Microsoft has been lauded for being able to do what Google couldn’t with Android- create an interface that is fundamentally different from iOS. While I haven’t had the opportunity to use it, the Metro interface for the soon-to-be-released Windows 8 has been touted as a welcome evolution to the venerable Windows OS and the foundation for the merger of mobile and desktop systems much as Apple has begun to do with iOS and OSX.
One of the main talking points about the Metro interface is its originality, but after seeing some of the initial images and animations, I had the strange feeling I had seen it before. While my memory isn’t always the best, this feeling has been at least partially confirmed with a cursory image search.
Metro does away with the traditional Windows desktop and program shortcuts in favor of brightly colored tiles acting as both widgets and launch icons. The tiles can display some realtime information and a click on the tile launches the full app much like the traditional desktop shortcut icons Windows users have used since the days of Win95:
But this layout has graced Windows before. It wasn’t that long ago that I had been looking for the best option for building a Windows-based media center PC (before deciding the Mac Mini was the best option). My first attempt was to use the built-in Windows Media Center in Windows 7. At first glance the clean, nicely animated app looked like a good option- it did a better job than the updated Windows Media Center at organizing my music collection, had DVR functionality, could play DVDs, and touted access to streaming online video. Ultimately, I abandoned WMC because it didn’t live up to its billing; the streaming options didn’t offer the sources I wanted, the DVR never worked for me, and the process of playing a DVD through WMC was more cumbersome than either playing it in a dedicated DVD player or using VLC/Win DVD/Windows Media Player on the PC.
This is a sample of the interface that sparked my memory when I first saw Metro:
From the perspective of functionality, Metro bears less in common with Windows 7′s Media Center but the legacy is still apparent. From the layout to the font and animation, the foundation of Metro had been with Microsoft for at least a couple of years before it was given center stage. This isn’t a bad thing; the polished look of the media center in Win7 was its best feature. It does make me wonder if Microsoft had bigger plans for the interface. Easing Windows users into this new interface would have been an easier effort that the more drastic Metro-with-a-hidden-Windows-emulator setup of Win8. Windows Media Center’s layout could have been a sign of an attempt to implement something that would have been more of a factor in touchscreen-based computing but Microsoft either lacked the vision to pursue it or had issues that limited its deployment. Like Google Wave, what seemed like a good idea withered from a lack of use, publicity, and development.
Regardless of its origins, Windows 8 and Metro stand to be the first real challenger to the combined offering of OSX and iOS. I for one think this is a very good thing; competition drives innovation, and even a company that has built it’s fortune through vision and innovation needs a push occasionally.