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Microsoft dumps 'Aero' UI in Windows 8, 'Metro-izes' desktop

Won't reveal Windows 8's final desktop user interface until launch later this year

Microsoft said Friday that it is abandoning the "Aero" user interface with Windows 8, calling the UI that debuted in Vista and continued in Windows 7, "cheesy" and "dated."

In a massive 11,300-word blog post, Jensen Harris, the director of program management for Windows 8's user experience team, said that the new operating system's look-and-feel, its graphics user interface, or GUI, would be "clean and crisp," and would do away with the "glass and reflections" that marked Aero.

The move was Microsoft's attempt to bring the traditional desktop -- one of two GUIs in Windows 8 -- closer to the new Metro-style interface, said Harris.

"In the end, we decided to bring the desktop closer to the Metro aesthetic, while preserving the compatibility afforded by not changing the size of window chrome, controls, or system UI," said Harris. "We have moved beyond Aero Glass -- flattening surfaces, removing reflections, and scaling back distracting gradients."

Aero first appeared in Windows Vista, which reached enterprises in late 2006 and consumers in early 2007, but Microsoft had been working on the GUI for years. The company showed elements of Aero in 2005 betas it distributed to select testers, for example.

Windows 7 also relied on Aero, although Microsoft tweaked the GUI, adding features like "Snap," which automatically sized a window to half the screen, and changing the translucency of maximized windows.

Users will not get to see Windows 8's new GUI until the operating system appears in final form later this year. "While a few of these visual changes are hinted at in the upcoming Release Preview, most of them will not yet be publicly available," Harris acknowledged.

Microsoft will offer Windows 8 Release Preview, its last public milestone before completing the OS, the first week of June.

It's unusual for Microsoft to keep a Windows GUI under wraps until final release: Both Vista and Windows 7 showed the finished Aero UI, or at the least, major chunks of it, months, even years, before those editions went on sale.

Other than derogatory references to Aero as first implemented in Vista -- when Harris said, "This style of simulating faux-realistic materials (such as glass or aluminum) on the screen looks dated and cheesy now." -- he did not give explicit reasons for dropping Aero from the desktop, other than Microsoft's desire to shift it closer to the new Metro design philosophy.

In a long section of his post, however, Harris called out seven goals of the Windows 8 GUI redesign. Most applied primarily to Metro, and secondly, to touch-based devices like tablets, or in a broader sense, to mobile devices where battery power is tight and longevity a critical concern.

Microsoft won't unveil the full Windows 8 desktop UI until this fall, but this screenshot of the Windows Explorer file manager is a sample of what the final will look like. (Image: Microsoft.)

Battery power, in fact, seemed to be the one goal that applied to the desktop GUI, something well-known Windows blogger Paul Thurrott noticed when he speculated that the effort to extend battery life was the reason for Aero's demise.

"It's all about battery life," Thurrott argued on his SuperSite for Windows blog on Saturday. "Aero, with all its glassy, translucent goodness, is bad for battery life. Metro, meanwhile, which is flat, dull, not transparent, and only full screen, is very good for battery life."

To lasso battery issues, Microsoft even considered limiting Windows 8 so that only one Metro app would run at a time. Ultimately, it decided against that restriction, and instead will allow two Metro apps to run simultaneously in a side-by-side view.

"Even with multitasking in the existing desktop still present, we did feel like only offering 'one-at-a-time' in the Metro style experience was a bit of a constraint, and not totally true to the Windows history of multitasking," Harris said.

Also in his missive, Harris countered naysayers who have hammered Windows 8 for its touch-centric philosophy or for the lack of a traditional "Start" button on the desktop. He reminded them of early criticism when Windows took to the mouse, and the need to coach users of Windows 95 on how to use that edition's Start button.

Harris also promised that GUI elements that have frustrated users -- including difficulty in hitting the "hot" corner of the desktop that triggers the Start screen -- had been addressed, and repeated earlier assertions that Microsoft would include tutorials with Windows 8 to show users how to manipulate both the desktop and Metro interfaces.

Essentially, his review of Windows GUIs, which stretched as far back as 1985's original graphical shell atop DOS, and his comments around mice and usability, seemed to be a call for customers to give Windows 8 a chance.

"Yes, there are parts of the Windows 8 UI that have generated discussions and even debate, and aspects of the change that will take some people a little time to understand and digest," Harris admitted. "Any change, particularly a change that doesn't just follow in the footsteps of what everyone else is doing, can be hard to fully grasp at first.... The world changes and moves forward. Windows will continue to change too."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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