As Metro debate smolders, will it burst into flames and consume Windows 8?

On Friday, colleague Ed Oswald opined "Metro apps on Windows 7 is a bad, bad idea". I agree. Ed responded to Adrian Kingsley-Hughes' ridiculous commentary: "Bring Metro apps to Windows 7 to encourage developer growth". He usually writes good stuff, but this one is a stinker. Metro doesn't belong on Microsoft's current OS, and BetaNews commenters raise legitimate questions about how much it belongs on Windows 8.

Metro is a hotly-debated topic here, and on other sites where Windows enthusiasts gather. There's general consensus that Metro works for touch, albeit with too much scrolling to the left once there are many apps, but controversy about its functionality with mouse and keyboard and position as primary user interface is fierce. Some readers here also question whether or not touch should be the future Microsoft bets on. Windows 8's success depends on Metro -- businesses, consumers and developers embracing it. If they don't, the OS could be the biggest flop since Windows ME or Vista. Take your pick which!


Microsoft has brazenly bet on dramatic user-interface changes before and won. Windows 95 introduced the Start Button/Menu, and people lined up enthusiastically on launch day to buy the OS. Office 2007's Ribbon is better example, being more recent and offering no way back. The new UI wasn't reversible; Microsoft provided no mechanism to switch back to the old one. Yet Office 2007 and particularly successor 2010 were huge sales successes. Windows 8 will adopt the Ribbon motif for the secondary, legacy desktop motif. Change doesn't mean failure and these examples demonstrate huge successes.

On the other hand, what has the tile-like interface done for Microsoft's mobile OS. Windows Phone 7 bleeds market share rather than recovers it. Metro is much more appropriate for a smartphone -- some readers would debate touch's value there -- but hasn't done enough to woo even small numbers of users from Androids or iPhone. Is Metro really right for Windows 8? The answer starts with touch and its appropriateness as primary means of interacting with Windows.

Touch Me

Last week, analyst Mike Feibus opined for BetaNews: "Touchscreens are our friends". He uses newspaper redesigns -- surely dramatic moving from print to web -- as example of the challenge ahead. "It is Microsoft’s cross to bear as workloads increasingly transition from the client to the cloud. When you think about it that way, Metro is vital for Microsoft’s success. It’s a gateway between the old and the new. Between the PC and the tablet". Feibus is confident Metro and Windows 8 is a workable relationship.

Reader Robert Kegel responds:

I agree touchscreens are our friends but only with tablets and maybe laptops if you're using your laptop on your lap (like I am now). Once you have to take your arm off your table, or arm rest, or you have to lean forward to touch your monitor it stops being your friend and starts becoming a pain in the neck. Multitouch pads I can see being useful with Windows 8. I can also see (if MS will develop it within Windows 8) using your Windows 8 tablet as your touch pad with your tablet/touch pad mirroring our desktop OS...Windows 8 for me is a friend, I don't find it difficult to use with a mouse and keyboard (more difficult with a single touch track pad though).

"Do you have a touchscreen on your laptop?" mshulman asks. "As someone who does, I can say it almost never gets used. It's just not convenient to reach across my keyboard to the screen when my hands are already closer to my mouse".

"I'm not opposed to touch, or to a touch-based interface on desktop and laptop computers", Dave Mackey comments. "I do think the Metro approach is seriously underwhelming, in large part b/c it fails to consider that touch-based devices are largely used for less intensive applications, and I think Metro treats the power user (which is a large number of users) like second-class citizens".

That second-class citizen theme is one that pours through BetaNews comments and those I've read many other places. Power users tend to be the elite -- enthusiasts whose endorsement is hugely important to every Microsoft OS launch. Their negative reaction to Windows Vista greatly contributed to doomed sales. If touch is the future, and Metro is the way there, Microsoft must have enthusiasts' support. Will they give it?

Great Debate

Frequent BetaNews contributor Chris Boss partially answers that question in comments to Ed's story:

There is a big divide between two general types of PC users. One could be refered to as consumers (content readers) and then the other as business or power users (content creators). The consumer base is what Microsoft is likely targeting with Windows 8, especially mobile devices (aka. tablets). Touch is the future for such devices. People want absolute ease of use, small footprint and mobility to read, display their favorite content (aka. movies, ebooks, etc.)

The content creators though, will never be fully satisified with touch (only). There is no comparison between a real keyboard and a touch screen keyboard display. The human finger with touch will never replace the mouse. The mouse, despite its age, is still one of the best UI inputs around. Those (even Microsoft) who suggest the mouse is antiquated, just don't get it. The mouse is an amazing device which will continue to have a long life span.

"Everyone that says touch is the future is probably writing the same comments with a mouse and keyboard", Buenos comments. "Recently I asked my friend why he does not want to drop his blackberry, the keyboard. Granted, he can write faster than anyone I saw with a touch phone".

He asks: "Do you think touch is the future? Think again. For a phone yes, you can use it with one hand and tops 2 fingers. For tablets? Maybe yes, because tablets are newbie users, or casual users, the minute this same tablet users want to work, get of the couch or the bed they want to hook their tablets to a keyboard and mouse".

Reader jbrush: "Metro for the desktop is a bad, bad, bad idea. Tablet -- good. Desktop -- bad".

Winning Enthusiasts

Without question, the fiercest debate about Metro and Windows 8 is mouse and keyboard -- that the appropriateness ends with touch. But that's not the real issue. The more I read, the Metro debate comes back to this: Power users don't like it. So, I ask again: Will enthusiasts give their support to Metro? If not, can Windows 8 succeed without them?

My answer is no. Microsoft needs to generate much more enthusiasm among power users, even if they come kicking and screaming to Windows 8. Their support is crucial among developer and IT communities and also as huge influencers among regular consumers.

This absolutely is a crisis situation for Windows and Windows Live president Steven Sinofsky and his development teams. The time to strongly engage enthusiasts is now, before Windows 8 releases to manufacturing. Sure Microsoft can make changes to placate critics, but that can't ever be enough. Metro simply is too different.

Meet enthusiasts, hold contests where they can win Windows 8 slates. Subsidize early Metro apps (meaning pay developers if needed and damn the negative press for it). If Microsoft can't win enthusiasts, Windows 8 can't win the market. So far, these key influencers don't regard Metro as all that good for the legacy market, which is the Windows market right now.

"Windows 8 will end up like Windows ME, on the scrap heap", reader Peeed Off warns. "MS have missed the boat on this one, Metro on a PC/Laptop is as useful as a Chocolate Teapot".

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