Microsoft's Next Move, Split Metro and Classic Mode in Windows 8?

Caveat lector. This is an opinion piece and not something I do often (or probably well) but my thoughts on this were a little more than 140 characters could handle. You have been warned.

Recently Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stood up and, doing his best impression of a half-pregnant Jeff Bezos, announced the physical division of it's DVD lending system and streaming services. This resulted in Internet carnage that continues to this day. The general feeling there is that the separation is going to cause pain and suffering with long time users who now look at it as having to search two separate and distinct places to find the same stuff, get two different bills, two different user experiences, etc. Visionary perhaps, but not fully baked.

Many who went to the recent Build conference (and others like myself who didn't) got their taste of Microsoft's Jekyll and Hyde next operating system, Windows 8. The "alive with activity" (sans spiders and snakes) view of the living tile Metro user interface is almost revolutionary in style, approach, and implementation.

The Metro UX is a new experience (some say a new way of life) in Windows 8 and is all about building an immersive user experience that’s unlike anything we’ve seen for a long time (a pre-cursor was the Metro makeover they gave Windows Phone 7 last year). Users get information from living tiles rather than static icons on a free-flowing desktop devoid of a clumsy arrangement and optimized for fingers, not mice.

Metro, the new Windows 8 look and feel

Now that the dust has settled, the question that seems to be bubbling up to the surface for me (and some others), is Microsoft making a mistake? Combining the "optimized for touch" interface with the antiquated keyboard and mouse apps looks like it might be. Maybe Microsoft should be following in Apples footsteps and creating an optimized for touch operating system and a classic one.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not actually saying they should ditch what they have but it could potentially be tweaked. The classic interface could be completely removed from the Metro one and vice versa. This I see is a move that might be welcomed by developers and users alike.

The Development Story

Right now the developer story is just shaping up but already it’s causing confusion. Some developers are still asking the question about the Windows Runtime (WinRT). Why can’t we build Metro apps on Windows 7? Why is the WinRT a different API than the classic CLR. The bits are different. The runtime is different. The security is different. Heck, in Windows 8 you can write “desktop” apps using HTML5 and JavaScript for goodness sake. That in itself just says we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.

It makes sense, if you think about it. Metro WinRT apps have a distinctive style to them and have restrictions you don’t have in the classic development world. Metro apps can’t even access the underlying file system (sans some Isolated storage which is not meant for large amounts of data). The UX is completely different from the classic desktop we’re familiar with and requires you to “re-imagine” your apps. There is no cross-platform compilation here. This isn’t “build a UI for Metro and build a UI for Classic mode”.

While you have to build two different applications anyways, what’s the difference if they’re on the same OS or not? It doesn’t mean you have to rewrite your entire system from scratch for each OS like you have to do today with Apple. A good developer is going to structure his system so the UI is separate and through the use of patterns like MVVM, changes to the back-end stuff, the important stuff, is minimized.

It does however require you to re-think your application, perhaps removing large chunks of the underlying system and changing the way it not only presents itself but what it presents. I’m not just talking about a UI makeover (which needs to happen) but the fact that your ViewModels today are not the same ones you need for Metro.

For example a Movie Catalog app might provide a ViewModel of titles in a single collection with a category attribute. The current UI might present this in a typical tree view, allowing the user to filter on single or multiple categories which then also lazy fetches the list of titles and presents it (through a child ViewModel) in a list view on the same screen. This two or three pane view of your data might be fine in a traditionally designed app but in Metro things might behave differently. Perhaps the categories are already broken down for you in a grouped collection and selecting one takes you to a view where no collection information is needed so only the movie titles and metadata are displayed. The information you show on the screen might be different for each style as well so ViewModels here cannot really be reused. Even the lazy fetching of the data on the back-end might be different in a Metro style app from a classic one.

In any case, the development story might be a little muddy right now and we’re still playing the Sesame Street “One Of These Things” games. Heading it off at the pass might be a good plan and let developers focus on the target platform that suits their purpose.

The User Story

Users are a whole new ball of wax with Metro and Windows 8. The causal user who’s going to use a touch device wants big targets and easy to use minimalistic apps. They’ll bounce around between weather, RSS feeds, Twitter and Facebook so the “flipping through apps like pages in a book” approach works well here. Nobody in the user community I hear is complaining about how you change between apps in Windows 8. Apps are designed for this. By their very nature, Metro apps are all about quick and concise information and not 800 buttons, 300 windows, 150 graphs, 50 tools, and a partridge in a pear tree in a single app here. The user experience for Metro is flipping through items while waiting for a bus or sitting in a meeting or lying on the couch. It’s casual, even for business users.

People are all impressed to Hell about the Metro look and feel. Look how easy it is to find things. Look how fun it is to share things. Look at how fast I can get to my data. This is not for business users who are going to stare at a 70 by 3000 spreadsheet for hours at a time. It’s for users on the go and a step up from having the same information on a 8 inch phone platform.

Business users need the classic look. As Jensen Harris pointed out in his excellent 8 Traits of Metro Apps presentation, apps like Photoshop just don’t fit into Metro. They don’t belong.


I see an identity crisis here in the making (or perhaps that ship has already sailed). Microsoft keeps touting the Metro look and says “And your classic apps are right here”. Then the user is subjected to a jarring shift from the beautiful typographic world of Metro to the classic desktop we have now, full of chrome and frames and toolbars oh my. It’s like watching the magnificent tranquility of Claude Monet’s “Water Lillies” and then be suddenly thrown into the world of Jackson Pollocks “Composition with Pouring I”.

Jakson Pollock, not my cup of tea

The experience right now is jarring. Click on any “classic” app and Metro goes bye-bye and you’re back at traditional desktop. Then you look down, see the iconic Start button, click it, and BAM! You’re back in Metro land, wondering how to get back to the comfort zone. Users don’t know how to use shortcut keys. I struggle and watch people who have been “using” computers for years still not use Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V to copy and paste and if I asked 100 people at work right now if they knew they could lock their computers with a single keystroke (Windows + L) they would shake their heads in disbelief.

I know what you’re thinking right now. Two platforms. Two deployments. Two SKUs. Two nightmares. I don’t think so. It’s a choice. Do you really see people complaining they can’t run their iPad apps on their desktops? Yes, it’s more work but I think it’s the right work. While Microsoft continues to say that Metro works just as well with a mouse and keyboard than it does with touch, people continue to look at the “optimized for touch” interface and scratch their heads wondering what this experience is going to be like with a keyboard. It works but it’s not the best. How do you pinch zoom with a mouse? How do you dual scroll with a keyboard? Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Your Move Microsoft

I’m just a guy. Some people think I might have some internal influence with Microsoft but I don’t. I bitch, I complain, I praise just like everyone. People at Microsoft possibly (probably) already have the plans in place for Windows 8. That decision was probably baked over a year ago during early design or roadmap sessions.

Is it a good move for Microsoft? I think so. As a developer I would be happy building systems targeting two operating systems. As a developer I might go through the entire Windows 8 lifecycle without building a Metro app and that’s okay. Some developers might bitch and groan that they need to build two different solutions for the same platform so this would fix that problem. Now you’re building one app for one platform (and optionally another app for another platform should you choose to go that route).


  • I have not had a chance to play with the Win8 dev preview much yet, but I can see some valid points in your argument. My personal opinion, is that having the Metro UI as the default after boot experience should be a choice. Enabled by default of course, but you should have a choice to force it to the Classic desktop for business cases. I think that small tweak alone could help seperate things. Then again, I could be wrong like usual.

  • The UK PCPro Magazine's weekly podcast ( - podcase link is an icon on the right) includes again an interesting coversation on Windows 8.

    Their conclusion seems to be that MS needs to add a "what are you running this on" screen when you install and then

    TouchPad and TouchScreen portables get Metro but non-touch screen portables and desktops (even with touch-screen monitors) don't get Metro.

    They also tried running Win 8 on a 3 years old and even then not over-powered HP "convertible" that previously had Win 7 on it and were positively surprised.

  • The MS attitude appears to be one of, “They’ll just fall in line here.” Imagine you show up at your favorite restaurant and find out that all the tables have been ripped out and replaced with a maze of bar seating. When you ask for a table for two, you’re told you can go down three flights of stairs, where you find your table. Oddly enough though your eight-course meal you are told, for reasons you do not understand, that a few of the courses are only on the main floor. Even worse, sometimes you’re directed to the wrong place (mobile version of IE).

  • Still unsure whether to develop a website using Silverlight and Expression Blend or to use JavaScript and Expression Web? If I use Silverlight then it will not show on Win 8 on a tablet, is that correct?

  • This is the reason I am still using Windows XP now.

    It has a true classic mode there.

    It's the last OS they made that does though.

    Vista's classic mode is not the true classic mode.

    Everything else after XP is crap... my opinion now.

  • Ive loaded it twice and deleted it twice I want to like it but im never going to smear my fingers over it. Yes on my phone no on my desktop, my linux box is looking like a clearer future 2 me after 20 years using Windows.....

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