It doesn't sound like particularly shimmery compliment, but the best thing that I can say about Microsoft's Metro UI is that after over a year of using it in various iterations, it still feels new. Not like never-breached-my-eyeballs-before new, but new as in the promise of something better, something from the future. But it's here, and I'm touching it with Windows 8. And it's going to redefine how like a bajillion people are going to use their computer over the next couple of years.
The Windows 8 beta drops next month. This is a pre-beta — but it's already dramatically ahead of the developer release from three months ago (a pre-pre-beta?), an embryonic chunk of code that was already deeply impressive in its re-imagining of Windows. Which, even though it's using the now-established Metro design language that's become part of Microsoft's DNA, it's perhaps the most ambitious design project Microsoft's ever embarked on, since we're talking about, well, Windows. And because it's clear now that Metro is how Microsoft really intends for people to use the next Windows. The Windows you know now? It's the past. A fallback, in case you need it. This is your new PC.
Anyways, onto what's new since the first developer build. For one, a gesture to close programs, by simply dragging down. Which is largely unnecessary in Windows 8, since like today's smartphone OSes, it now takes care of all of that in the background. You don't have to close programs anymore. It's the end of task management, if it works. When you leave a program, it's suspended in the background — then when you want to go back, it's brought back out to play. Or if the system needs resources, it gets killed in the background, just like iOS, Android and Windows Phone.
Microsoft's invented a few new gestures as well. So, you know how in Android and iOS, when you want to move an icon or widget over to a different screen, you have to press and hold to select the icon, and then drag it and hold it against the edge of the screen until it moves to the screen where you want to drop the icon? Yeah, not in Windows 8. A short swipe down on a tile quickly selects it — or multiple tiles if you want — and then you can simply drag the tile to where you want it to be, fluidly, with multitouch dragging. (Of course, multitouch dragging makes more sense on a tablet than on a phone.)
Thumbs. You can get around Windows 8 crazy fast with your thumbs. I watched Sam Moreau, Director of User Experience Design and Research, tear through the OS with just his thumbs. "It's not an accident" that the Start button is placed exactly where your thumb naturally lands, he says. And surrounding the Start button — always and forever in Windows 8 — are the handful of things Microsoft sees as core to the computing experience, no matter which app you're in, like search and sharing. It works, again, more like what we're used to in smartphones, particularly Android, with its context-sensitive sharing options that are integrated throughout the OS, and that any application can plug into. Search works that way too: For instance, if you search for "hangover," it'll look through all the files in your system, offer to search the internet with Bing, or in the example given, show what Netflix or WebMD or Wikipedia might have to offer, if you had those apps installed.
Apps. You will probably have a lot of them. You might be worried about doing tons of swiping around in Metro to get to them and get around. Enter semantic zoom, which is kind of like a super Expose, except that the zoomed-out view groups things in categories based on metadata. (Hence the reason it's called semantic zoom — you're moving up a level, semantically, from apps to groups like "work" or "play" or whatever.) It's just a straight up pinch-to-zoom-out gesture. Easy.
But, you're probably wondering, what if you're using Windows 8 on a non-touchscreen computer? Microsoft's spent nearly as much time translating touch gestures into comparable controls for keyboard-and-mouse, where appropriate. So a mouse scroll wheel lets you zip between pages of the Metro UI, while simply typing brings up search. Or to access semantic zoom, you grab a tile and drag it downward, which zooms out to show you the entire view.
It's worth noting too how much more complete this build of Windows 8 feels. It feels much faster, animations have been tweaked, functional holes in the developer build have been filled, new interface elements are more securely in place, like the action bar. I'd definitely say it's not quite beta, but it's very close, and I suspect the beta will be legitimately solid release that, for a lot of people — well, nerds like me — it'll work just fine as their everyday OS.
I'm really just scratching the surface here in terms of what's new, but I'll leave it by saying that I'm more completely convinced every time I see it that Windows 8 is really worth being excited over. I am.