A "snark-free" post on the Metro naming debacle* (Caution: May contain snark)

In a parallel universe I'm writing a much less kind version of this post, but with GA of Windows 8 being measured in a short number of months, I'm going to try and be helpful. Am I happy about the naming change? No. Was I happy about the "Metro-style" moniker before? Also no. Could something good come of this change? Well, anything's possible.

"Metro" is the name of the design language invented by Microsoft as the basis for the user experience offered by Windows Phone. Microsoft needed to reboot their smartphone platform and (actually pretty boldly) did this by creating an entirely new look. But it wasn't just about the look - it was about the *experience*.

"Metro-style", or as MSDN calls it "Metro style (no hyphen) for reasons I now happily don't have to understand, is the set of APIs that come together to drive the user experience for new post-PC applications. Now, Microsoft aren't mad keen on the term post-PC - but I am, I love it. Post-PC is about a world where Windows continues to dominate the desktop, but the desktop stops being important. Go out to 2022, Windows will sit on servers or project their desktop forwards to all manner of devices over VDI. But Windows will also run on tablets, and there it *could* be dominant. It *could* be bigger than iOS.

The reimagined Windows 8 works really well on a tablet. Metro-style applications (there's that name) eschew "mouse first" and present touch as an equal citizen. And it's trusted end-to-end, from the vendor having to be vetted, to static and dynamic analysis of the apps in the store, to a kill switch, to more proactive rev'ing of the OS and patches. Metro-style is intimidation free and works beautifully. It makes Android tablets look like amateur, half-baked tat.

Except for that we can't call it that anymore. Which is fine, it's just a name.

"Metro - the design language" is the biggest casualty of this, oddly, because there is no other name that describes the design principles that range across the *ENTIRE* Microsoft portfolio. That new Outlook.com? That's "Metro", well it was. Now it doesn't have a name. And the Xbox dashboard - Metro. How about downloads.microsoft.com? Metro. And the proposed name - well, the assumed name - of "Windows 8 UI Style", how exactly does that fit when describing the Xbox dashboard? It doesn't. So my first point is that people are forgetting how big "Metro" is.

If it were Apple, Microsoft could get away with this because Apple could just send down a dictat that developers weren't allowed to ape the style, that it was a Cupertino Co only thing. But Microsoft want people to ape the Metro design language. To see evidence of this, look in the Windows Phone and Windows 8 store and find anything that's not based on the Metro design language. Found any? Thought not.

What I have been struggling with for the past six months though is that no one knows what "Metro-style" is. I've lost track of the number of people I've spoken to about "Metro-style" who've gone, "Oh, you're a designer?" Um. No. Not a designer.

Where this gets very untidy is that Metro-style isn't just WinRT. Metro-style, at least for me, describes the APIs that drive the experience of a "Metro-style" application on Windows 8. So it's the XAML libraries that let you build something that looks Metro design-ish, but it's also the file APIs that limit you to the sandbox, the asynchrony throughout that keeps the UI responsive, the limits on thread manipulation to stop you from killing the battery. You can't just remove "Metro" and not replace it with anything. "Metro-style" apps are not "WinRT" apps. Especially not when you think about what's likely to happen with Windows Phone 8 and its convergence with the WinRT model. 

(And thoughout this you can read WinRT as "Windows Runtime" - it's the same thing.) 

WinRT is also *bigger* than Metro-style. Personally, I love the idea of an ARM-based cut down Windows Server RT that ran IIS RT and some WinRT-based ASP.NET-like thing. (Not that such a thing exists outside of my own head.) But that's the idea - Windows Runtime is not about driving user experience on tablets and devices. It's a classic Microsoft move of building a big, powerful, well-supported API.

So back to what I struggle with - it needs a name. When .NET was out it was easy, you could say to someone "do you want some .NET training?" And they would say "yes", or "no". They would not say "what's .NET?" Which is what happens with Metro-style. All. The. Time. 

What isn't going to be beautiful here is calling them "Windows 8 UI Style" apps. Funnily, "Windows 8 UX Style" apps would work a little better because - as I've said - Metro-style is about *experience* not about look. But what happens with Windows 9? Let alone how you explain that Metro-style apps actually run on Windows Server 2012. "Windows 8/Windows Server 2012 UX Style" apps? Just, please, don't do this.

Normally, in a snarky post, I'd be looking to finish off with a few paragraphs that leave my victim writhing about in the throes of death, but let's try and be productive... 

"Windows Apps". Done.

I'm guessing here that when *normal* people download and run an .msi they are not thinking about "installing an app". They don't think of Firefox on Windows as an "app". Or Office. But oddly "applications" is what software has been called since the days of the mainframes. I find it frankly boggling that Apple managed to own the moniker "app". It's like Dyson ending up owning the word "hoover" when Hoover had been making vacuum cleaners for a hundred years. In the Windows space, "apps" doesn't mean anything - but it could do.

"Hey I'm thinking of buying a Surface? What apps does it have?" 

"Well, it doesn't have as many apps as the iPad, but it's got the ones you need. Here, let me show you."

For the consumer, that seems to work. It's simple. It retains the brand. It survives revving the OS to Windows, Windows X, whatever. It's just an "app". There's old style software that you "install" and there are "apps" that you "download". 

For the developer, "Windows apps" it sorta works. If you can find the docs on MSDN, at the moment they read "Learn to build Metro style apps". (OK, and a little snark - why does it still say "Metro style"? Suggests a lack of planning, hmmm?) That could say "Learn to build Windows apps", or "Learn to build apps for Windows 8 and Windows RT". Developer naming can survive revving because we're used to being confused - or rather, getting unconfused has some sort of payoff. 

Either way, for me, that works. It's better than "Learn to build Windows 8 UI style apps". Also, Windows RT isn't Windows 8. And then there's the problem of Windows Server. You can't ram the rev number into the name. It has to be generic because, and the dumb thing is we all know this, Windows is bigger than one OS.

The only problem is Google. It'd be hard to find content for "Windows apps", but then most of the time we're searching for WinRT anyway. (Also, you all know you can just do "-winter" in the query to remove the autocorrect from "WinRT" to "winter", right?)

The victim then remains Metro design style. The design style that has no name. Voldemort-y.

Do I have any ideas about the Metro design style name? No, but then I don't care because I'm not a designer. You can call that what you want, all I care about is that developers build apps and that consumers buy Windows 8/Windows RT tablets because enough good developers had the wherewithal to write enough good apps.

So my vote for the new name: "Windows apps".
Print | posted on Friday, August 3, 2012 7:52 AM