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Microsoft’s Metro: A big mistake

Don't call it Metro. Call it overkill.

There's a theory that Windows users adopt every other version of Microsoft's OS, and the Redmond-based company seems to be trying to make this "new every two" legend come true, if we believe Microsoft guru Mary Jo Foley's recent story that all Windows 8 PCs will be forced to boot into Metro.

Or – whoops! – we're not allowed to call it Metro, because Microsoft didn't do a trademark search. Instead, let's call it µ. I'd bring back the "Prince" symbol from the 1990s, but it isn't in Unicode. Microsoft wants to call it a "Windows 8-style UI," but that's a circular reference. (I'm a "Sascha Segan-like person.")

Here's the simple truth: µ is designed, from the ground up, for touchscreens. Microsoft has never argued otherwise. It's a great experience on touchscreens. It should be used on devices with touchscreens. Microsoft agrees. Right in its dev centre, the company notes that the design is for “a touch-first experience.” It adds: “First and foremost, design your [Metro] app with the expectation that touch will be the primary input method for your users.”

But hundreds of millions of Windows PCs, including most corporate installations, won't have touchscreens, and µ makes no sense when used with a keyboard and mouse. When you're using a mouse or a trackpad, you want relatively small interface elements, relatively close together. That way you can operate the interface with subtle twitch movements rather than grand sweeping gestures, which get awkward and tiring.

We have a desktop PC with Windows 8 on a big monitor in the office, and using Metro with a mouse is just weird. As I said, there are a lot of grand sweeping gestures – a lot of flinging from one end of the screen to the other. That makes sense in a touch environment but not in a pointing-device environment.

Yes, you'll be able to dismiss Metro with a key combination. But that's a kludge, and it isn't immediately obvious to non-power users.

Why Microsoft is forcing Metro

Forcing Windows 8 into µ is an enterprise tech support and training nightmare, too. If you support thousands of PCs, you don't want to have to retrain your entire organisation on an entirely new interface with no advantages for whatever productivity apps you run. Rather, unless Microsoft backs down, expect to see all sorts of third-party kludges developing to force enterprise PCs to boot into the desktop, where they belong.

So what is Microsoft thinking? It's clear, if clumsy. As I've said before, smartphones and tablets are a huge future market where Microsoft has almost zero market share. For Microsoft to get a foothold there, it needs developers to write apps in the Metro-style WinRT API, so they'll run on tablets and can be easily ported to Windows Phone 8 and 9. If everybody with Win8 boots into Desktop, there's no real impetus for third-party app developers to write in WinRT. So Microsoft is trying to force the issue, trying to convert its huge existing Windows base into Metro users.

If Microsoft continues down this path, the strategy will backfire, and PC owners with a choice will likely skip this version of Windows, much as they did with Windows ME and Vista.

Windows RT = Really Terrible

Meanwhile, in other Windows disaster news, The Verge reported that Microsoft is determined to cripple Office for Windows RT, making it even clearer that Windows RT is some sort of kneecapped no-hoper rather than an actual version of Windows.

Microsoft's steadfast refusal to talk in depth about Windows RT has made me (and everyone else I know) sceptical about the OS in the first place. RT, in case you haven't been following the news, is the "version" of "Windows" that's going to run on ARM-based tablets like the less expensive of the two Surface models. It won't have a desktop, and it won't run any existing Windows application binaries, only new apps coded with the WinRT API.

And since Windows RT is supposedly the all-µ, all-the-time version of Windows, any missteps with Windows RT will cast a shadow over the way businesses perceive the µ user interface in general.

Office was the number one thing RT had going for it. iPads have adequate office apps in Pages and Numbers, but Microsoft Office is the global gold standard for office work. Here's the thing, though: To be an enterprise-friendly copy of Microsoft Office you need to know that all of your documents will work, including that 240,000-line spreadsheet full of VBA code that I spent an entire month slaving over. Not to make this about myself or anything.

But no! Office 2013 for RT won't include macros or VBA support, making it considerably less than pro Office. Maybe it's pro-am office. Maybe it's not an office, more of a co-working space at a Starbucks where someone else takes your table when you get up to go to the bathroom.

For Windows RT to succeed, it needs to be Windows, and it needs to run Office. Otherwise, it's stuck in the middle, a "tweener" OS that nobody wants.

It's tough being Microsoft right now. As always, the company must balance the needs of basically conservative desktop and enterprise customers with the opportunities offered by new, growing markets. Windows 8 could hit that balance, but the balance is delicate. Forcing non-touchscreen devices into Metro – whoops, I mean µ – and crippling Windows RT out of the gate are two choices on the wrong side of the line.