At what point do we cross the line that separates insipid clones from genuine inspiration, uncomfortable hybrids from interesting experiments? Track 8, a $1.99 music player by Ender Labs, tries to imagine what listening to music on the iPad would be like using Microsoft's Metro UI experience.
Following the basic principles of Swiss graphic design, the Metro design language is focused on getting rid of "superfluous" design elements such as buttons and toolbars to turn the content -- words, pictures, videos -- into the user interface to manipulate on screen. Originally conceived on Windows Phone 7 and being updated as the foundation of the future Windows 8 OS, Metro has struck a chord with the design community thanks to its elegant approach to modern typography, dynamic layouts, and intrinsic originality compared to other mobile platforms. But does Metro make sense as an app running on iOS, the polar opposite of Microsoft's studies in terms of UI design and experience?
Ender Labs isn't afraid to say that they wanted to see how Metro would work on the iPad, without excuses. So while I'll leave the task of determining whether this is right to someone else -- I sure hope Microsoft doesn't come knocking at Ender Labs' door for any reason -- I want to to focus on Track 8 the app for iPad you'd probably interested in checking out.
Fetching music directly from the native iOS music app, Track 8 displays four tabs (home, artists, albums, playlists) on a clean canvas that emphasizes typography, solid colors, and album artworks instead of icons, buttons, and scrollbars. In pure Metro fashion, the content becomes the interface you are manipulating: tapping on an album will advance a level "into" the content of that album, and tapping again on a song will bring up the now playing view with a larger cover art, and only some basic buttons to play, pause, shuffle, and repeat. Everything is kept as minimal as possible: the volume and progress controls are two simple flat, solid bars you can slide; to go back to a previous view, you tap on a large back button in the upper left corner that "snaps back" with a nice fading animation. To move horizontally between content, you swipe.
Track 8 comes with some appearance settings to customize the look of the Metro experience on iOS. The background color can be set to light or dark, and 10 additional options are provided to set the "accent color" for selected content and UI items. The app has some wallpapers (including linen), and you can also opt to display artist backgrounds, which are pulled from Last.fm and saved in the app's local cache for when you won't have an Internet connection. To keep the app in line with Metro's elegant and uncluttered paradigm, I turned artist backgrounds off and chose a simple light wallpaper.
Track 8 works and it looks gorgeous, but it is undeniable that is an app that's not meant to be on this platform. Not just for mere aesthetics -- as an iPad app, Track 8 contradicts the very underlying principles of iOS interaction and navigation. The fact that tapping on sections at the top, for instance, gets you into a single level of interface is the antithesis of the iOS tab bar, which always allows you to switch with one tap between multiple, even nested sections. Or again, alphabetical lists: on iOS, letters are placed on the right side of a scrollable view, allowing you to quickly jump to a specific letter. With Track 8, artists and albums are grouped alphabetically, sorted horizontally in a grid, and tapping on a specific letter will display a popup grid to quickly jump to any other letter.
Track 8 doesn't want to be an iOS app by design, and whilst this can be an advantage as long as loyalty to the Metro design language goes, it is also the app's biggest shortcoming when it comes to expecting certain elements and patterns that are standards on iOS.
Track 8 won't win an Apple Design Award. It won't revolutionize the market of third-party music players for iPad, and it sure is an experiment that doesn't aim at pushing the limits of iOS forward. But that's not to say Track 8 doesn't look great and work well on the iPad: if you're a fan of Metro and would like to see that kind of experience in app that also happens to have a real functionality, Track 8 is your best option. You can get it at $1.99 on the App Store.