News broke late this week on Windows Weekly on twit.tv that Microsoft is forced to back away from “Metro” as the key talking point across all of its products and services due to potential infringement of a European partner’s trademark/copyright, and this, without a doubt, will cause unpleasant ripple effects. For example, many of the best Windows developers have fully bought into the idea/ideal of Metro and used the word Metro as part of an app’s identity. (See MetroTwit as one of the best examples.) What are they supposed to do now? Even Ed Bott, a usually Microsoft friendly tech blogger, could not find it in him to defend the company.
Upon further reflection, it is a bit of a good news bad news story.
Let’s talk bad news first
Personally, I believe that the new UI work that Microsoft is doing is a revelation in terms of how wonderful clean, functional, and disciplined design can be (e.g., sign up and use Outlook.com for emails to see the Metro UI principles in action), and the work can definitely represent a point of differentiation. Therefore, losing the word Metro, a simple way to communicate and brand what Microsoft is doing, cannot be good.
Also, one has to wonder if Microsoft’s marketing department is burning the midnight oil right now and rewriting bits and parts of the “Windows Reimagined” campaign plans (at least those targeting developers and partners) now that “Metro” can no longer be used. This cannot be good either, as Microsoft just RTM’ed Windows 8 this week and about to begin what will undoubtedly be one of the biggest marketing pushes in the technology world ever.
A silver lining
Well, the truth is, while the “Metro” UI has won over many critics in the tech circle and even captured design awards, it has more or less failed to move the needle in the consumer world (e.g., see Zune, Windows Phone 7 and 7.5). Will a big marketing push with “Metro” UI as an anchor capture the imagination of consumers this fall? Based on history so far… probably not. In some sense, the trajectory of “Metro” points to yet another mediocre marketing run (assuming the focus is on “Metro” as hinted by Steve Ballmer – “Metro! Metro! Metro!” rally cry at the 2012 CES). And this is why I believe this “Metro” fiasco is somewhat of a blessing in disguise. It gives Microsoft an opportunity to reconsider how the new Windows could capture the imagination of consumers who are currently infatuated with Apple and Google’s Android. Is the new UI the most prominent change? Yes, it surely is. However, spending millions and millions of dollars just to have consumers remember that Microsoft updated the user interface for them is about the shallowest point of differentiation ever and a practical disservice to would-be modern Windows users. (Simply put, it easily invites competitors to reposition the work as “lipstick on a pig”, and “Metro” haters will eat it up.)
Hey Softies! Believe it or not, you have actually done a lot of impressive work to prepare the company to win over lots of hearts and minds starting this fall. The messaging should reflect that. Stop talking UI! Tell consumers in a simple way why the new Windows family matter more than ever in this PC-plus / post-PC world. Here’s your second chance to get it right this fall. 🙂