As Windows 8 Nears Public Debut, Microsoft Ditches “Metro” Brand (P.S. It Doesn’t Matter)

Microsoft is abandoning its “Metro” branding – the branding that refers to the clean, modern, tiled layout that defines many of its consumer-facing products including Windows 8, Windows Phone, Xbox 360, Office 2013 and more. For over a year, Microsoft has talked about “Metro” in press conferences, blog posts, tutorials, and guides. The reason for the change has to do with a dispute between Microsoft and a European partner, German retailer Metro AG, who has threatened legal action for infringing on its “Metro” trademark.

Oops. Microsoft, of course, is positioning this news as no big deal, saying that “Metro” was always intended to be an internally used code name, not something related to the company’s commercial branding efforts. (Right. Which is why Microsoft is transitioning to new branding without, you know, actually having a new name picked out yet.) But Microsoft may be right on one thing: it’s not really a big deal. Remember what happened with the iPad?

Look, Microsoft doesn’t exactly have a good track record with naming its products and related features, whose labels seemed picked out by a committee of lawyers, not actual people. It even had seven different names for seven different versions of Windows 7. Talk about product confusion. And certainly, many of the names Microsoft picks for these kinds of things seem like they were thought up by people who know nothing about branding. (Does anyone know the difference between Windows 7 Home Premium and Ultimate and Pro? What about Basic and Starter?)

That Microsoft actually came up with something as catchy as “Metro” almost seemed like an accident. And, as it turns out, it seems it was. But consumer branding, while important, is not all that matters here as Microsoft prepares to launch Windows 8 and its Surface computer.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we? When Apple revealed the name for its new tablet computer was going to be called the iPad, there was some notable backlash. You see, the “iPad” seemed to recall an association with some…um….feminine hygiene products. I am not making this up.

It may seem laughable today, but back in January 2010, even The New York Times was reporting on the surrounding brouhaha on its Bits blog:

When Apple announced the name of its tablet computer today — the iPad — my mind immediately went to the feminine hygiene aisle of the drugstore. It turns out I wasn’t alone.

The term “iTampon” quickly became a trending topic on Twitter because of Tweets like this one: “Heavy flow? There’s an app for that!” A CNBC anchor, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, said the iPad was a “terrible name” for the tablet. “It reminds me of feminine products,” she said.

No one was cutting Apple any slack. MSNBC called it a joke. And MAD TV did a hilarious skit which actually involved the iPad as a feminine hygiene product. Granted, the iPad’s branding only initially alienated around half its potential market. Men, not surprisingly, didn’t tend to make an immediate connection. But thanks to the blogged and reblogged faux outrage, they soon got in on the joke, too.

Really, negative reaction to branding couldn’t get much worse than this, right?  But what did the iPad go on to do? Only become the best-selling tablet computer of all time. That’s right. Apple could have called this thing anything it wanted, and it would probably still be seeing record-breaking sales.

So Microsoft will soon put Metro-gate behind them, and maybe with something as uninspired as “Windows 8-style UI.” It doesn’t matter. What matters in the end is that the company focuses on building a great product people actually want to buy. Build something amazing. Ship it. It’s that simple. It’s just not that easy to do.