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Originally published August 19, 2012 at 8:01 PM | Page modified August 20, 2012 at 6:32 AM

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Some confusion as Microsoft drops 'Metro' name from Windows 8 products

Was 'Metro' just a code name or did Microsoft get in hot water with German retailer Metro AG?

Seattle Times technology reporter

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For months, Microsoft has been touting a distinctive, tile-based user interface that's front-and-center in the designs of its upcoming product releases, including Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. But now, Microsoft has put the kibosh on its "Metro" moniker.

Tech publication Ars Technica reported that Microsoft's legal-affairs department sent out an internal memo earlier this month to that effect, noting German retailer Metro AG had talked of legal action, claiming trademark infringement.

Metro AG — one of the world's largest retail groups, especially prominent in Europe where it has electronic retail stores — declined to comment.

Microsoft issued a statement earlier this month, saying: "We have used Metro style as a code name during the product-development cycle across many of our product lines. As we get closer to launch and transition from industry dialogue to a broad consumer dialogue we will use our commercial names."

Recent Microsoft releases have referred to a new, "modern" design, and news reports have speculated it may simply come to be called "Windows 8" style.

And that's led to confusion on several fronts, especially as Microsoft is encouraging developers to create apps for Windows 8, which was released to manufacturers Aug. 1 and will be hitting store shelves Oct. 26.

Normally, such a change may not be a big deal. After all, how many people know the name of their computer operating systems' user interface, which encompasses the way humans and computers interact, including the appearance, display and input method. The user interface for Windows 7, for example, is called "Aero."

But two things are different with Windows 8.

First, the design and philosophy behind what used to be referred to as "Metro" represent a radical departure from previous Windows designs and are present in an ever-increasing array of Microsoft products.

For example, the "content not chrome" philosophy — the idea that content should be front and center rather than details such as borders and frames — permeates everything from new versions of Office and SkyDrive to Outlook.com and Xbox 360.

Second — and perhaps more important — Windows 8 has essentially two modes of user interface: the new tile-based mode and the traditional desktop one. Users will be able to toggle back and forth between the two.

Microsoft is continuing to use the name "Metro" in its guidelines for developers. That's so developers can distinguish which mode Microsoft is offering guidance on and so there's a way for them to refer quickly to the new tile-based mode.

But some developers say they would also like to be able to convey that same sort of clarity to their customers. Michael Cherry, an analyst with independent research firm Directions on Microsoft, gives an example. He's writing a Windows 8 app for Directions.

"My sales pitch to people is now: 'This is a Windows 8 app,' " he said. "Before, I would've said: 'This is a Metro app.' I need to know how to say that this works with the new user interface. I want it to be so distinctively clear which side of the coin it runs on. I need some moniker that communicates that to my customer.

"I don't care what the word is," Cherry said. "I just want to know definitively."

There was some additional confusion last week about whether apps with the word "Metro" in the title would still be allowed in the Windows Store.

The answer, Microsoft said, was yes — unless a third party contacts Microsoft claiming infringement, in which case Microsoft will work with the app developer to determine the best way to proceed.

Microsoft isn't saying what led to the naming problem.

Michael Atkins, a Seattle trademark lawyer and adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington School of Law, said, even with large companies, this sort of thing "happens a lot more than one would think. Even with brands that are being rolled out on a worldwide basis."

Microsoft "probably made their change in time," Atkins says. "What's important is what the consumer has been exposed to.

If Microsoft hasn't yet spent much money on advertising or made significant efforts to start training consumers to associate Metro with its new user interface, it's certainly not too late to make a change."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @janettu.

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