Microsoft Metro: One Interface to Rule Them All

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Yesterday I wrote about where open-source makes sense, and where it doesn't.

Now let's peel another layer of that onion and talk about user interfaces.

Operating systems have layers. There's the code that the computer uses, written in computer languages that computers understand. And there's the code you use, the user interface.

The computer can handle complexity, but it demands specificity. It can't do abstract reasoning. Every case must be ruled on beforehand, or the computer won't know what to do. It needs to know "what" before it can do any "how."

You, on the other hand, can handle abstractions. It's what makes us human. But in exchange for that, we demand simplicity. We need to know "how" before we can figure out "what."

Microsoft ( MSFT) has been in the operating system business for 32 years, longer than I've been a tech reporter. It remains proprietary, while everyone else goes open-source, because it created the whole mountain of code under its feet.

No other companies can build that mountain, and no other companies can compete, unless they work cooperatively, through an open-source process. Only then can Linux beat Microsoft. Only then can you have competition and not monopoly.

The game has changed in the last decade. The rise of gadgets, of game machines, and the cloud has made it obvious that one set of code won't work in all instances. What lies beneath your phone must support the phone. The same with a game machine. The same with a cloud or a desktop.

Microsoft has struggled mightily with this problem, but only now has it come up with a solution. Rather than have one operating system rule them all, Microsoft wants to have one user interface.

The interface is called Metro, and while it's best known for having big chunky buttons, it's nothing like Apple's ( AAPL) iOS, and it's ring-fenced with patents so Microsoft can protect it in court.

Contrast that with Google's ( GOOG) Android, which uses Linux on the operating-system level but which has a user interface similar to Apple's.

It's a shame that computers and how they work have to be designed with an eye to the courts, but legal safety is a feature in modern computing, and Microsoft Metro -- in spite of, or perhaps because of, that chunky interface -- has it.

As many experts note, Metro is a touch interface. Those big buttons make sense if you're trying to hit one with your stubby fingers. With a mouse-and-keyboard, not so much. So the biggest business risk Microsoft has taken with Metro is to make it the default interface for Windows 8, which as a result will look nothing like previous versions of the operating system: Kiss your desktop wallpaper goodbye!

But if desktop users embrace Metro, think of what Microsoft will have. One interface that works on game machines, tablets, phones, PCs and even TVs. One way of doing things, so if you have a Microsoft anything you can work a Microsoft everything.

If Metro is embraced, Microsoft can then gain share in every other area of consumer electronics. Skype becomes your interface with the phone network. Internet Explorer becomes your default Web browser, because you don't have to learn how to use it -- you already know Metro.

Microsoft even has a ready user interface for home automation: wireless chips that run your alarms and lights, home entertainment scheduling and heart monitor, and that even help you find your keys.

That's the idea anyway. Microsoft won't win the whole market this way, but those people who embrace Metro may well embrace it in all its forms, becoming Microsoft people in an even deeper way than others are Apple fanboys.

For investors, the fun has just begun. Microsoft is betting the farm on Metro. Microsoft is a speculative stock again.

At the time of publication, Blankenhorn held shares of Microsoft.
Dana Blankenhorn holds no positions in any of the securities mentioned in this article.