Switched On: Metro and the Mac

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|03.05.12

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Switched On: Metro and the Mac
Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

With the release of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, more consumers can more easily experience Metro, along with Metro-style apps. With this new approach, Microsoft is making the most radical shift in user interface it's ever attempted -- a change so drastic it will supplant the desktop as the default user experience.

The pipeline of desktop-style Windows-style apps may start to dry up over time.

Microsoft has not talked much about how long it plans to keep the classic Windows desktop around. It could well be another decade or more. But just as few new character-based applications are written for Windows today (despite the preservation of a command-line interface in the operating system), the pipeline of desktop-style Windows-style apps may start to dry up over time, particularly as Microsoft dangles the carrot of Windows app store inclusion before developers.

Microsoft has hinted, for example, that the next version of Office will represent the biggest transition in its history; it would not be surprising if Redmond created a Metro version optimized for Windows 8, and led the Windows developer community by example -- not unlike how Apple built iPad versions of iMovie, iWork and GarageBand. The future of Windows is Metro.

If Metro breaks the ability for developers to cost-effectively support both platforms, they may face some difficult decisions.

Last June, Switched On discussed what the dual user interfaces of Windows 8 might mean for the developers behind major Windows apps. But what does it mean for cross-party developers who wish to code for both Windows and the Mac? Since at least the release of Windows 95, the Mac and Windows user interfaces have been similar enough to support a core of application logic and user experience -- folders and icons, menus and pointers. With Lion, Apple brought some iPad conventions to the Mac, but the overall experience is still decidedly mouse-and-keyboard-driven. Apple has eased off the gas in Mountain Lion when it comes to iPadifying the Mac interface, choosing instead to bring iPad apps across and into a Mac context.

If Metro breaks the ability for developers to cost-effectively support both platforms, they may face some difficult decisions.

Saying no to Metro
Developers could find that the cost of converting their apps to Metro-centricity are not worth abandoning the desktop paradigm. Of course, for some time to come, developers will want to support the desktop metaphor anyway for the sake of compatibility with Windows 7 and perhaps earlier versions of the OS. Over time, though, the install base of Metro on Windows will exceed that of the Mac, and Microsoft is aiming for Windows users to spend increasingly more of their time in a Metro world.

Saying no to the Mac, but perhaps supporting the iPad
While the iPad's user interface is very different than Metro's, they both at least support multiitouch gestures and are designed for a finger-friendly, low control-density display. Today, of course, there are many apps that support both the iPhone and Windows Phone, and this would simply scale up that kind of cross-platform development.

While it might make supporting the Mac more expensive in the short-term and result in the loss of a few apps, Apple might welcome the end of the cross-platform app as it has long existed, a bane that long ago enabled third-party developers bring such Mac franchises as PageMaker and Photoshop over to Windows. Microsoft's move to break with the lowest-common-denominator past liberates Apple to do the same.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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