What's wrong with Metro?
23rd Nov 2012 | 15:09
Time flies. It's been a full 12 months since the Metro Dashboard arrived on Xbox 360. There was an update this October, but it didn't fix the same problems many CVG readers, Redditors and Xbox.com forumites have had with Microsoft's next-generation user interface. One year since its release, and the Metro experiment is regarded by many as a failure.
Xbox 360 originally launched with the famous 'blades' Dashboard with individual pages for System, Media, Games, Xbox Live and, later, the Marketplace. It was neat on the surface but did a pretty lousy job of presenting the information players needed, and buried DLC and Live Arcade stuff beneath layer after layer of obfuscating menus.
Microsoft's New Xbox Experience Dashboard fixed all those problems in 2008 with an interface styled after Windows Media Center, but fixed yet another 'problem' by freeing up space for advertising and promotion. When people fondly recall the old blades it's usually because it was so free of advertising.
They forget that downloadable content was ordered alongside everything else in one giant alphabetised list and that the 360 had no support for Kinect, streaming TV or any of the 360's modern media functions. NXE fixed that, then fixed it again with Kinect support which never quite worked, but all of it was merely a stop-gap for Metro, which everybody hoped would provide the ultimate home media centre for Xbox owners.
Officially, it's not 'Metro' any more. Microsoft has been advising developers against using the Metro name since July with rumours of a trademark dispute with German wholesalers Metro AG. It's now 'Microsoft Design Language', and is used on Windows Phone, Windows 8, Surface and 360.
MDL works well on Windows-powered phones and on Microsoft's new Surface tablet where the bold panels display information simply and can be activated with a touch. Windows 8 users have their own problems with the interface, mostly tied to the accessibility of the classic Windows desktop and how it's designed more for fingers than a mouse, but those problems pale in comparison to 360's.
On Windows Phone, Surface or Windows 8 you can build your own homepage with the apps you most commonly use. On 360, the Dashboard is laid out by Microsoft. It's not your UI; it's theirs - how else could it turn Xbox into an ad delivery machine? The latest version of MDL adds a search panel to every page but misuses a colossal amount of screen space.
The three left-hand squares are the only practical panels on each page. Less than 15% of the screen is available for things you use regularly; the rest is reserved for advertising. It's a fundamental component of Microsoft's modern business strategy. Even Windows 8's default apps are ad-supported. Delta Airlines appear in the News app and Pantene intrudes on the Weather app, but on PC you can dump Microsoft's apps for third-party equivalents.
The same isn't true on 360's closed system where you're stuck with what Microsoft gives you. In a Facebook poll, 70% of Xbox World magazine readers said they 'hate' the modern 360 Dashboard. "It's good on touch screens, mediocre at best for Kinect, and useless for mouse or controller," says XBW reader Steve Abramo. Ryan Clayton agrees: "It looks cool but it's a pain to navigate with a pad.
"Games are buried under menus too, but the thing I hate most is the advertising for Nike trainers over the thing people use their console for most: games." So how can it be fixed? "Get rid of the ads," says Chris Wells. "On every other online service, Premium = no ads. Reduce the number of pages and leave it at Home - Profile - Apps - Settings. Has anyone ever used the Bing bar?"
Phillip McLean agrees: "I'd remove all the freaking ads for paid users, first off, then I'd make everything on the one home hub: games, music, movies, apps etc." MDL isn't bad in its concept, the problem is Microsoft's handling of the user interface and their insistence on making Xbox an advertising platform.
"Anyone who owns a Windows Phone knows how customisable the tiles are," says Jamie Jones. "Just give us a 'my page' option where you can place game shortcuts, apps, even a direct link to a friend's Gamertag."
"The interface itself is nice," says Mark Marling from the XBW Facebook group. "The problem on Xbox lies in how it's been implemented. There are too many layers and ads cluttering the dash, but dismissing Metro as a UI is throwing the baby out with the bath water."
The perfect 360 Dashboard? A simple homepage with nine bold panels, easily 'touchable' with Kinect or controller - we've mocked up our own version, stripping the 360's UI down to bare essentials and making everything accessible on one page. Games, video, music, friends, apps and system settings are instantly available, and online friends are visible from the minute you boot up.
The disc drive, Favourites and Bing search are accessible with a tap of up and down on the D-pad, and with a click on each of the icons you'll open up a new page with a list of your content - games, movies, tunes - and a shortcut straight to the store where Microsoft can recommend whatever content it pleases, out of sight until you actually need it.
That layout is a long way off, but when the next Xbox arrives customisation will be essential. Apple changed what a closed system should be with iOS - limited in function, sure, but organised how you choose - and Microsoft must follow that lead. The third Metro revision will arrive alongside the next Xbox and if it doesn't adapt, Valve, Sony and Apple won't be nearly so eager to anger customers.
METRO IS EVERYWHERE - BUT DOES ANYONE WANT IT?
While Metro first appeared on Windows-powered phones, its origins go back a little further than that. Microsoft's new design language was prototyped on its failed Zune MP3 player back in 2006 and was carried over to Windows Phone in 2010.
Microsoft has had plenty of time to get Metro right, but its insistence on shoehorning it in where it doesn't belong is more an act of the classic, confused Microsoft of the late 1990s than the smart guys who thought up Xbox 360 and the brilliant Windows 7.
Over in PC land, Windows 8 is a massive pain in everyone's arse. Developers dislike it because Microsoft's own app store means third-party programs require certification and users hate it because the classic Windows desktop has been dropped in favour of a touch-friendly Metro interface.
Microsoft doesn't consider tablets any different from any other PC. In fact, a tablet for the company is a 'tablet PC' - just a different form factor for the same device you have on your desk, so its new UI had to do everything for everyone on every PC platform.
Metro was its answer, combined with the new 'Edge UI' which calls up extra functions with a swipe from the tablet's edge or a click in the corner of your screen. But Microsoft claimed there would be "no compromises" for Windows 8 users, whether they're working on a tablet or a desktop PC.
Instead, there are compromises everywhere, and that's true for every place Microsoft tries to use Metro. It's clearest on Xbox, where the entire interface is optimised for Kinect, right up until the moment you want to change your system settings or manage your saves and the Xbox insists you have to pick up a controller.
Whether you're using Metro - or MDL as Microsoft insists it's named - on an Xbox, a tablet or a desktop PC, you're very clearly part of a massive beta test where system functions are struggling to keep up with the Metro UI. It's getting there gradually, but we're at least one Windows revision and a whole new Xbox away from something that works in the way Microsoft intended.