Thoughts on Metro and Microsoft’s New Religion

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In Ayn Rand’s classic novel The Fountainhead, the hero architect Howard Roark has a very clear philosophy for he thinks is good design. Authenticity and being true to the function and purpose of the design object is good, while going all ornamental and trying to mimic something else is evil.

The same principal seems to apply to Microsoft’s new design language Metro that we got presented to us the other day. Here, communication efficiency, clarity and function is the focus, much like in the case of Helvetica, which also popped up as an inspirational reference in the presentation.

When put into words, Microsoft own description of Metro is as follows:

Metro is our design language. We call it Metro because it’s modern and clean. It’s fast and in motion. It’s about content and typography. And it’s entirely authentic.

Inspirational references from the world of subway signs, airport typography and other high efficiency graphic design were shown throughout the presentation to underline Microsoft’s philosophical stance on the subject.

And all this made me happy. Sure, I think that this is a good direction to take, but more importantly, it’s a direction. There is a clear philosophy behind all this for once, translated into actual design which can communicate a message from Microsoft if implemented well and consequently.

I never liked the old Windows Mobile interface. Have I tried it? No. But I still didn’t like it. The quick glances that I’ve stolen of it revealed that it was just another bad copy of iOS. Have I given it the benefit of the doubt? No. Is this fair? No. But it just had no magic on the surface to lure me in. And newcomers need magic. It lacked direction and, for lack of a better word, faith in some kind of religion that we can all buy into.

Luckily, the Microsoft people seem to have felt the same way when they made the decision to implement Metro in Windows Phone 7.

The Windows Phone 7 that is out now in stores is built on the new Metro-design language and is something completely different and new. It looks different, it feels different and it works differently. I’ve tried out a WP7 during these days in Redmond and even though I have to admit to thinking that the interface looked quite ugly when I first booted the LG-phone, it grew on me and has continued to do so.

The design is built on tiles with a clear graphic language and content brought in the form of text and images taking front row seats. Sans serifs in different sizes and colors present the content in a magazine style way, which works well even though I think they’ve been a bit un-economical with space at times.

What I really like about the design is not that it’s overly pretty or tasteful (it’s not IMHO), but that it’s true in what it is. While Apple goes the realism-route mimicing reality with wooden bookshelves and fake paper notebooks, Microsoft lets digital be digital. This is a statement that both diverges from Apple and is in tune with the company’s geek heritage. It’s honest, and honesty is cool.

Is It Functional?

Sure, the design has kind of grown on me but this is not where Metro really shines. Just like with the design, Microsoft set off on a new tangent in terms of functionality as well. And here it gets interesting.

Apple’s iOS is almost entirely built around apps and you keep going in and out of different apps to get things done. Microsoft’s variant on the other hand is based on pivoting through different perspectives of your data. You might for example be interested in a certain person and then get all information about that person presented to you including Facebook info, latest tweet and, in upcoming versions, info from other data sources like LinkedIn or Foursquare. Instead of being based around apps, it weaves through data laterally. You could say that while iPhone is a kick ass tool set, Windows Phone is
an augmentation of your brain which “makes you smarter” and more productive if used correctly. I would say that this is a more modern
way of thinking about usability, which makes this a more modern phone.

One downside of this could be that it is also a more advanced way of thinking about your data sources which thus makes it harder and less intuitive to learn. Is the world ready for this? I don’t know.

It’s interesting to see how Apple and Microsoft are going in the same direction but coming from two different angles. OSX Lion is moving towards becoming more like iOS, while Microsoft seem to be creating touch OS in Windows 8 that will run across any device from Windows phone, to tablets, to laptops, to desktops to XBOX. And since it’s HTLM 5-based, web apps will look just the same. In a way, you could say that the Windows 8 desktop IS a web site running on top a local server.

I love to see that there is no longer one spiritual thought leader and one infidel copycat in OS-design (there is also a third one: Google/Android which basically looks and behaves like Open Source Apple), but two competing and diverging religions where Apple is still ahead of Microsoft when it comes to “soul”, but actually behind Microsoft when it comes to “mind”. This shows promise and sets the stage for exciting things to come. I just hope the world is ready to adopt the Windows 8 way of thinking.

Oh, and by the way – sell your shares in Blackberry.

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This blog is written by Walter Naeslund and has been around since 2007. The blog is about the journey of starting an advertising agency and a sneak peek behind the scenes of what goes on at the Honesty HQ in SoFo, Södermalm. It is also a blog about communication & technology. The blog has gathered almost a thousand posts over the years with several longer and shorter breaks. Welcome and enjoy.
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