Microsoft bets the farm on Metro

The Metro interface is the thing that unites the company’s major product efforts going forward

If you want to help Microsoft out, love its Metro interface.

It’s got all those colored tiles on a Start page that fills up the entire screen and seems to stretch from side to side forever with no visible navigation tools.

You have to swipe the tools in from the right side where they are displayed on the Charms bar, and if you want to switch to other open applications you have to swipe them in from the left.

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If you want to take actions within applications, icons to accomplish them jump up from the bottom of the screen.

Is it intuitive? No. Is it learnable? Yes. The question is, will you and other potential customers bother to learn? Because the answer is vital to Microsoft.

The company launched Metro with Windows Phone, where it lent itself to the small touchscreen, then expanded it for use in Windows 8 with the same touch-centric bias but where navigating with a mouse and keyboard is a nightmare to learn (but doable). As an acknowledgement of just how difficult this can be, Microsoft retains in Windows 8 its traditional desktop – or a version of it – as an alternative.

Now the Metro UI has moved past the phone and is the common link among Windows phones, Windows tablets, Windows laptops and Windows desktops. Microsoft is shooting to sync phones and computers with Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 via cloud services, creating a unified body of data that is accessible from any Windows device. The common thread? The Metro interface that becomes a familiar environment regardless of what device is accessing the data.

That’s a great broad architecture that isn’t so easy to put into effect given the lack of support for Metro in older Microsoft products. Customers have to buy into the Microsoft vision and that could be a big investment. The benefits would have to be as great and tangible.

The Metro environment isn’t ideal for all environments. Perhaps it could be some day after developers become thoroughly familiar with it and write applications that embrace its nuances.

Business apps written for Metro have to do jobs better than the old apps did them if they are to succeed. If they can do that it will help create the motivation and the business case for end users to learn a new way of doing things.

For Windows 8 to work its way into businesses, the current standard desktop has to change shape and become a laptop with touch or a tablet that can use a keyboard. That is exactly what the two models of new Surface devices represent. There is a tablet with a keyboard so it can support Metro apps to their best advantage and support legacy Office apps that were written to fit in the mouse/keyboard mold. There is also a full, workhorse laptop that can handle any legacy applications that run on Windows 7 as well as any Mero app that comes along.

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To encourage this shift in work hardware, Microsoft hopes to ride the BYOD wave. Its Surface RT device could become a consumer hit that customers will want to use at work the way they do now with iPads. Surface RT – if the claims Microsoft makes about it are to be believed – is arguably better suited to a work environment because it comes with the aforementioned keyboard and limited set of Office applications, something the iPad doesn’t.

But the first challenge is getting these devices in the hands of consumers. That will lead to their use at work where they may become so engrained that IT decision makers move faster from Windows 7 to Windows 8 wholesale. They will likely be waiting for Windows 8 to prove itself as secure and stable anyway before committing.

This discussion hasn’t even mentioned the difficulties Windows Phone 8 may present given its incompatibility with Windows Phone 7 hardware, but it complicates the prospects for fulfilling the one-interface-on-all-devices vision. It’s a huge gamble that must weigh heavily on Microsoft executives. If the photos from the Surface coming-out party are representative, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer looks worried about something:

His expression isn’t, “Man, you’re gonna love this,” it's more like, “Man, I hope you love this. Otherwise we’re screwed.”

Microsoft’s Metro wager is certainly daring and will be considered either brilliant or stupid depending on how things work out.

(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)

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