Windows 8's Metro UI is innovative and needed - but Microsoft may have underestimated the conservatism of users and their unwillingness to deal with change this radical
Let me get this out of the way. I am a whore for the new. When Microsoft released its first previews of Windows 8 I rushed in and installed them. The Metro interface was different but innovative and I could immediately see the benefits of a similar interface across all my devices (given that my main phone uses Windows Phone 7).
But then I sat a friend who's not a techie at my laptop and asked him to use Win 8. He was hopelessly lost. Not just lost, but he became confused and angry and increasingly agitated as he tried to work his way through Metro. He swore a lot and said he simply would not upgrade to Windows 8. No way. Windows 7 for life. Or Mac OS X, even. But not Metro.
I'd seen that behaviour before - when Ubuntu released the innovative Unity desktop (which saw Linux Mint almost immediately overtake Ubuntu on the DistroWatch charts), and more closer to home everytime I've redesigned a web publication or a magazine (i.e, I've had readers of redesigned publications call for my sacking and scream hysterically at me on the phone). Basically, people hate change, but they go ballistic when the change means they have to throw away the investment in learning an interface and have to start again, even if the new interface is enormously superior by almost all objective measures.
I think as geeks we're missing the elephant in the room of Windows 8: the likely vicious reaction from the unsuspecting public to Microsoft's re-invention of the OS interface. In reality, Windows users are about to be sent to re-education camp, courtesy of the massive changes in the wider computing ecosystems brought on by the arrival of mobile and tablets that have forced Microsoft to go down the Metro route. Put simply, with Windows 8, Microsoft has decided to kill the way we've traditionally interfaced with a PC and is asking everyone to learn what's effectively a new user interface.
Think I'm exaggerating? Get a non techie friend to try Windows 8 Release Preview for the first time and do familiar stuff with it. It will be a surprisingly unsettling experience for them and if we haven't yet seen a revolt from other users yet it's because early testers of preview versions tend to be geeks who can deal with change. Metro replaces the familiar Windows desktop with the live tiles of the Windows Phone 7 smartphone OS: the Start button disappears, application windows take up the full screen and you switch screens by sliding your mouse to the side of the display. Yes, there's a Desktop tile that restores the familiar interface and makes you think you're back in Windows 7, but Windows effectively delegates the old desktop to an app, a kind of Windows 7 mode, while Metro lurks in every corner.
Where's my list Start Menu applications list? The apps in the Microsoft Store.
In short, Windows 8 brings the most radical change to a desktop interface we've seen and, worse, on a mainstream OS which is the global standard. We expect many traditional and perhaps older users simply won't make the transition. That' because the Metro UI has its roots in smartphones rather than PCs and will make far more sense to a generation for whom mobiles and tablets are as important, if not more so, than the PC. Windows 8 will be an OS that will challenge a generation of users.
At APC we like the Windows 8 Metro user interface. That's partly because we appreciate the sheer audacity of Microsoft to deliver something so revolutionary on such a grand scale (with the implied gamble behind it), and partly because we have an unfair advantage: we're familiar with Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's phone operating software, where the Metro interface started and which is probably the most elegant of the phone interfaces. Everything clicks into place once you look at Windows 8 as a universal interface using many of the smartphone OS principles.
Why is Microsoft doing this? With the extraordinary take-up of smartphones and tablets since the iPhone launched back in 2007, Redmond is in a fight for relevance in the consumer space. Mobile devices have shown that you don't need a PC for everything and the arrival of the cloud means your software and data can come down the internet to you, to any device. You're no longer tied to the PC on your desk, the territory conquered by the Microsoft empire.
Where once the world separated into desktop tribes (ie., Windows vs Mac), it's now splitting into computing ecosystems that provide you with an increasingly unified computing experience across all devices. If you buy an iPhone you get an OS that also works across the iPad, while some of its key features are appearing in the just-announced Mac OS X Mountain Lion, all backed by an iCloud that stores your data and settings across all Apple devices. If you open a Google account, you can use Gmail and Google Apps on all web-attached devices across all operating systems and your account information follows you everywhere. Working from the opposite direction,Google's even starting to make its Chrome OS look more desktop-like.
Until Windows 8, Microsoft has been the laggard and now it's made up for it with this spectacular reworking of Windows.
But let's see how the common Windows user gears up to a bit of re-learning.