Death of the Metro brand: Windows 8's latest flub

Microsoft is rumored to be working on a new name for its upcoming UI after hitting a predictable trademark conflict with the term 'Metro'

Considering how ferociously Microsoft protects its trademarks (remember the makers of the Linux-based Lindows OS, who Microsoft paid $20 million to change their name to "Linspire"?), you have to ask yourself why Microsoft settled on using the ubiquitous term "Metro" to describe its new interface.

Apparently Microsoft doesn't exhibit the same kind of concern for intellectual property when it comes to, uh, borrowing other brands to further its own products. Because in using "Metro" to describe the new interface in Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone 7 and 8, Office 2013, Outlook.com, SkyDrive, Xbox Live, and Visual Studio 2012, Microsoft is stepping on the toes of Germany's Metro AG, which has an established claim on the "Metro" name. Five years ago Metro AG fought -- and won -- a hotly contested trademark battle in EU courts, allowing it to take over the "Metro" trademark from retailing giant Tesco, which failed to properly renew the trademark. While Tesco ultimately withdrew its claim against Metro AG, Tesco continues to use the trademark in the United Kingdom.

Metro is a recognized brand in many parts of the world -- a fact that Microsoft is perhaps beginning to fully appreciate. In a Time Techland article, Harry McCracken reports his suspicions that Microsoft was moving away from using the term "Metro." Things hit the proverbial fan earlier this week when a memo from Microsoft's legal and corporate affairs department reportedly went out to employees, admonishing them not to use the term "Metro" alone when referring to, er, Metro.

Microsoft's latest statement goes like this: "We have used 'Metro style' as a code name during the product development cycle across many of our product lines. As we get closer to launch and transition from industry dialog to a broad consumer dialog we will use our commercial names."

Sounds a bit disingenuous, doesn't it? Microsoft used the term "Metro" to describe the boxy interface in Windows Phone 7 two years ago: "Metro is the name of the new design language created for the Windows Phone 7 interface. When given the chance for a fresh start, the Windows Phone design team drew from many sources of inspiration to determine the guiding principles for the next generation phone interface. Sources included Swiss influenced print and packaging with its emphasis on simplicity, way-finding graphics found in transportation hubs and other Microsoft software such as Zune, Office Labs and games with a strong focus on motion and content over chrome." That sure doesn't sound like a Metro-style code name to me.

As a kind of reality check, I sifted through the official Building Windows 8 blog -- all 232,000 words of it -- and found references to "Metro" all by itself -- no "Style" -- in these posts: Aug. 31, 2011; Sept. 2, 2011; Sept. 3, 2011; Sept. 13, 2011; Oct. 4, 2011; and Oct. 5, 2011, at which point Microsoft became much more fastidious about using the full phrase "Metro Style," with only a few lapses, most recently last week.

Microsoft has had no end of branding problems over the years. Observe Exhibit No. 2, the rebranding of Hotmail as "Outlook.com." Hotmail's long in the tooth; it's become synonymous with "newbie" -- with arguable justification -- and lacks pizzazz. But I don't think Microsoft could've chosen a worse name than the old-fashioned "Outlook" (a term I usually preface with various four-letter words) for its new, and very capable, free email product. In my experience, the corporate world at large places the brand "Outlook" right up there with "Lotus Notes" on the clueless-guy-in-a-lab-coat-telling-us-what-to-do scale.

Then there's the whole "Windows Live" branding debacle, which will bedevil Microsoft for years. Want to change settings for that new @outlook.com email address? Why, head on over to the Microsoft Account tools on, uh, the Windows Live page. Don't get me started on "Windows RT" or "Office 365," which bring branding to lows that business schools will still be pointing to three decades from now.

One thing's for sure: Microsoft new hire Mark Penn, former CEO of PR agency Burson-Marsteller and Clinton administration insider, has his work cut out for him. Penn's expected to bring his considerable mojo in "strategic development, branding, and positioning" to bear on Microsoft's demonstrably deficient branding capabilities. Once upon a time, Bill Gates asked Penn to "make me more human." Compared to straightening Microsoft's branding debacles, that one should've been easy. Penn's first assignment is supposed to be increasing Bing's market share. It's like bringing in a firefighter to blow out a candle.

Now we have a style with no name. McCracken offers "Mosh" as an alternative, which has a certain ring to it. I've proposed "Wetro" -- which has the benefit of making it  easy to change existing graphics. "The interface formerly known as Metro" has gathered support in some corners, and "Windows 8-style UI" just rolls off the tongue.

Microsoft is rumored to be working on a new name. Any suggestiions?

This story, "Death of the Metro brand: Windows 8's latest flub," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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