Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Metro UI Debate: Planned Obsolescence Ahead

With all the debate suddenly surrounding the Metro design spec introduced by Microsoft as part of Windows 8, one cannot help but wonder whose PR department is whipping up the controversy: Apple’s or Microsoft’s? On the one hand, the discussion can be viewed as an attack on Microsoft by the Apple Dumping Gang while on the other hand it could be a “no publicity is bad publicity” ploy by the MSFT Gang That Can Only Design Straight. In my view the attention ends up helping Microsoft and Android while hurting Apple.

The differences in the UI design and interactivity standards are rather ironic. Microsoft has generated literally billions of dollars in revenue by releasing successive generations of its operating systems and driving their adoption by pushing user expectations towards increasingly complex and interactive design standards. Early windows design looked very gray, gradually became more colorful, then beveled, then shaded, then ray traced, then transparent, then animated. Each time the clear intent was to create a graphical case for the latest coolest operating system version and a feeling that applications using the older design standards were passé. It was plainly and simply a form of planned obsolescence little different from design trends in the fashion, automotive and consumer packaged goods industries.

With mobile devices, Microsoft correctly identified a conundrum. If you bring today’s highly sophisticated desktop design standards over to mobile devices then there isn’t really much of a look and feel upgrade path left. Planned obsolescence becomes difficult when your design trends have reached their logical plateau. And this plateau was evident on the desktop as well. The solution: bring the desktop and mobile UI standards down together to a simpler level and yet one which is so clean and crisp as to feel modern and chic.

Metro is not nearly as bad as most of its critics make it out to be. Sure, it is simple. But there are plenty of Swedish designers who will tell you that design simplicity is a value to be upheld. If you think they are wrong, take a visit to your local IKEA store. I disagree that Metro is classic or retro in any way, it is quintessentially modern and sleek. In this sense, I do not disagree that Metro is a workable and pleasant design and interface standard. Whether or not it is a superior standard is a bit of a subjective argument in my view. I disagree with the Metro advocates who suggest that it is the only effective GUI. It is an effective GUI and it can beat chaos design in side-by-side comparison tests. So what? Is Microsoft really going to enforce Metro UI principles with police-state like efficiency? No. As a result, design creep and chaos will eventually eliminate the consistency that is currently Metro’s primary advantage in UI metric comparisons. Once you eliminate its newness and therefore its consistency, the Metro UI will compare similarly to any other well conceived GUI.

Call me a cynic on this one, but I see the graphical aspects of Metro as a well-designed platform for planned obsolescence. Time will tell. In the meantime, designing apps for any platform, any device, any time leads me to Magic.

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