The Verge’s Tom Warren thinks that it’s time for Microsoft to drop the most famous brand name it’s ever created: Windows. At least that’s what the headline to his story says. He’s actually in favor of the company doing away with the Windows name for its mobile products — Windows Phone, presumably, and maybe Windows RT — and is okay with it being done gradually rather than in one immediate big bang.
What’s wrong with the Windows moniker? Warren says that it carries too many longstanding associations with security hassles and other unappealing aspects of computing’s PC-centric past, rendering it a poor fit for the more mobile, post-PC era ahead.
His story is good fodder for thought. But it didn’t convince me that Microsoft should be forming a strategy for retiring the Windows brand. For better or worse, it remains synonymous with “Microsoft operating system.” And there are hardly any examples, in the tech world or anywhere else, of a company boosting a product’s fortunes by changing its name.
There was one moment when it might have made sense for Microsoft to move away from Windows branding: When it replaced Windows Mobile 6.5 with the product it decided to call Windows Phone 7. The new software was still based on Windows CE’s plumbing. But unlike Windows Mobile, it retained no elements of the classic Windows look and feel; it had a radically new interface Microsoft called Metro.
If Microsoft had simply called the new mobile operating system Metro, it might have been applauded for making a bold break with the past.
But then it turned out that Microsoft liked Metro so much that it reworked full-blown desktop Windows to incorporate it. The result was Windows 8. And the company also used Metro for an operating system for ARM processors which was essentially Windows 8 without the ability to run old-style Windows applications. That version it called Windows RT. With three operating systems sporting Metro — Windows Phone, Windows 8 and Windows RT — it wouldn’t have clarified matters if some of them were called Windows and others weren’t.
And then something bizarre happened. A German electronics retailer called Metro apparently took issue with Microsoft using the Metro name. Microsoft reacted by dropping the terminology — but it didn’t quite replace it, either. It’s referred to the look formerly known as Metro as “the Modern UI,” the “Windows 8-style interface” and the “Microsoft design language.” None of these names have caught on.
The resulting situation isn’t a model of branding clarity. Unless you’re paying close attention, you might not understand or remember the distinction between Windows 8 and Windows RT. You might also be fuzzy on the distinction between Windows RT (an operating system) and Surface (a particular line of tablets, from Microsoft itself, which runs Windows RT). And it’s not clear what you should be calling the new Windows interface, which is one reason why many of us continue to refer to it as “Metro.”
But here’s the thing: Moving away from the Windows name, either swiftly or slowly, won’t fix any of these issues. Windows Phone has had the Windows name for three generations now; calling it something else would just muddle matters. (It would also ensure that every mention of the product for years to come would include a note that it was formerly known as Windows Phone, which would eliminate any theoretical benefit of a fresh new brand.)
Windows RT, meanwhile, has too much in common with Windows 8 to have an unrelated name. And Windows 8? Well, it is Windows.
Warren is right: The Windows brand carries certain associations, not all of which are positive. Microsoft knows that. The days in which it slapped the name on anything and everything — like all those Windows Live services, most of which had little or nothing to do with Windows — are long over.
But renaming operating systems which are currently called Windows — or their successors or offshoots — won’t lead anyone to think about them differently. It would just reek of a crisis of confidence. One that wouldn’t help — and might hurt — the software’s prospects.