Whatever you think of Windows 8’s Metro interface on smartphones and tablets, Microsoft’s decision to force computer users to deal with Metro will needlessly alienate and confuse many of the company's most loyal customers. It’s as if Apple suddenly required Mac users to rely on iOS instead of OS X.
The Metro interface fills the screen with “active” tiles designed to give users quick access to a device’s various applications and functions. On small smartphone screens, it’s an effective and attractive visual metaphor, making better use of scarce real estate than the icon-based alternatives in Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
It also still holds up pretty well on small-ish tablet touchscreens where the relatively large tiles make it easy to select what you want. (It's not a surprise that almost all of the screenshots you see of Metro are of a few tiles filling a small tablet screen.)
So far, so good.
Metro Fails the Big-Screen Test
But as many reviewers have noted, when you stick Metro on a full-sized computer screen, it becomes a bit ridiculous. A sea of tiles swimming on a 27-inch monitor doesn’t make any sense - and how does it look on two big-screen displays?
Despite features that let you organize the tiles, the bigger the screen, the more that Metro turns into a jumbled, confusing mess.
Of course, you don’t have to actually do your work in Metro - and most people won’t. It’s easy enough to move through Metro to get to a more traditional Windows-style desktop. But Microsoft has made the curious decision not to let PC-based users choose to avoid the Metro screen altogether. Unless you come up with some hack or third-party add-on (which most computer users will never do), you’ll still have to navigate through Metro every time you turn on your computer.
That simply doesn’t make any sense from an end-user perspective. Microsoft seems so infatuated with the tablets and smartphones that it’s throwing those boring old computer users under the bus. Sure, Windows 8 includes plenty of cool new features for PC users, but that’s not the point. The company is clearly betting the farm on trying to catch up in the mobile space.
Apple Knows that Size Matters
Apple, meanwhile, is treading much more carefully in this regard. While the latest versions of the Mac’s OS X continue to incorporate features and interfaces from the iOS used on iPhones and iPads, the two operating systems remain clearly distinct, with interfaces optimized for their particular platforms. Perhaps because it makes its own hardware, Apple has a better understanding of the different interface challenges of a 3.5-inch iPhone screen and a 27-inch iMac monitor.
Microsoft is risking a huge backlash here. And it doesn’t have to. All it would take to solve this problem is a simple switch to let PC users avoid Metro if they choose. C'mon, Mr. Ballmer - you want to keep PC users happy, don’t you? So why are you making them pretend they’re using a tablet?
Images courtesy of Scott M. Fulton III and Microsoft.