Windows 8, Metro UI, and why most people buy Windows PCs

Marco Arment recently wrote an excellent post about the differences between Apple and Microsoft customers. It got me thinking about Windows 8, Metro UI, and a slightly different theory on what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with the next version of their operating system. Here’s Marco:

People who aren’t willing or able to compromise on their needs regularly are much more likely to be Windows customers. The Windows message is much more palatable to corporate buyers, committees, middlemen, and people who don’t like to be told what’s best for them: “You can do whatever you want, and w’ll attempt to glue it together. It won’t always work very well, and you might not like the results, but we will do exactly what you asked for.”

He leaves out one important group of people who are also more likely to be Windows customers: regular users who don’t care about computers at all, and just want something to perform their daily email / browsing tasks on. Matt Gemmel sums up this crucial market really well:

The biggest (and most lucrative) set of customers is ordinary people, without a computing degree or specialist knowledge. These are people with no interest in specific technologies, but only in how easily they can finish today’s tasks without reading the manual. Apple caters to that market; companies who loudly proclaim their device supports CSS3 and MPEG4 and SDHC don’t even understand that it exists.

I agree with Marco’s (and Matt’s) main point: one of the main reasons for Apple’s success is their ability to compromise in the way that designers use the word: saying no to the right things. And that the Microsoft team will need to learn to compromise like that if they want to compete seriously on the tablet front.

Still, most people buy Windows PC’s not because they care about extensibility or because they have moral objections to Apple’s supposed walled garden. Most people buy Windows PC’s because they are just plain indifferent. It’s what they know, it’s what they’ve always used, and they don’t care enough about computing to consider other alternatives. This isn’t a good or a bad thing in itself, it’s simply the way it is.

One OS to rule them all

Microsoft’s decision to combine the desktop and tablet UI (Metro) on PC’s and provide access to both from the same device is the most interesting part of the unfolding Windows 8 story – particularly because we don’t know how regular users will react. Gruber nails the main problem with this approach:

I’ve been thinking all along that I’d rather Microsoft have let Metro stand alone as a next-generation OS, separate from Windows. I’m hung up on the question of how any OS that lets you do everything Windows does could compete with the iPad, because the iPad’s appeal and success is largely forged by the advantages that come from not allowing you to do so many of the things Mac OS X can do.

Surely Microsoft knows that this might be problematic for developers and users alike. I have to believe that they’re not that short-sighted. So why would they go ahead with this awkward combination? We have to consider that combining the two UI’s is part of Microsoft’s response not just to the fact that herds of people are abandoning Windows PCs for Macs[1], but also to how these users are finding their way to a new Mac on their desks.

A story that got a lot of attention recently is how Mike Elgan, the editor of Windows Magazine, made the switch from Windows to Mac. He talks about the beginning of his… um”¦ “conversion” using the phrase “gateway drugs” to describe his experience with Apple’s non-Mac devices:

The perfect out-of-box experience with the iPhone, the elegance of the whole experience of using an iPhone, re-set my expectations for how consumer electronics and computers should function. I started looking at the out-of-box experience of buying a Windows PC with a new contempt. The crapware. The stickers. The anti-virus software problem where the cure is worse than the disease. The flimsy hardware. It’s not so much that I despised Windows PCs, but that it felt like Microsoft and the PC makers despised them, like they all have no respect for their own platform.

Be afraid, Microsoft

This, more than anything, should scare the crap out of Microsoft. Apple is using iPods, iPhones, and iPads – considered “non-threatening” devices by the masses – to get users to reconsider their computing worlds.

Suddenly regular users start doing something they’ve never done before: wonder if maybe, just maybe, the Mac experience can be as pleasant as that of an iDevice. So when their Dell crashes for the 10th time in a week and it’s time for a new computer, that iPod in their pocket serves as a not-so-silent reminder: why not just walk into an Apple store and see what all the fuss is about?

So maybe that’s what’s going on with Windows 8 and Metro. More than just their version of a tablet UI, Microsoft could be placing their bets that regular users will pick up a Metro style tablet, like it a lot, and remain comfortable on their Windows PC’s knowing that the Metro UI is available for them there as well.

Everyone is uncomfortable with change, so if Microsoft can promise a consistent experience across mobile and desktop devices, it could stop the hemorrhaging to Apple products that we’re currently seeing. I’m not saying that it will work, just that it’s an interesting strategy for which they should at least get some credit.

I’ll leave the final word to Marco, who wraps up his post articulating what a giant gamble it is to combine the very different metaphors of desktop and mobile UI’s:

But how will their customers react?

Will Metro be meaningfully adopted by PC users? Or will it be a layer that most users disable immediately or use briefly and then forget about, like Mac OS X’s Dashboard, in which case they’ll deride the Metro-only tablets as “useless” and keep using Windows like they always have?

Still, Metro is the first thing to come out of Microsoft that I’m interested in since the Xbox. It looks genuinely innovative in many areas, and I can’t wait to see how this all plays out.


  1. Be honest: when is the last time you heard a story about someone switching from a Mac to a Windows PC? ↩