Co.Design

Microsoft's Windows 8 Is The Perfect OS That Nobody Wants

Windows 8 looks perfect. But new updates may revert its design to appease consumers. What is going on?

With Windows 8, Microsoft did the unthinkable: The company designed a groundbreaking interface of boxes called Metro that could scale from laptops, to tablets, to phones, to Xboxes--meaning any Microsoft device in any context would always be equally familiar. Not even Apple has been bold enough to merge Mac OS and iOS, which is why it seemed that with Windows 8, the nerds at Microsoft had somehow won the design war.

But the Metro interface hasn’t brought a new golden age for Microsoft. Adoption of Windows 8 PCs has been slow, while Microsoft's Surface tablets have proven a $900 million-plus flop. And nowhere is consumer response more apparent than in how Microsoft has backpedaled, reinstating the Start button in Windows 8.1. This one button drove the Windows interface for almost 20 years. Removing it in Windows 8 marked a paradigm shift of the company's UI. And bringing the Start button back signifies that consumers never wanted something new in the first place.

Adding fuel to the flames, new rumors suggest that Microsoft will revert its design even further, adding more options to run Windows 8 far more like a traditional Windows machine, complete with a full Start Menu and Metro apps that happily run on an old school desktop.

The Start button, lower left, added back to Windows 8.1 desktop mode.

What is going on?

Content Not Chrome

The Start button had been part of Windows since 1995, and its birth was a big deal. Microsoft paid the Rolling Stones millions for “Start Me Up” to be the theme song to the campaign, as clicking this tiny button unfurled all of the information hiding within the computer.

But then Metro came around. Whereas most operating systems are built on desk metaphors--like “folders” or the ubiquitous “desktop”--Metro had evolved past them. One of Metro’s most important mantras was “content not chrome.” It meant that rather than wrapping your files in symbolism and filigree, an interface should present content in as unfettered a way as possible.

Whereas most operating systems would present an icon for your photos--maybe a Polaroid or a roll of film--Metro would just make those actual photos into a slide show within its interface.

As Windows 8 completely shifted UI paradigms with Metro, Microsoft ditched its iconic Start button. That move made sense. The Windows interface had completely changed, and the Start button lost its old significance. Philosophically, the Start button was pure chrome--it hid your files behind something. Metro was about transparency. Metro just had your files there for your eyes to see. Why hide them behind a button?

High Design Vs. Everyday Use

At Co.Design, we’ve been particularly bullish about Windows 8. First and foremost, it’s just a beautiful interface, balancing color, typography, and photography. But beneath the surface, philosophically, it has a certain perfection to it.

Windows 8 "Metro" interface.

Metro is one interface to rule them all. It not only has to scale to many different sizes in an aesthetically pleasing fashion--and Metro’s reconfigurable blocks could scale to any shape or sized screen we could imagine--it also has to work for several different inputs, including tapping with one’s fingers, clicking with a mouse, waving one’s hands through Kinect, or responding to vocal commands.

Compare Microsoft to Apple in this respect--purely academically. Apple falls back on a different interface for laptops, phones, and AppleTV. The company's attempt to build iOS controls into Mac OS, through Launchpad, was an embarrassing failure. (What Mac user do you know who actively decides to leave their normal desktop to scroll through an iPhone interface shoehorned within OS X?) Meanwhile, Metro can perform equally well on a laptop, phone, tablet, or television, because Microsoft figured the design problem out.

So Why Don’t People Like It?

I’ve written a dozen articles championing the design philosophy of Metro, but at the end of the day, I don’t use Windows 8. I still own a Mac, iPhone, and an iPad. And if you look at Windows 8 sales figures, it appears I’m not alone in that regard. (In fact, one analyst firm points directly at Windows 8 for stalling PC sales, rather than driving growth.)

So if Windows 8/Metro is really the better designed solution, why isn’t it thriving? Why is Microsoft backtracking from its groundbreaking interface? With Metro, Microsoft made incredible art and bad design.

First and foremost, good design solves problems.

Metro solves the problem of, “How do you map the same interface to disparate devices?” Okay. But is that a real problem for consumers? I don’t think so. I think that’s a design philosophy problem.

The consumer design problem is, “How do I make this device as intuitive as possible?” or “How can I streamline the process of getting someone the file he wants?” People care about speed, efficiency, clarity, and delight. But a phone interface matching a laptop interface is about as important as socks matching underwear. It’s nice, but on most days, probably the last priority on your mind.

The entire “content not chrome” idea is downright poetic--when someone taps a square in Metro, they’re literally touching the information they want. But showing people their vacation photos in a tiny box is not necessarily faster or clearer than showing them an icon of a photo book.

Case in point is the Metro interface running on Xbox One. Any given box could contain a photo link to Xbox music, Xbox movies, or Xbox games, or downloadable content for Call of Duty, the latest episode of a particular TV show, a link to Netflix, a limited time coupon for 99-cent action movies, etc. It can be extremely disorienting to navigate to any particular preconceived destination. In this regard, Metro pushes exploration and discovery, but when you actually want to play a certain game or load a certain app? You'll really want to bypass Metro altogether and just tell the system where to go.

Multitasking photos and mail in Windows 8.1.

Also, multitasking in Windows 8 just stinks. It’s expected that users switch between full-frame apps, as is common on a phone, or enter a rigid split-screen mode. But to try to multitask while keeping up with Twitter, IM, a word processor, and a dozen browser tabs--well, when you consider the problem, you start to realize why Mac OS still looks so clunky in comparison to Windows 8 and iOS, because that clunkiness is, in some paradoxical way, very good for multitasking. And again, the design of Windows 8 multitasking feels like art, presenting each app as beautifully as possible--when in reality, our digital workflows mandate balancing several scraps of information at once.

What Should Microsoft Do Next?

From the outside, it certainly appears that Microsoft is backpedaling by reinstating the functions of the Start button--that they’re tacitly admitting some level of mistake or regret with the brazen interface onslaught of Windows 8 and Metro.

And that’s okay.

The great thing about design is that it can always be redesigned. Windows 8 seemed like the perfectly designed solution to our complicated digital lives on paper. In practice, it’s an academic solution, not a practical one.

It's more than impressive that Microsoft rallied behind Windows 8. Sure, its ideas are a bit of a failure, but they’re moving the dialogue of interface forward. Now, let’s see if Microsoft can fix where the public clearly feels the company has gone wrong.

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155 Comments

  • Alexis Carlos Emanuel Zocco

    metro apps just got extinct it seems. they are often unstable and lacking in options... they are a black screen and 3 buttons. rigth now we all waiting till w9 shows up and takes us back to the desktop or fix this w8 progamming mess

  • rosselliot

    The one monumental mistake that ms made with w8 was a marketing one. If it has been launched as an improved w7 (which it is once you bypass the unwanted candy) with the ability to switch to tablet/cellphone mode at will, everyone would have been over the moon, and metro/modern would be getting a lot more use and kudos. Seduction trumps coercion every time.

  • David Randall McKay

    At first I hated it. Utterly. But then, like all things you are forced to reckon with on a daily basis, you learn to live with it and not hate so much. In fact, I think the lack of the start button actually prompted a jump in evolving the way I interact with a computer. Even though it was very painful at first, now I think I am ready to take on a new revolution in Operating Systems for consumer computers. Thanks. Now I'm going to go back to stare at my Metro Screen.

  • David Randall McKay

    At first I hated it. Utterly. But then, like all things you are forced to reckon with on a daily basis, you learn to live with it and not hate so much. In fact, I think the lack of the start button actually prompted a jump in evolving the way I interact with a computer. Even though it was very painful at first, now I think I am ready to take on a new revolution in Operating Systems for consumer computers. Thanks. Now I'm going to go back to stare at my Metro Screen.

  • Michael Lum

    I hope you guys don't ever work for Microsoft, because if you think one operating system including this "Metro" Interface is really good across all platforms from tiny cell phones to huge desktops, you're missing the point. Sure, the interface looks pretty and clean, but it gets in the way of what we are all accustomed to doing on our computers for work. Multitasking with "Metro" apps is more difficult since you cannot visually layer one window atop another within this GUI mode.

    I have a Surface Pro 3, Dell XPS 27, MacBook Pro Retina, MacBook Air, Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy Note 10.1, and a ton of iPads, iPhones and iPads. I do not like fragmentation of the various OS available, but in life, we typically have more than one tool for the job at hand.

    I have hope for Microsoft, but it needs to stop forcing us stuff we don't need. The stuff we prefer not to use just gets in our way.

  • Winter Storm

    The first thing that came to my mind when installing W8 was : they can do anything, but should they do anything just for the sake of doing it? For me, the W8 Start button issue looks like a door with the hinges in the upper part: sure, it will close by itself, but it will be annoying and difficult tu use like hell.

  • Hi , problem lies within our-self

    if we don't consider ubuntu (Linux) than obviously Metro UI is Clean , Powerful, Fast and error less , Although there may be some glitches like 3 click to power option, no traditional start menu which definitely ruined the Desktop UI, lack of Apps in Store (most of them are nonsense) but typography is far far better than aero graphic of windows 7 , motion graphics of Android and that of Mac,

  • Itsall Good

    Great, honest and unbiased article. Thank you. I am by no means an Apple fan, but to each their own. Have always been a "Windows" fan until this debacle. When 8 came out I needed a new laptop, but had "issues" with the "jewels" on the side and the mouse pad, it kept opening. Horrible experience, took it back and purchase Win 7. You would have to know how much I dislike Apple to know how much I really must dislike the Win 8 design when I actually considered buying an Apple brand product. I don't know if this issue has been fixed, so I am still using my Win 7 and the good news is can still buy Win 7 products. My friend a work who is a computer guru, also likes Win 7, not sure why. Anyway, I appreciate your great article and how unbiased it was. :")

  • I disagree with your assessment of Launchpad. I've been a Mac user since around 1986. The day I upgraded to the OSX version that introduce Launchpad I started using it tentatively, and within a few days I had it set up to activate with a hot corner, and ordered all my apps into categories that make sense to me. I now almost always start any application through it. In the rare case I can't find the icon for some program immediately, I just type the first letters (usually just 1 or 2) of it's name until the app list is short enough to find the icon I'm looking for at a glance.

    I think Launchpad i one of the biggest UI improvements to OSX of recent years

  • Shachar Oz

    i kinda appreciate how Microsoft handled the whole "i miss the Start button on Win8 system". it feels to me as if big Microsoft has learned a thing or two about lean development from Google (who is expert in releasing partially developed products and then constantly redesigning them.

    i agree that the one UI fit all is not a great design solution, but a great development solution. i agree that Microsoft should continue listening to our critic and fix its products.

    i recommend we all stop nagging about bad products and just continue wisely recommend how to get them better. because it appears like someone is listening :)

  • Les Castro

    Microsoft trained the World in PC skills. Companies & people paid to be trained. If their design geeks decided to take the tech to a "totally different" level then, Microsoft should provide the initiative to "re-train" us. There's a huge piece of the puzzle the marketers at MS missed in their launch! Bad branding guys. The damage has yet to come when the market goes to the tablet world in protest with Cloud on open platform. The Revolution has already started so cut your loses quick enough or you'll have not much left to cut!

  • LA Stone

    I always compare Launchpad to Metro. The difference is only that Apple implemented it in a way that you only see it if you explicitly want to. Metro on the other hand is seriously being forced down your throat. What the two have in common is that neither are useful, but as long as I can ignore Launchpad, I can actually forget that it exists. In fact I'd forgotten what it was called until I read it in someone else's post just now. But Metro seems to be designed to aggravate you into submission. It appears in various unexpected ways. Some settings dialogs now jump you into Metro.

    File types that have default programs on the desktop will forevermore remind you that there's a "new" app for that file type. Of course, we don't care and don't need to be reminded of that. Microsoft is just determined to get you into Metro. And when you decide to keep using the desktop program, it never fails to ask you again and again later.

    Microsoft tried to force us to boot directly into Metro! Everything about Windows 8 is "forced". It begs the question, if Windows 8 is for me, then why am I not given a choice. All the goofball nonsense in OS X is optional. Everything can be disabled. Active corners is a very old addition to OS X. I disabled it as soon as a got a new Mac as well as various other things I didn't like. But not Windows 8. Metro is mandatory.

    8.1 is even worse than 8. Now Microsoft is forcing you to either log in to a Microsoft account, or create a new one then log in, before you can get into your brand new PC for the first time. There's a way around it, but you won't figure it out unless you do some research. Is this for my own good? And when you figure out how to make a local account on your own pc, you won't be able to do so much as play solitaire without logging in, or being harassed about not logging in. That's not an exaggeration. It's the plain truth.

    I've always liked Macs for their beauty and smoothness, but the PC was were I got productivity done. It feels like Microsoft and Apple are trading places now. Windows use to represent freedom to me. Not anymore. Now they've forced Bing into your desktop searches. If you're not savvy, you will never know that you've become a Bing customer. Again, is this for me, or just forcing us into more Microsoft services, totally without our permission or knowledge. I think it's class action lawsuit material.

    And finally, Metro is terrible as an interface. It's terrible on phones, tablets, and especially on the desktop. Microsoft is failing in the biggest possible way.

  • JayMankind

    Perfect OS? It is plain annoying. I have been a WinUser all my life. I don't like it at all. Those wonderful tiles you talk about are noisy and distracting. Sometimes you might have some photos in a folder that you might not want splashed on your desktop. But Win8 does it anyway. I couldn't 'downgrade' fast enough.