Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

Summary: Will Microsoft succeed with the Metro UI?


Every new version of Windows brings with it 'the next big thing' and puts a nail in the coffin of 'the last big thing that didn't take off.' While Microsoft's new Metro UI is the 'next big thing' in Windows 8, it's the latest of a number of failed attempts by Microsoft to turn the Windows desktop into more than just a place to store files.

Microsoft has, in fact, been trying to remodel the Windows Desktop since the release of Internet Explorer 4.0 for Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 back in 1997. Back then the attempt was called Active Desktop. This technology gave users an option to down the a Windows Desktop Update that allowed then to bind HTML content to the desktop in the form of a wallpaper replacement and desktop items that were synchronised automatically when connected to the web.

Active Desktop never really gained much traction and was dumped by the time Windows Vista rolled in.

With Active Desktop tossed to the kerb in Vista, Microsoft took another stab at doing something with all that desktop real estate, this time releasing a technology called Windows Sidebar.

Microsoft initial idea for the Windows Sidebar was that it would replace the quick Launch toolbar, but this idea was binned mid-2004 and instead the technology was re-purposed to display 'gadgets' on the desktop featuring active content. Vista came with a total of eleven gadgets (Calendar, Clock, Contacts, CPU Meter, Currency Conversion, Feed Headlines, Notes, Picture Puzzle, Slide Show, Stocks, and Weather) and developers could create their own and upload them to the Windows Live Gallery.

In Windows 7 Microsoft dropped the Windows Sidebar name and instead adopted a new name - Windows Desktop Gadgets. Microsoft also added a new gadget - the Media Center gadget - and removed a whole bunch of other - the Contacts, Notes and Stocks gadgets.

Note: Those of you with long memories will remember that Windows Vista bought with it another technology that pretty much died on the vine. Called Windows SideShow, this was designed to drive an auxiliary display on PCs (such as an LCD panel on the lid of a notebook) showing custom information such as emails, contacts and so on.

Gadgets are still present in Windows 8, they're available in the Gadget Gallery, but it's fair to say that just like the Active Desktop, Gadgets failed to ignite much interest amongst users.

Note: Some might argue that Microsoft's DreamScene utility that shipped as a Windows Ultimate Extra for Vista that allowed videos to be used as desktop backgrounds was another attempt at 'activating' the desktop. Given that the main thing this utility did was consume crazy amounts of system resources, I'm going to ignore it.

So now we come to the Metro UI. Metro is certainly far more ambitious than anything we've seen before, and it does fit in with Microsoft's tablet aspirations, but I, along with many others, remain to be convinced of its importance on the desktop. Metro, like the technologies that have come before it, have to tread a very fine line between innovation and gimmickry. Past incarnations of technologies that were going to revamp Windows have shown that users are allergic to clutter and attempts to shoehorn technologies between users and the desktop. While Microsoft has this time chosen to keep the classic Windows desktop alive and untouched, Metro could still be seen as an unnecessary layer between the user and their beloved desktop.

Will Metro succeed, or will it fail like so many technologies that came before it? Time will tell.

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

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  • Quite the naive commentary Adrian

    If you can't see how each of the technologies you mentioned were iterations of the technology before it then you truly are even more naive than I originally believed.

    While I would hesitate to give MS credit for inventing the "active desktop" the truth is that the concept of an active desktop is alive and well in every major OS out there. OS X has it, Android has it, at least 1 of the Linux UIs has it, and iOS 5 is getting limited support for it on the lock screen.
    • The K's have it

      Admit it: using the word 'kerb' is pretty kewl.
      Robert Hahn
  • Metro UI is just another kludge workaround over the

    fact that MS STILL doesn't have a user-friendly file structure/naming convention. Do this simple experiment. Open Program Files on Windows 7, then Applications on Lion. Take a look. When your program names are human-readable, you don't need to come up with start menus or metro UI tiles. Users can just browse the directory directly and create shortcuts as desired to organize things the way they want to without any hack workarounds.
    • Launchpad is just another kludge workaround over the

      fact that Apple STILL doesn't have a user-friendly file structure/naming convention. When your program names are human-readable, you don't need to come up with docks or launchpads.<br><br>Clearly Apple felt (as do I) that the Finder is a terrible way of launching applications. Otherwise they wouldn't have invested so much time and energy into making the dock and launchpad. I like the dock (it is nearly as well done as the taskbar in Windows 7) although launchpad in Lion is a pretty major fail IMO.
      • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

        @toddybottom Yes, all Launchpad did was add a second Applications folder which I already had on my taskbar. And the app icons are tiny and spattered out across the screen.
    • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

      @baggins_z sounds like you don't know what a user friendly file system looks like.
  • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

    Metro is going to be the UI others will start copying just like the Windows start bar. As for revamping failing, not quite, it was a learning experience that brought upon new technologies.
  • Innovation is iterative, not revolutionary

    An interesting hypothesis. But, are you framing the question correctly or are these iterative processes that lead up to Metro? i.e. Dos --> Windows 3.1 --> Windows 95 --> Windows 7 were all clearly successfuly revamps. Will Windows 8 be another runaway success like Windows 7? All of the market data suggests that it will.
    Your Non Advocate
    • You're missing a few...


      Bob --> Windows ME --> Vista --> Windows 8?
      • Missing a few - quite right.

        Another thing: Before WinME and Vista were released there was little criticism from users about the forthcoming products. With W8, there is a hell of a lot of fearful apprehension and reluctance, even disgust. My best guess is that W8 is doomed.
    • What kind of hardware were you testing Windows 8 on?

      It seems far, far too early to be talking about "market data" yet, when developers have only just received an early preview release.

      It would be interesting to know what kind of hardware you were using, just to put your remarks in context.
    • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

      "Market data" may support Metro's usefulness for tablets. Does not support its usefulness for serious PC users--quite the contrary. Confusing "cute" for "useful" is risky.
  • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

    While previous attempts by Microsoft such as those you've mentioned above were good ideas implemented badly, I tend to think they have got the implementation right this time around. <br>Also, they never pushed their other ideas as hard as they are doing with Metro. Developers (like me) are more convinced this time around that the actively updated screen will actually work.<br>I don't recall developers being excited about DreamScene or Sidebar or Gadgets. But we are (well, at least I am) thrilled about the possibilities that Metro presents. This is an entirely new paradigm rather than an extension to the old desktop. That is what is different about Metro as compared to their previous efforts. <br>People will cease to think in terms of folders and files, with the new approach. I understand your skepticism, but I do believe things are very different this time around.
    • Some developers aren't so thrilled

      @regsrini Some are downright furious:
      The Star King
  • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

    If you think about it, the desktop <I>is</I> wasted space. While it's nice to have a static background picture of nice scenery, or a family photo, it would also be nice to utilize that space for more active purposes. Various third party utilities exist to do this (Rainmeter being the most popular), but it would be nice if Windows had a built in mechanism to do this as well.

    Having a dynamic "desktop" would be great for tablet usage and a text-based Metro interface (a la WP7) would look very attractive compared with the static "desktops" of iOS and Android. Even on the desktop, it'll be nice to have a brief glance at much needed information (Mail notifications, RSS feeds, calendar remainders, etc) than a static grid of icons.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

    These other attempts were part of the desktop, that is, you went to the desktop and it was active, or had a gadgets bar or gadgets on it. In the case of Metro, the desktop is a subset of Metro. This is even worse fail than before. If metro ran in the desktop and we could choose to see Metro apps in windows on the desktop, then all would be fine well and good. It is the insistence that metro be at the top of the heap that causes the problem.

    It is impossible to express how badly metro sucks as a desktop interface in its current iteration.
    • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

      Metro gives the average user everything he wants, whether it is email, browsing, youtube, facebook or other simple tasks. If you are the kind of user who does anything complex, you are probably savvy enough to know how to switch to the old desktop. Enterprises will lock their systems down to the old explorer anyways. I don't see how it is a nightmare anyways.
      Win8 is a calculated risk by MS. Of course, I don't know whether it will work or not, but they are surely thinking the right way
      • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

        I won't be using the metro interface on a desktop/laptop, ever, the problem for me is that the desktop is being deprecated and will eventually not be supported, that seems obvious. MS says Windows 8 is about no compromises, but that's only true is you do things the Metro way.

        Let me say this again, Metro is Bob awful. It is as bad as Unity and Gnome 3 shell.

        People keep saying that you can have the desktop and metro. That's not what I see in using the developer preview. Maybe things change by shipping. But their language, calling the desktop a legacy interface, means that they intend to dump the desktop at some point, or make it into a ghetto (in the sense the word was used in Warsaw when the Nazi's invaded), and kill it off one app at a time.
    • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

      I installed the preview with virtual box and found I strongly dislike Metro. I like it on my phone but hate it on my PC. I recently got my first Mac and am glad the launchpad can be removed from the task bar. Regardless of the OS, I don't want a mobile interface on my desktop. It just doesn't feel right.
    • RE: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed


      Exactly. Microsoft wants you to believe that Windows 8 is a no compromise approach. That it offers the best of both worlds, metro-style shell plus full desktop OS. Everyone will be happy. But from early peek at the OS, it looks like it will be a compromise for both the power user and those looking for light iPad-like computing on tablets. You can't full satisfy the two worlds without making compromises somewhere.