Metro No More: Windows’ New Interface Suffers Trademark Woes

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A few weeks ago, I met with a Microsoft executive and asked him a question about Metro, the streamlined user interface that both Windows 8 and Windows Phone sport, albeit in different versions. In the course of replying, he said that Microsoft was trying to veer away from calling the much-touted and generally-well-reviewed new interface by that name. I should have said, “Gee, that’s fascinating–why on earth?” But I didn’t.

Now we may know, it seems. German retailing giant Metro AG is reportedly unhappy with Microsoft’s brand. Microsoft is telling third-party developers not to use the Metro moniker anymore, and is discontinuing usage itself in favor of “Windows 8-style UI” and “New User Interface.”

As far as I know, Microsoft only began calling the new interface “Metro” in 2010, when Windows Phone 7 debuted. (Before that, it had applied the same codename to XPS, its ill-fated Adobe PDF competitor.) But Metro-like elements began showing up in Microsoft products well before 2010, including the Zune, Xbox 360 and Windows Media Center.

In fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed, there were hints of Metro as far back as Encarta 95–although I remember Encarta 95, and don’t recall it being Metro-esque.

Microsoft’s comment on the matter is a bit oblique:

We have used ‘Metro style’ as a code name during the product development cycle across many of our product lines. As we get closer to launch and transition from industry dialog to a broad consumer dialog we will use our commercial names.

I’m not sure whether that means that the company reserves the right to come up with another name or not. And as ZDnet’s Ed Bott points out on Twitter, Metro wasn’t really a code name.

There’s plenty of precedent for adjusting branding terminology, even in the absence of trademark snags: Windows XP’s default theme was once known as Luna, and nobody calls it that. But if Microsoft needs a new moniker, maybe it can rename Metro as Mosh–which was apparently another early name for Windows 8’s interface, or at least its tile-centric start screen.