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Mind the Gap: New Metro UI Has Future Beyond the Smart Phone

Last week, I wrote about Microsoft's introduction of Windows Phone 7 Series, its next generation smart phone platform that should begin shipping in new devices around September 2010. Windows Phone 7 Series is, I think, a game changer, a platform that will make Microsoft relevant again in a market in which many had already written off the software giant. But from a broader view, Windows Phone 7 proves that Microsoft has plenty of innovation left to give, answering another debate we've had lately. Digging even deeper, however, I see nothing but possibilities. And I'm beginning to think that it is Windows Phone, the people behind this platform, and the ideals that drive them, that represent the true future of the software giant.

What's interesting about this is that so much of Microsoft has already rallied around the Windows 7 model, which boils down to "under promise and over deliver." But at its heart, Windows 7 is old technology and an old product that's been gussied up for today's market. It's not bad, mind you. In fact, Windows 7 is wonderful, and I urge any and all Windows shops to move to this vastly improved product as quickly as is possible. But as a legacy technology, Windows 7 also doesn't offer any real break with the past, and that's as true technologically as it is from a usage standpoint.

So why are so many product groups at Microsoft trying to copy Windows 7's success right now? Windows 7 is a moment in time, and the things that make it successful don't apply equally well to virtually any other product Microsoft makes. I'd rather see the people responsible for Microsoft's other aging product lines look to Windows Phone 7 Series for inspiration. Because what they've got there is a truly innovative system that doesn't seek to copy the success of others but instead tries to redefine what it is based on the actual needs of users. It's not about protecting market share. It's about doing the right thing.


And it's hard to do the right thing when you're dominant. Maybe what Windows--or Office, or Windows Server, or Exchange--really needs in order to make this leap is some actual competition. The Mac, for all its commercials and buzz and industry love, still accounts for less than 4 percent of all PCs sold worldwide. That's a non-event, and the reality is that Windows, today, on traditional PCs, has no real competition. (This fact might also help explain why Apple's iPad will run the iPhone OS and not Mac OS X.)

\[ Learn more about the Apple iPad. \]

No, the only hope for Windows is that some alternative computing platform--which I expect to be multiple platforms, actually, some combination of smart phones, mini-computer like devices (like the iPad), and cloud computing services--will take off, threatening Microsoft's core business. That could be happening right now, and if so Microsoft will be forced to rethink the product, how it's positioned, and what its capabilities are. And the key to doing this is already within the company's grasp. It has the virtualization technologies it needs to remove legacy compatibility from the OS and start anew. Most important, perhaps, it also has the UI of the future as well. It's called Metro, and it's what drives Windows Phone 7 Series.

This UI debuted in the Zune HD, sort of, but it actually dates back to such products as Windows Media Center and the long-forgotten Portable Media Center. Few people have used any of these products. But what Microsoft has done over the past decade is construct a user interface that works incredibly well in a variety of situations and with a wide array of input types, including keyboard, mouse, stylus, touch, and multitouch. In fact, for all its newness, Metro is actually quite mature and stable. And if you watch Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Series announcement, something interesting will emerge. The phone's screen is essentially a portal or viewport into what is really a bigger "panorama" (as Microsoft called it). Whenever you're within a particular hub, or integrated experience, on the phone, you're always looking at just part of that thing. Swipe to the right or left and you pan through all of that hub's options and capabilities.

Typical Metro UI: The Windows Phone 7 People hub.

So here's the thing. It's not hard to imagine a larger screen device--like an iPad-type tablet, a Tablet PC, or a full-fledged Windows computer--utilizing this UI. But instead of just seeing a part of it through a small portal, you'd get the whole integrated experience, in widescreen HDTV. This UI would work well in many places. On the Xbox. On a TV. On your PC. On and on it goes.

I have no insider information to suggest that this is what Microsoft is actually doing. But it's very clear to me that something wonderfully innovative has happened here. And if this company is looking for the next mark it can leave on the world, my recommendation is to see where else Metro makes sense and to apply this UI liberally across its other product lines. This new UI, and the thinking it represents, is I think the biggest change that's come out of the Windows Phone 7 Series launch. And I see no reason why it needs to be limited to just the phone.

An edited version of this editorial appeared in the February 23, 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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