Windows Aero: Why I’m Glad It’s Dead

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The Windows 8 Desktop's Metrofied Look

Windows 8 may be edging ever-closer to completion, but Microsoft is apparently still noodling around with it. The latest evidence: Last Friday’s blog post by Windows design honcho Jensen Harris.

He says that the company has decided to eliminate Aero, the default visual theme in Windows Vista and Windows 7. In Windows 8, even the desktop — the home for all classic Windows apps which don’t use the radically-new Metro interface — will have a Metro-like look that abandons transparency and gradients and curvy shapes for a simple, squared-off presentation.

Harris’s post is 11,000 words long, and revisits every major version of the Windows interface, starting with 1985’s Windows 1.0. If you’re interested in Microsoft’s thinking about Windows 8, it makes for fascinating reading, but it sports only one not-particularly-high-resolution image of the Windows desktop’s new look. So it’s early to conclude that the revised desktop interface is either a masterpiece or a travesty.

Still, this I already know: I’m glad Microsoft is dumping Aero.

When the company released Windows Vista to consumers in January of 2007, Aero was supposed to be the new operating system’s signature feature — the “wow” in Vista’s initial slogan, “The wow starts now.” Instead, it had a pernicious effect on Windows. It was bad for Microsoft customers and bad for Microsoft, and removing it from Windows 8 feels like an exorcism as much as a design refresh.

Here’s why:

Aero gave the first users of Windows Vista a lousy impression of the new operating system. Before Vista was released, Microsoft encouraged PC makers to promote computers as being “Windows Vista Capable” — even though they weren’t able to reliably run the Aero interface that was the new software’s single biggest feature. The decision was a recipe for disappointment, and it eventually led to a class-action lawsuit.

Even given what it did, it was apparently piggy. Aero was presumably at least in part a response to the super-slick interface filigree in Apple‘s OS X, which worked okay even on pretty underpowered Macs. I get that it’s easier for Apple to implement something like this, since that company only needs to make the effects work on a small number of computer models, all of which it designed itself. But I still don’t understand why Aero consumed resources as voraciously as it did. Microsoft had to build in a feature which shut the special effects off if they were bringing a PC to its knees — which, on the reasonably powerful desktop which I bought in 2007, they often did.

It did the opposite of what it was supposed to do. “Aero,” says Harris in the new blog post, “was designed to help people focus less on the window chrome itself, and more on the content within the window. It draws the eye away from the title bar and window frames, and towards what is valuable and what an app is about.” The goal sounds reasonable, but Aero didn’t accomplish it. Instead, it shouted look at me! When Vista was new, Microsoft didn’t deny that: In the press release hailing Vista’s release, Steve Ballmer was quoted as saying, “The visual effects are spectacular.” That’s an odd comment to make about a feature which was allegedly designed to be so subtle that people would ignore it.

It distracted Microsoft from fixing real Windows problems. It’s not like Windows XP was perfect except for its tragic lack of transparent window frames. It had a gazillion issues which Vista did nothing to address, such as the System Tray cheerfully allowing third-party programs to install unwanted crudware — stuff that bogged down your PC, got in your faceĀ  and was sometimes devilishly hard to uninstall. But Microsoft ignored such long-standing flaws in favor of playing up Aero’s empty calories.

It was ugly. Microsoft’s Harris says that Aero looks “dated and cheesy now.” He’s right. But it didn’t look all that great even in 2007. Unlike OS X and Windows 8, Vista was an operating system without an overarching aesthetic.

Eventually, Aero became…well, maybe not a major point in Windows’ favor, but no longer a crippling downside. More potent PCs and updated graphics drivers helped. And the version in 2009’s Windows 7 looked better, performed better and was accompanied by other improvements with more substance, such as the ability to banish pesky System Tray icons.

For some people — such as Windows guru Paul Thurrott — the removal of Aero and the Metro-ization of the Windows desktop are depressing. My take on Windows 8 in general remains unchanged: It’s such a bold departure from every version of Windows before it that it’s going to be several years until it’s clear to anyone — Microsoft included — whether all the change was worth it. But Microsoft, which is famous for trying to make everybody happy and therefore making nobody entirely happy, keeps making actual decisions with Windows 8. It’s decided that Aero, as familiar as it’s become, is an anachronism whose time is over

I’m happy to see it err on the side of making Windows 8 the best Windows 8 it can be, rather than clinging to a vestige of the mistake that was Windows Vista. How about you?