On Friday Microsoft abruptly rebranded its Windows 8 interface, which has been known as “Metro” since it was introduced for Windows Phone 7. Instead of the simple “Metro,” the tile-based interface will now — and according to online reports, forever — be known as “Windows 8 style UI.”
At the root of this change is a potential trademark dispute with Metro AG, a major German retailer. But though the “Metro” moniker may seem to be a metro-sized headache for Microsoft, the software giant claims it was just a code name all along.
“It isn’t really a big issue,” said Scott Steinberg, principal analyst for TechSavvy Global. “Whether it was a code name is irrelevant at this point.”
Microsoft did not respond to our request for further details.
Code Name: Confusing
The tech world often utilizes code names. Some of them become so public that they remain in use after the product is launched; however sometimes only those close to a project ever hear its code name uttered. While “Metro” rolls off the tongue a little easier than “Windows 8 style UI,” this type change is commonplace.
“‘Metro’ is the code name for the user interface in Windows 8. ‘Aero’ was — and remains — the code name for the prior interface,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group.
“Code names aren’t product names; typically, though, Apple actually brands their different versions of their OS with the code name,” he said.
“With code names, because the intent isn’t to formally brand the product, the names aren’t fully vetted,” added Enderle. “People actually rarely have an issue with code names, but if they do, it is easy to change the name. The product is Windows 8.”
Additionally, as the operating system is Windows 8, the “Metro” moniker could actually be seen as causing confusion — it refers only to the interface. In the end, what matters is consumers’ reaction to the actual product — not the code name.
“Industry insiders need code names, but end users just need to know what the product does and what the companies are talking about,” Steinberg told the E-Commerce Times. “The name isn’t as important as what Microsoft offers in the overall Windows 8 experience.”
The other part of the equation is whether Microsoft could have — if it wanted to — actually kept the name? With such deep pockets, not to mention that “metro” is a fairly generic word, could the German retail chain really win a trademark dispute?
“People outside the tech world are realizing how big this opportunity is, and the dollars associated with something like this brings out the litigious nature in people,” said Chris Silvia, industry analyst for the Altimeter Group. “This could be a way to cash in.”
But would Microsoft even need to pay? Or did the company miss a step by not doing its due diligence when using “Metro” even as a code name?
“Surely Microsoft should have and very likely did do preliminary research to determine whether the rights to ‘Metro’ were clear,” said Mark P. McKenna, professor of law at Notre Dame Law School.
“It’s possible that they really were using ‘Metro’ as in internal code name, and that they didn’t intend on releasing the product under that name,” he said.
“It’s probably more likely that they underestimated Metro AG’s concerns — possibly because they thought that the use of the Microsoft brand along with the ‘Metro’ name would be enough to differentiate them,” reasoned McKenna.
In all likelihood, this wasn’t a battle Microsoft ever intended to join.
“Once a product is released to marketing, it is not unusual to retire the code name. Windows has been released to marketing so they no longer really need to use the name,” said Enderle.
“Rather than spending money for a silly legal fight, they just retired the name,” he said. “I’ll bet Metro AG’s legal department figured this would be an easy way to extort money out of Microsoft. Turns out it wasn’t.”
What’s in a Name?
While Microsoft sells software and Metro AG is a retailer, that alone might not be enough of a distinction when trademark is considered.
“Trademark rights are not strictly limited to the actual goods or services with which one uses the mark,” McKenna told the E-Commerce Times.
“So it’s not critical whether Metro AG makes computer hardware or software. If it can demonstrate that the services it does provide are sufficiently similar to Microsoft’s that consumers might be confused about the source of the new Microsoft goods, or about some sponsorship or affiliation relationship between the two parties, that would be enough,” he explained.
“So imagine if Metro sells electronics and software products in its stores — as I think some of its stores do, particularly in Germany,” McKenna added. “Then one could imagine a concern.”