Is Microsoft's Metro UI the real problem?

Microsoft's phone and tablet market shares remain stuck in single digits, which suggests Windows 8's difficulties go beyond the mishmash of Metro and Desktop UIs

Two weeks ago InfoWorld debuted Windows Red, our reimagining of Windows 8, which proposed splitting Windows 8 in two -- the Windows Desktop for PCs and laptops, and Metro for smartphones and tablets -- while preserving some interoperability between the two. Given the dismal response to Windows 8, the basic idea seemed pretty obvious to us.

But is the mashup of two UIs the only problem? Or is Metro -- aka the Modern UI -- the elephant in the way of the adoption of Windows 8? After all, neither Windows smartphones nor Windows RT tablets are exactly flying off the shelves compared to Android or iOS devices.

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A recent post by Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft in his blog inspired me to revisit this question. He argues that Microsoft's pitch for Metro centers on live tiles, which he believes are often not that useful.

The tile trade-off

Miller says Microsoft's live tiles draw too much attention to the OS and distract from the apps. I've seen Steve Ballmer make the opposite argument: A customized Start screen with live tiles gives you a dashboardlike readout of information from the apps you use most without the user having to click anything.

Both have a point. There's something about live tiles that reminds me of the early days of the Web, when home pages went wild with spinning, flashing doodads. On the other hand, I personally know fans of the Metro UI who like having that top level of information on display.

The trade-off is this: Tiles already take up a lot of room compared to icons, and if you like live tiles, you'll probably want them large-sized so that they're big enough to convey useful information -- latest messages, weather, and so on. Obviously, this means many fewer apps visible on-screen at a time, although it's easy enough to scroll horizontally to find them.

You could chalk this all up to a matter of taste. Except for one point: If the chief selling point is a Start screen of live tiles you've tweaked to display just what you want, customization should be much easier.

Magic fingers

It's easy enough to drag tiles around with your finger and arrange them the way you want. But to unpin a tile from the Start menu, change its size, or turn its live functionality off or on, you need to swipe down on the tile to pop into edit mode.

Swiping down is Metro's equivalent of a right click. But for new users, there's no way of intuiting that gesture, just as in the famous Dad test there's no way of guessing without being told how to make the Charms bar appear.

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