Preston Gralla

Windows 8, Modern, or Metro: Does it really matter what Microsoft calls its new Windows interface?

August 10, 2012 12:33 PM EDT

The interface and apps once called Metro will now likely be called either Windows 8, Modern, or possibly both. All this angst about a name may seem like a tempest in a teapot. But in fact, it's more important than you might imagine.

Microsoft recentlyl announced that it was dropping the Metro name that it has been using to describe the new tablet-focused portion of the Windows 8 interface. It didn't say exactly what name would replace it. But now several reports say that the name will be Windows 8 or Modern. Mary Jo Foley reports on her blog that it will be called Windows 8, while Tom Warren of the Verge says it will be called Modern.

Your first reaction may well be, "Who cares? No matter what it's called, it still looks and works the same.:

But words do matter, and so do actions related to words, and so changing the Metro name so close to the RTM version of Windows being released will have consequences.

Most people don't follow operating systems the way that technology writers do. They don't obsess about minutae, they don't get early peeks at preview versions, they don't get background briefings. The way they feel about a new operating system has to do with countless small things of which they might not even be aware: What's the buzz around it, what do the few screens they've seen online or on TV look like, and so on.

Because of that, any controversies that erupt before the operating system is released tend to make people feel more negatively towards it. So the name game that Microsoft is currently playing can only hurt.

In addition, marketing plans are built around names and phrases, and those marketing plans are designed well before launch. Think back to Windows 95, which first launched the Start menu (now being killed in Windows 8), and whose theme song was the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up." Countless millions were spent on ads using "Start Me Up" as its theme. The success of the operating system was likely tied at least in part to that campaign -- otherwise, why would Microsoft spend the money on it?

Which brings us to Windows 8. The term Metro has been so heavily used up until now that it's hard to imagine it will ever be expunged. Books about Windows 8 have gone to press using the term, and it's found in thousands of articles online, articles that will continue to come up in Google searches years from now.

This means that it will be that much more difficult for Microsoft to clearly market Windows 8. The company will have to spend a fair amount of time trying to scrub the Metro term from people's consciousness, making it that much more difficult to send a clear marketing message about the new operating system.

The other issue with the new name has to do with the dual nature of the operating system. Windows 8 is essentially two largely separate operating systems bolted uneasily together. The newer one had been called Metro, and the older one is called by its old name, the Desktop.

A neutral term like Metro was a good way to describe the newer portion of the operating system, because it clearly only applied to that newer portion. But what happens if Microsoft calls that newer portion and its apps Windows 8? That means that Microsoft Office and thousands of other apps won't formally be called Windows 8 apps, because they don't run in the newer portion of the operating system. That will likely confuse consumers, who might think Office and older apps simply won't run in Windows 8, not that they weren't designed for the newer portion of the operating system.

Microsoft will have similar problems if it calls the new portion of the operating system Modern. Will that imply that Windows Office and other apps that don't run in the Modern interface are outdated?

So yes, in this instance, words do matter, and could end up hurting the reception Windows 8 gets when it's released.