Going Metro

When it was announced, I confess was somewhat surprised by the striking new “Metro” User Interface for Windows 8, based on Swiss typography, Bauhaus design, tiles, touches and gestures, and the new Windows Runtime (WinRT) API on which Metro apps were to be built. It all seemed to have come out of nowhere, like field mushrooms in the night and seemed quite out-of-character for a company like Microsoft, which has hung on determinedly for over twenty years to its quaint Windowing system.

Many were initially puzzled by the lack of support for plug-ins in the “Metro” version of IE10, which ships with Win8, and the apparent demise of Silverlight, Microsoft’s previous ‘radical new framework’. Win8 signals the end of the road for Silverlight apps in the browser, but then its importance here has been waning for some time, anyway, now that HTML5 has usurped its most compelling use case, streaming video. As Shawn Wildermuth and others have noted, if you’re doing enterprise, desktop development with Silverlight then nothing much changes immediately, though it seems clear that ultimately Silverlight will die off in favor of a single WPF/XAML framework that supports those technologies that were pioneered on the phones and tablets.

There is a mystery here. Is Silverlight dead, or merely repurposed? The more you look at Metro, the more it seems to resemble Silverlight. A lot of the philosophies underpinning Silverlight applications, such as the fundamentally asynchronous nature of the design, have moved wholesale into Metro, along with most the Microsoft Silverlight dev team. As Simon Cooper points out, “Silverlight developers, already used to all the principles of sandboxing and separation, will have a much easier time writing Metro apps than desktop developers“.

Metro certainly has given the framework formerly known as Silverlight a new purpose. It has enabled Microsoft to bestow on Windows 8 a new “duality”, as both a traditional desktop OS supporting ‘legacy’ Windows applications, and an OS that supports a new breed of application that can share functionality such as search, that understands, and can react to, the full range of gestures and screen-sizes, and has location-awareness.

It’s clear that Win8 is developed in the knowledge that the ‘desktop computer’ will soon be a very large, tilted, touch-screen monitor. Windows owes its new-found versatility to the lessons learned from Windows Phone, but it’s developed for the big screen, and with full support for familiar .NET desktop apps as well as the new Metro apps. But the old mouse-driven Windows applications will soon look very passé, just as MSDOS character-mode applications did in the nineties.