Welcome to the Metro Generation

Last Thursday, Microsoft delivered near-final versions of Windows 8, Windows Server 2012, and Visual Studio 2012 (previously known as Visual Studio 11). Combined with this week’s Xbox 360 revelations and a coming set of announcements about Windows Phone, we now have a much clearer picture of Microsoft’s sweeping product strategy for the second half of the year. And it can be summed up in one word: Metro.

It’s a good strategy: Microsoft will be pushing various integration pieces between the platform, as always, but the biggest news, I think, is that the software giant is pushing, for the first time, a fairly consistent user interface called Metro across its products for screens all kinds -- handset, tablet, PC, living room, and server. It’s a risky bet, one that could come back to haunt the company if consumers, business users, and IT pros and admins don’t embrace Metro as hoped.

But I think people are going to love Metro. Yes, there’s been the expected kvetching from the tech enthusiast crowd, especially around Windows 8, where Metro is seen as an interloper that has destroyed these suddenly beloved interfaces -- like Shutdown and Restart, and the Start button and Start Menu, of course -- that were previously the source of ridicule. Here’s the truth: Sure, there’s always a bit of pain when Microsoft moves options around in a new version of the Windows UI. But these things are, by and large, more consistent now.

I’ve made the argument elsewhere that Microsoft’s decision to graft Metro onto the desktop is clearly a reflection of the fact that its standalone products like Zune and Windows Phone have essentially failed in the market, and that by forcing this new UI on users through a product that's pretty much guaranteed to be successful, the company can get Metro in front of several hundred million users in just a few short years. This isn’t a bad plan, and it will no doubt work.

In fact, it could be wildly successful. Imagine a future where most users of PCs regard the increasingly anachronistic desktop environment in the same way that many viewed the MS-DOS command line environment before it was eliminated (effectively) in NT-based versions of Windows. Remember when the mouse was considered a toy by those who needed to get real work done?

Of course, we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here -- after 7 straight months of using Windows 8 as my primary OS, I still stick exclusively to the desktop -- but that’s the point of Windows 8, really: to reach for the future now. It’s so crazy, it might just work.

The bigger issue -- the one I broached just last week in "Did Microsoft Just Give Up on Windows 8 for Businesses?" -- is whether this generation of products will ever be embraced by businesses. And it’s not just Windows 8. Even Windows Server 2012, for all its excellent multi-server management functionality and virtualization gains, is pushing Microsoft’s Metro agenda. Server, at least in RC form, has enough class to boot right into the desktop (I’m told that’s going to change, however). But even on the desktop, the UI that comes up, full screen, is the new Metro-like Server Manager. Mon Dieu!

These Metro-like UIs are popping up everywhere, actually. The coming Office 15 applications use them, even those these applications are very much desktop solutions. Visual Studio 2012 does, too. So will the coming versions of Hotmail and other web-based services that formerly went by the Windows Live moniker. Microsoft isn’t just embracing Metro, it’s drowning us in it.

But for consumers, and consumer experiences, I think Metro makes plenty of sense. It looks and works great on Windows Phone handsets, on tablets, and on HD TVs via the Xbox. Metro’s big, flat tiles and larger tap points work well on such devices where the vagueness of the input type -- a hand controller or Kinect-based gestures with the 360, or touch on the other devices -- matches up well. With more precise input such as that afforded by mouse and keyboard, Metro still works well, actually. But it’s hard to escape the notion that Metro wasn’t designed for such interfaces, and that traditional keyboard users, accustomed as they are to tiny UIs, will somewhat resent the big, flat Metro UIs.

Those that stick with the desktop could find themselves in the minority in the years ahead, I bet. The realization that I would remain part of that crowd triggered a bit of soul-searching -- see "Windows 8 Release Preview: RIP, Aero (2003-2012)" -- but I’m comfortable with the way things are going. This is the Steve Jobs “cars and trucks” commentary from the original iPad launch, really: The majority will move toward simpler devices, interfaces, and services, yes. But there will always be a minority who needs more complex and powerful solutions. That’s you and me both, I bet.

But the important thing to remember is that none of us will live solely in either world. I might need powerful desktop applications to create documents, run virtualized environments, edit movies, and create the promo graphics for my site, or whatever. But when I hop on a plane or otherwise need to relax, the Metro-based video or music app will suit my needs just fine.

I’m not necessarily happy that I didn’t get to choose Metro. But putting this interface in all of its core products could very well prove to be the smartest thing Microsoft has ever done.

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