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Windows 8 Release Preview: RIP, Aero (2003-2012)

Microsoft quietly revealed this week that it will kill off the Aero glass interface in Windows 8 and replace it with a flat, Metro-like Explorer that’s more in line with the company’s current design mantra. But this change isn’t just about obfuscation. It’s about the Windows team abandoning the very market that drove Windows’s success for over 25 years in order to chase a coming and potentially illusory market for tablet devices.

In the heady early days of Longhorn, circa 2003, the addition of “glass” to the windows in Windows was seen as both a major push forward and, lest we forget, a way to catch up with the UI translucency effects that Apple had previously added to Mac OS X. Since then, Microsoft shipped its first Aero-based Explorer in Windows Vista in 2006 and then deeply refined this UI in Windows 7 in 2009, adding the effect to the taskbar. But now Microsoft is killing Aero, apparently, removing the glass from Windows 8. And the real reason they’re doing this may surprise you.

As has been the case so often recently, this momentous news comes not via an obviously-titled Microsoft blog post like “Why We’re Killing Aero.” Instead, Microsoft buried this information deep within a mammoth 11,000 word blog post, Creating the Windows 8 user experience, that deals mostly with the history of Windows UIs (yes, seriously, dating back to 1985) and, for Windows 8, the new Metro-based user experiences. Why Microsoft can’t just get to the point is beyond me. But I guess that’s why people like me exist: To cut to the chase.

So let me spare you some pain. A full 10,000+ words into this book-length blog post, Jensen Harris—who, God help me, I just love the guy—finally admits that Microsoft, even this late in the development of Windows 8, is about to change the desktop user interface.


Here are the relevant parts in which Mr. Harris describes the coming changes:

“We want desktop windows to continue to feel light and airy, and we want a chrome style that doesn’t distract from the content of the app … Aero was designed to help the app’s content to be the center of attention, and for the Windows system UI to recede into the background. This is still relevant today, and while we are moving beyond Aero, we don’t want to lose sight of these goals.”

“We made a conscious effort to relate the visual appearance of the Windows 8 desktop to the visual appearance of the familiar Windows 7 desktop. This helps people who want to predominantly use the desktop feel comfortable and immediately at home in the new environment.”

“We applied the principles of ‘clean and crisp’ when updating window and taskbar chrome. Gone are the glass and reflections. We squared off the edges of windows and the taskbar. We removed all the glows and gradients found on buttons within the chrome. We made the appearance of windows crisper by removing unnecessary shadows and transparency. The default window chrome is white, creating an airy and premium look. The taskbar continues to blend into the desktop wallpaper, but appears less complicated overall. To complete the story, we updated the appearance of most common controls, such as buttons, check boxes, sliders, and the Ribbon. We squared off the rounded edges, cleaned away gradients, and flattened the control backgrounds to align with our chrome changes. We also tweaked the colors to make them feel more modern and neutral.”

Here’s what it’s going to look like:


And as Harris notes, these changes will not be included in the coming Release Preview. These are changes that Microsoft will be making later, before the final release. (Not a big deal, but I'll just point out that making this kind of change that late in the process hints of poor project management. Are they making this up as they go along?)

I’d like to highlight a bit of potential hypocrisy here. Harris notes Aero was designed to help the Windows UI to recede into the background, which is debatable, but even in this revision, the Explorer UI—which I’d remind everyone that Microsoft “reimagined” for Windows 8—is in fact bigger and more in your face than it was in Windows 7. In this doctored version of that screenshot, I’ve blacked out the bits that are chrome and left the actual content untouched.


There’s about as much chrome here as content, a major complaint for any ribbon UI that’s used on an otherwise “small” application (like Explorer). Seems like bad design to me, no matter the color scheme. But at least you can minimize the ribbon:


I’m curious why Microsoft never explained the need to remove Aero. But let me offer up a reason, one that the company had mentioned previously with regards to the downtuned Aero version that’s appeared in Windows 8 builds so far and is mentioned in this mammoth post, too, but not with regards to the desktop:

It’s all about battery life.

Aero, with all its glassy, translucent goodness, is bad for battery life. Metro, meanwhile, which is flat, dull, not transparent, and only full screen, is very good for battery life. It’s predictable. There’s no worry that people will run overlapping anything, eating away at power cycles, because you can’t run overlapping anything with Metro: Everything is full screen and app lifecycles are automatically maintained by the system. God, the desktop was so pesky. How didn’t we see this before?


Rest in peace, Aero. I liked you, a lot. Still do. And I’ll miss you. I’m curious why Windows 8 can’t simply include Aero themes in addition to something flatter and duller, especially for those desktop PC-using power users who will primarily use the desktop environment and not care about (let alone need) better battery life. But I’m starting to see more clearly what’s happening here and starting to accept that Windows is growing into something that isn’t so much for me anymore as it is for some mythical tablet user base that may or may not appear in the future.

That brings me back to my central complaint about Windows 8 generally and Metro specifically: This is a neat thing that Microsoft’s building, it really is. But it should have occurred in something outside of Windows. (It should have been just Windows RT, minus the desktop.) Windows 8 isn’t even Windows anymore. It’s a tablet OS that’s been grafted onto Windows like a monstrous Frankenstein experiment.

And, no, I’m not being petty here. In any technological migration, there are winners and losers and, sometimes, a majority of users who are unknowingly financing the move to something different. In the 1980’s, for example, the Apple II business kept Apple alive while it foisted money-losing Macs into the market until desktop publishing arrived to save the platform and, ultimately, push the Mac well beyond the Apple II.

The migration to Windows 8 is just like that. Today, Microsoft boasts of up to 1.3 billion active Windows users. Windows 8 is not for them, not for the most part: We get a few bones, like Storage Spaces and quicker boot times, but the desktop environment is pretty much just Windows 7++  (or Windows 7+1 for you non-programmers). But it is those very users who don’t want or need tablet functionality that are financing Microsoft’s push towards an OS—that is not really Windows—that will replace what they’re using. Maybe not in Windows 8. Maybe in Windows 9, or 10. But eventually.

Do I feel weird about this? Sure. I’m a dinosaur driving a desktop PC that Microsoft doesn’t really care about anymore. Heck, I just bought a new desktop computer. It’s like I didn’t get the memo.

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