Develop Metro apps? Say no to this con

By Neil McAllister
Created 2012-03-08 03:00AM
Microsoft says Windows 8 will offer exciting new opportunities for software developers. Don't believe it.
Windows 8's main attraction is Metro, the new touch-centric UI that replaces the Start menu [1]. Rather than the Start menu's static launch icons, Metro offers fully interactive apps that work much like smartphone apps. Independent developers will be able to build Metro apps using a combination of HTML5 and .Net technologies, then sell them via the Windows Store.
The inspiration for Metro is obvious. The app craze that began with the iPhone has helped make Apple the most valuable company in the world, and Microsoft wants a piece of that action. Metro is Microsoft's attempt to wed the iOS business model with Windows' dominance of the PC desktop.
Unfortunately, it won't work. It was a cynical idea from the start, and it's now clear that for all the effort that Microsoft has invested, Metro is a disaster. It's not worth developers' time.
Users don't like Metro
Developers got their first taste of Metro with the Windows 8 Developer Preview last year. Now the Consumer Preview [5] has made it available to everyone, and its reception has been cool, to say the least.
Microsoft says Metro is "fast and fluid." As often as I see those words repeated -- in press releases, brochures, and documentation -- I still don't know what they mean.
Reviewers tend to parrot them, too, but with much less enthusiasm. In fact, early reactions to Windows 8 seem mostly negative. Die-hard Windows users are among its harshest critics. InfoWorld's own J. Peter Bruzzese calls it "Windows Frankenstein [6]." Metro, he says, is "maddening."
I share his aggravation. Windows 8 is neither fish nor fowl. Microsoft wants Metro to be a unified UI for PCs, smartphones, and tablets, but these are all very different things. The result is a twisted chimera of an OS that can't decide whether it wants to frustrate, annoy, or interfere.
Lightweight apps are great for smartphones because smartphones are mobile devices. PCs have an entirely different usage model. You don't expect to use a PC in a bus shelter, in a restaurant, or on an escalator. You don't need to control a PC with one hand while holding an umbrella in the other.
It follows that smartphone app UIs are tailored to the devices they run on. A smartphone's primary input device is a tiny touchscreen. Big icons and easy controls cater to that. But on a PC equipped with a 22-inch monitor, a mouse, and a keyboard, you don't need to simplify the UI to such a degree. Metro forces the PC usage model to cater to the UI, rather than the other way around.
Touchscreens aren't likely to catch on for PCs, either. They're not helpful for the office desktop. They're more like repetitive strain injuries waiting to happen [7]. Why force us to use a touch-centric UI on devices that don't need one?
Of course, Microsoft thinks it knows better. But it doesn't. The latest UI ideas coming out of Redmond seem half-baked and arbitrary -- witness user reaction to Visual Studio 11 [8].
Indeed, Windows 8 is so good at being the worst of all worlds that it's likely to alienate users of any device it runs on. IDC predicts Windows 8 will be "largely irrelevant [9] for users of traditional PCs." Tablet sales, it says, will "disappoint."
Apps and PCs don't go together
Metro apps themselves are underwhelming, too. Having seen them in action, it's hard to grok why Microsoft thinks Windows users need apps. As keen as Microsoft is to get a piece of the app pie, it doesn't seem to understand how people actually use apps, or why.
Apps aren't why people buy PCs. Apps are frivolous. The most popular ones are mostly games, gadgets, social networking clients, and other minor diversions.
True, some people use apps for business. But the apps that help you do real work aren't the type you download for 99 cents while you wait for the subway. They're not what's driving the app sales revenue Microsoft craves. Consumer entertainment is the sweet spot. Apple understands this, as does Google. Just this week, it replaced the Android Market with Google Play [10], a unified store for apps, music, videos, e-books, and other entertainment content.
Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be in denial. It wants to convince us that apps are the new face of Windows. It has even started referring to traditional desktop applications as "apps," as if the two are the same. But the Metro apps I've seen so far hardly qualify as Windows software. Even the best of them are "lite" versions of things I already do, with most of the features removed. They're nothing I'd want to use on a regular basis. What's more, desktop PC users don't need apps to check the weather or read email. They have a Web browser for that.
And if Web applications like Google Docs haven't supplanted desktop software yet, why should Metro? Modern PCs ship with fast processors, powerful graphics cards, and lots of RAM. They're wasted on Metro apps.
Who really benefits?
If you buy into Microsoft's Metro vision, you'll only be able to distribute your apps through the Windows Store. You can't host them for download on your own site. That means Microsoft gets a cut of every sale you make. While that may also be true of other app stores, it flies in the face of 30 years of the PC software business.
What are we left with? The Metro model seems to give Microsoft lots of things it wants, but the rest of us only get things we never asked for and don't want or need. With Windows 8 and Metro, developers can create apps that nobody needs, with UIs that nobody likes, for a redesigned Windows that nobody wanted, then distribute them through a channel that Microsoft controls, under terms that aren't negotiable. Where do I sign up?
Some critics argue that developers will be foolish not to get on board with Metro [11]. I don't buy it. Their argument seems to be that Microsoft will ram Metro down everyone's throats whether we like it or not, so we may as well give in. No thanks.
Metro might sound like a great idea to Microsoft, but it's bad for users and it's bad for developers. It's a con. Don't fall for it.
This article, "Develop Metro apps? Say no to this con [12]," originally appeared at [13]. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog [14] and follow the latest news in programming [15] at For the latest business technology news, on Twitter [16].



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