Windows 8's new UI: A return to Flatland

In an amazing reversal, Microsoft intends to remove all vestiges of Vista's 'dated and cheesy' Aero interface in favor of a flat look

Buried in an 11,000-word tome on the Building Windows 8 blog, user experience honcho Jensen Harris explains that the legacy desktop in Windows 8 will ship with white -- yes, solid white -- window borders, square window edges, buttons that don't glow, no shadows, no transparency (except, apparently, on the taskbar), 2D ribbon icons flat as pancakes, no reflections, and no gradients. Welcome back to Flatland!

At least, those are the defaults. There's no indication whether you'll be able to bring back some color. There's no mention of other Aero features, including Aero Snap, that debuted in Windows Vista and was Microsoft's attempt at the time to introduce a cool, whizzy UI to rival that in Mac OS X. But it's clear that the accoutrements of Aero Glass -- rounded corners, glowing icons, window border transparency, and gradients on buttons -- won't see the light of day in any version of Windows 8. Ignore the fact that this same Microsoft blog has been showing us screenshots of Windows 8 with Aero Glass as recently as two weeks ago.

What we will see is unclear. As the blog explains, "While a few of these visual changes are hinted at in the upcoming release preview, most of them will not yet be publicly available. You'll see them all in the final release of Windows 8." We don't know what's coming, and we won't know what options we'll have until the final version hits.

People tend to forget that Microsoft touted Aero Glass as a major productivity enhancer for Vista, a "premium visual experience." Just four years ago, Microsoft was sued for putting "Vista Capable" stickers on PCs that couldn't run Aero: Buyers didn't like what they perceived as a bait and switch involving one of Vista's highly touted new features, Aero.

Why does Aero Glass have to go? Harris says it's a question of design and aesthetics: "We decided to bring the desktop closer to the Metro aesthetic [taken from Windows Phone 7 and that serves as the initial interface in Windows 8], while preserving the compatibility afforded by not changing the size of window chrome, controls, or system UI. We have moved beyond Aero Glass -- flattening surfaces, removing reflections, and scaling back distracting gradients." Almost all of his blog leads to the conclusion that Aero must die for the sake of the greater good. Cough cough.

You'd have to go back to Windows 3.1 to see a desktop as flat as the new one described for Windows 8. At least we won't see icons on the Win8 legacy desktop replaced with Metro-style garish, boring, monochrome tiles and white text, set on a static, information-free dark backdrop. It could be worse.

But the big mystery is why now? There's been no hint since Windows 8's September debut that the Windows 7 interface in the desktop mode in which most Windows operations take place would change in Windows 8. If anything, it appeared that the continuation of that familiar interface was meant to serve as a refuge for all those users familiar with the Aero interface as they learned the very different Metro interface that Windows 8 starts into.

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