the mobile landscape? Comment below.
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