In the previous part of this review, I examined the parts of the new Metro environment in Windows 8 that will impact all users, regardless of which type of PC or device they own. But Metro is much more than a new environment works alongside the traditional desktop interface. In fact, Metro is nothing less than a completely new mobile OS, similar to Windows Phone in some ways but designed to run on a far more diverse range of devices. Today, I’d like to discuss Metro, the platform: What it means to Windows and its users, and how the experience makes more sense with a new generation of touch-capable mobile devices than it does on traditional desktop and portable computers.
According to Microsoft, there are over 1.3 billion Windows PCs in active use around the world. Metro was not designed for any of these PCs. None of them.
Don’t misunderstand what that means. As noted in the first two parts of this review, Windows 8 is not just Metro, it’s also a vastly improved desktop environment—one that represents a bigger leap over Windows 7 than did that OS over its own predecessor, Windows Vista—as well as a nascent set of capabilities and interfaces that work consistently between the desktop and Metro environments.
That Windows 8 has two operating environments is, of course, odd. It’s odd conceptually, and it’s odd in day to day use. You do get used to it, however, even on a desktop computer with a large display. But it’s there. Windows 8 has two personalities, two sides. And it’s hard not to imagine that they’re vying for attention, not just from users, but from Microsoft. One of these personalities is going to win over time as Windows continues to evolve. And make no mistake: that personality is Metro.
Now, the suddenly protective Windows user base, reacting to the unexpected arrival of Metro, is understandably asking questions. And one of the key question is why Microsoft didn’t simply create a Windows 8 that was just the desktop improvements and a separate product—let’s call it Windows RT for the heck of it—that was just Metro.
It’s a fair question. But if you’re a fan of the desktop and unsure or downright hostile about Metro, you’re not going to like the answer.
Why Metro Is Part of Windows 8
Yes. Microsoft could have kept Metro and Windows separate. But if they had, Metro would have gone on to be the latest in a long line of Microsoft mobile systems that was highly regarded but barely used. It would have followed in the past of such products as Zune HD and Windows Phone. And it would have signaled the end of Microsoft’s relevance as a platforms maker.
See, Windows is dominant today … in the PC market. And while the PC market is currently quite a bit bigger than the market for tablets—which includes high-end cross-over tablets like the iPad as well as less full-featured “media tablets” like the Google Nexus 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire HD lineup—things are obviously changing. I’ve argued in the past that the future of the iPad is a device that takes on more PC features. But on the flipside, the future of the PC is devices that take on more iPad features. Thin and light designs. Super battery life. Integrated and integral multi-touch capabilities. And above all, a focus on simplicity. Metro—not Windows 8 per se, but Metro—targets this future.
It’s a big bet. But by including Metro in Windows 8—by essentially forcing it down users’ throats, to be honest—Microsoft is ensuring that this system will be in use on hundreds of millions of PCs within a year. To put this in perspective, more people will be using Windows 8 by October 2013 than will be using all versions of the iPad combined. That’s what’s at stake. That’s why Metro is being included with Windows.
Think about the alternative. Windows Phone has sold under 20 million units in about two years. The Zune HD, though excellent, barely registered in sales charts at all. Microsoft could have invested in this new platform and watched it whither in the market. Or it could do what it did and ensure that it gains market share immediately.
Microsoft made the right decision.
It’s worth noting, too, that by making Metro part of Windows 8, Microsoft has at least provided an upgrade path for all current users. So while those 1.3 billion PCs may not be ideal Windows 8 machines, most of them can be upgraded to Windows 8, and many of them will in fact be updated. And Windows 9? I bet that one provides a more compelling upgrade for those customers—desktop PC users, businesses—that are feeling a bit left out this time.
By comparison, Apple’s big innovation in this space—the iPad—requires PC (by which I also mean Mac) users to start over. To learn a stunted new interface and learn to deal with its limitations. To find and buy apps that may or may not provide the functionality you were used to. In short, to leave everything behind.
With Windows 8, you can take it with you. Your investments in time, applications, online services, and hardware all come forward. You can have the new and the old, all in one machine.
I’ve already written about the old. Let’s look at the new.
I mentioned previously that Metro is a new mobile platform, and it is. The core of this platform—not just the kernel, but also the next layer of system components, or what we might have previously called “MinWin”—is the familiar NT core that’s formed the heart of all mainstream Windows versions for over a decade. The user experience—what some people think of as Metro, though of course it’s much more than that—is based on the Metro UI that debuted in Windows Phone in 2010. So there are two familiar pieces here—three, counting the desktop---that combine together to form Windows 8.
What makes Metro a new platform, however, is its underpinnings. While the desktop environment in Windows 8 runs on the Win32 runtime engine, Metro runs on a new runtime engine called the Windows Runtime, or WinRT. That is, Metro isn’t a shell or front-end for new apps. It’s an entire platform, with its own app execution and security model. This is the reason you can’t run Metro apps windowed “on top of” the desktop.
As a mobile platform, Metro works a lot like smart phone and tablet OSes. It includes an app store, Windows Store, with an account-based model with strict rules. It aggressively sleeps and then kills unused apps, so users don’t need to think about closing anything, but provides underlying capabilities to these apps so that they will not lose your data when closed. It sandboxes apps from each other and from the desktop—which Metro treats as just another apps—to maintain the security of the apps and the underlying OS. It provides intra- and inter-app capabilities so you can do things like share information, interact with devices, and find anything on your PC, all in consistent and predictable ways.
Thanks to Apple, we’ll never see another modern platform that doesn’t include an app store. Windows Store owes a lot of Apple’s iTunes-based App Store, of course, but it improves on what Apple offers by offering developers a more transparent app approval process and by being based on a new development environment that provides a seamless way to target x86 (32-bit), x64 (64-bit) and Windows RT (ARM) platforms from a single code base. For users, Windows Store provides a theoretically safe, secure and trusted source for apps—it’s the only place to get Metro-style apps, literally—that are heavily curated by Microsoft and known to meet stringent performance, security, and reliability tests. In practice, I’ve not seen a single Windows Store app that’s blown me away—yet—but since Windows 8 isn’t shipping yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The foundation is there.
If you’re familiar with Android or iPhone/iPad apps, you know and probably accept that these apps run only in full screen and don’t interact with each other in any meaningful way. Metro apps, meanwhile, do run full screen normally, but all apps must also support some form of side-by-side screen sharing through a Metro feature called Snap. It’s a bit limited, and functionality will vary dramatically from app to app. But it’s a feature the competition doesn’t offer.
More important, I think, is that Microsoft has imbued the Metro platform with an important Share capability that lets any two apps interact with each other in meaningful ways. The canonical example is sharing a web site: If you find a site you want to share from Internet Explorer, you simply access the Share charm and choose the appropriate app to share with. IE doesn’t know a thing about these apps, that Mail can share via email, for example, or that People can share via Facebook or Twitter. But because this capability is built-in at the system level, it just works. And as you add apps—which can expand on sharing from the share originator and destination perspective—Windows 8 will get better. It’s a pretty nifty feature that, again, the competition doesn’t offer.
Metro also provides a system-wide Search functionality that extends into the app platform too. That is, if you use Start Search to search for, say, Paris, Windows 8 will display a search results screen in which apps, setting, and files results are shown, just like in Windows 7. But you can also filter the search to any built-in app that supports Search. Tap on the Mail icon and the search will be retargeted across all of your email. Tap music and you can search Xbox Music Marketplace. Tap Internet Explorer or Bing and you can search the web. As with Share, the more apps you add, the more powerful Windows 8 becomes.
And while some of these capabilities leak out into the desktop environment, Metro gets far more interesting and viable as a standalone system when used on new, multi-touch-capable hardware.
I realize you don’t have this hardware. So bear with me for a moment.
Microsoft refers to Metro as a “touch-first” environment. This is accurate: All Metro interfaces were designed with touch foremost in mind. And while keyboard, mouse, and trackpad interface were added along the way to most Metro features, most are not as seamless as the touch interfaces. Put simply, to fully understand and appreciate Metro, you need to use a multi-touch device.
When you do, it all starts to make sense. The PIN and picture password sign in types. The large, touch-friendly live tiles and the Start screen that glides horizontally at the swipe of a finger. The otherwise curiously-positioned Switcher, Charms, and app bar interfaces, which suddenly seem logical because all of the widgets you need to access are right there where you naturally hold the device with your hands. It’s not just OK, it’s great.
None of this helps you if you’re on a traditional desktop or portable computer, I know. But you’re not exactly inhibited by this scheme, either. No, it does not make sense that the app bar buttons in every single Metro-style app are on the far left and far right of the screen (until of course you’re holding a tablet in your hands and that positioning is ideal). But then my experience using Windows 8 for almost a full year now suggests that users on these PCs will simply ignore Metro-style apps for the most part anyway. I certainly do … On those PCs.
And you know what? This doesn’t diminish the value of Windows 8 in the slightest. On the one hand, you get all the desktop advances I previously mentioned, and on the other you get these new Metro experiences, which can be divided into the unavoidable (which work fine, everywhere) and the utterly avoidable. Those latter bits are encapsulated by all the Metro-style apps that Microsoft bundles with Windows 8 plus the ones you can acquire through Windows Store.
If Metro has a problem, it’s that it’s incomplete. The Metro version we see in Windows 8 now is very much a 1.0 product, and one that could very much benefit from the two years of improvements that, say, Windows Phone has received thus far. There are going to be weird missing bits in the core platform and, more noticeably, in the bundled apps. (The Photos app doesn’t even offer an auto-fix capability, let alone any real photo editing, for example.) As noted previously, Windows Store is going to be woefully understocked for a while, with many of the apps that are in there being of the less-than-desirable type.
So let’s recap.
In Windows 8, Microsoft is ramming an incomplete new mobile platform down your throat and bundling it with just enough desktop upgrades to keep traditional PC users happy. This new platform makes the most sense on multi-touch devices you don’t actually own yet, and is only passingly interesting on the traditional PCs you do have. That sounds like an incredible upgrade, doesn’t it? Like something you should run out and buy immediately?
It’s more nuanced than that. As I’ll discuss in future parts of this review, Windows 8 is chock full of stuff that is useful for all Windows users, regardless of their machine type. You can restore your PC or device to factory-fresh condition within single-digit minutes, anytime. It has versatile and useful storage enhancements. It features radically overhauled backup and sync capabilities that I’ll argue obviate the old fashioned image-based backup we used to use, while still offering that old-fashioned image-based backup for those who can’t move on. Windows 8 is many things, but it’s versatile.
And that, folks, is exactly the point.
Rating Metro is almost pointless: It’s inevitable. Microsoft designed Windows 8 to make that so, and while we may grumble over this need, I’d remind you that people grumbled over the need to get Windows 95 in order to see the benefits of MS-DOS 7.0. Time will pass, our comfort levels and familiarity with Metro will grow, and the current debates over the viability of this new system will pass. I know this because I’ve already gone through it. So, too, will you.
Think of it this way. Millions of Windows users have adopted the iPad, with its completely different and simplistic user interface, its full-screen apps, its lack of sophisticated task switching, and its inability to run two apps side-by-side, and they’ve done so without any complaints at all.. Windows 8 offers a completely different and simplistic user interface and full screen apps, just like the iPad. But it also provides much more sophisticated task switching, the ability to run two Metro-apps side-by-side (or one Metro app plus the desktop), amazing app-to-app interoperability, compatibility with all PC devices including printers and USB, and the full desktop environment and all of its applications. How is that not easier—better, really—than the iPad?
The promise of Windows 8 is one system that does it all. Microsoft calls this a “no compromises” solution, and while we may quibble about that, compare the description of Windows plus iPad above to just using Windows 8, and you can at least see their point.
In Microsoft land, Metro is the future, just as the iPad is the future at Apple. But the software giant isn’t leaving behind the past to get to its future. And while these divergent strategies will be debated for years, I think there’s merit to what Microsoft’s done, and that the conversation about Metro needs to be a bit more intelligent than the knee-jerk reactions we’ve seen so far online.
If you’re not interested in new hardware, you can ignore most of Metro and Windows 8 will work just fine. But with Windows 8, more than ever before, new hardware—new multi-touch hardware—will give you the best experience. It’s what needed before you or anyone else can even begin to opine on this new platform. Don’t judge Metro from a traditional desktop PC or laptop, just ignore it. Judge Metro on the diverse and voluminous iPad-like hardware that PC and device makers will be shipping next month.
You know what? It’s going to blow you away.