March 27, 2013, 10:50 AM — Brace yourselves, faithful PC enthusiasts. You aren't going to like what I'm about to say. Heck, I don't really like what I'm about to say. In fact, I'm almost terrified to lay out my case in black and white. But that doesn't change the fact that it needs to be said.
There's a very good chance that Microsoft will kill the desktop in Windows 9. No more Task Manager. No more File Explorer. No more legacy compatibility. It'll be 100% Live Tiles, 100% of the time.
That day is still on the distant horizon, but it is coming. Indeed, if Windows Blue, the just-leaked update to Windows 8, shows us anything, it's that Microsoft is willing to de-emphasize desktop functionality in deference to the modern UI.
A finger-friendly Windows
By now, everyone knows that Windows 8 (and its dumbed-down cousin, Windows RT) is Microsoft's answer to the massive success of smartphones and tablets. A touch-friendly interface! An app store! Bing Maps! Even an airplane mode! How mobile.
The very introduction of the modern-style Start screen was a bad omen for desktop diehards, but the clouds truly darken when you consider how much of Windows core functionality is already being leeched away from the traditional desktop interface.
Windows Media Player aside, not a single vital first-party Windows program resides on the desktop. (And even Windows Media Player has been somewhat superseded by the Music and Video apps.) Calendar, Internet Explorer, Mail, Messaging, People, and even the system's PDF reader all reside on the modern Start screen, where they're joined by auxiliary apps such as Finance, News, Travel, Weather, and the aforementioned Music, and Video. Windows 8 was designed so that you never actually need to drop into desktop mode unless you want to run a specific legacy program or fiddle with the deeper settings available in the Control Panel.
But even this level of desktop engagement looks to be on the chopping block. While Windows 8 requires a desktop deep-dive to perform basic functions like changing the system time or fiddling with display resolutions, the long-rumored Windows Blue update overhauls the OS's modern-style PC Settings, transplanting many traditional Control Panel functions to the touch-friendly UI.
And let's not forget how the beloved Start button was given the boot in Windows 8, only to be replaced by the largely identical (and kind of better) modernized All Apps screen. Nor should we forget how it's impossible to boot directly to the desktop in Windows 8 without resorting to third-party apps or technical trickery.
Can't you read the writing on the wall?
Microsoft isn't being fickle. The company has a lot to gain by shifting to a purely modern-style Windows.
First and foremost, PC sales have stalled or outright declined in shipments over the past two years, moving roughly 350 million units in 2012. That's hardly chump change, but smartphones already outsell PCs--nearly 208 million moved in the fourth quarter of 2012 alone--and IDC (whose parent company also owns PCWorld) expects tablet sales to grow to 350 million by 2017.
The Windows 8 modern interface shines on mobile devices--until you're unceremoniously dropped into the legacy desktop for one reason or another. Ditching the desktop would make Windows much more palatable for those exploding market segments, and it would let the company focus its resources on a single, unified interface.
Plus, there would be no easier way to quell complaints about Windows 8's schizophrenic interfaces than to ditch one of them. Do you know how much Microsoft has invested in the modern UI? Indeed. In a one-interface universe, the desktop becomes odd man out.
Finally, if Microsoft dumps the desktop, all or most Windows software will be distributed via the Windows Store (as open platform stalwarts like Minecraft's Markus Persson have ominously noted). Not only would that allow the company to maintain a tighter rein on security--to wit: poisoned apps are incredibly rare in the iOS App Store--but it would also give Microsoft a 30% cut of all Windows software. Closed platforms have their business advantages.
Paving the road
Of course, even Redmond can't just quit an institutional bedrock like the Windows desktop cold turkey.
That's where the genius of Windows Blue and its rumored yearly Windows updates come in. Sure, yearly releases allow Microsoft to iterate and introduce new features quickly, but they also allow the company to wean you off the desktop just a bit more, year in and year out, until the death of the desktop becomes relatively painless. Losing the desktop would be like losing that third cousin twice removed whom you saw at family reunions once per decade.
And, in fact, the desktop death spiral has already begun.
Windows Blue and a new round of Windows app updates further Microsoft's great transition away from the desktop. Microsoft is migrating even more essential Windows functions to the modern UI , as well as implementing enhancements--such as a new split-screen Snap feature, which cuts back on multitasking woes; improved touch support for Mail; and the ability to sync documents with the modern SkyDrive app--to nudge desktop devotees over to the Tiled side.
The creeping irrelevance of the Control Panel is just the beginning. Ars Technica found hints a new modern-style FileManager app lying dormant and inaccessible in the Windows Blue leak.
Spit-polishing Windows isn't the only thing Microsoft needs to do prior to killing off the desktop, however. Since the modern UI revolves around Live Tiles, which revolve around Windows 8 apps, the Windows Store needs to step up its game before the modern UI can truly conquer Windows. While the Windows Store has several standouts (including, finally, a Twitter app), it still lags behind Android and iOS in both quality and quantity, and the growth rate for the Windows Store has slowed precipitously in recent months.
Microsoft is tackling the issue head-on with a new developer incentive program of questionable design, but beyond that, developers are sure to come as more and more people migrate to Windows 8. Even if PC sales have stalled, 350 million PC sales per year is nothing to sneeze at, and virtually all of those shiny new boxes will come with Windows 8 preloaded.
And as people upgrade to Windows 8, they'll encounter the aforementioned series of updates--doled out by the Windows Store, naturally--that increase the utility of the modern Start screen while decreasing the need for a dedicated desktop. You, geek that you are, may cling to your precious desktop programs, but does Average Joe really care if he double-clicks an icon or taps a Live Tile--especially if crucial system functions and the Mail app have already taught him the modern-style way? I'd wager not.
And as all those people spend an increasing amount of time in modern-style Windows 8 apps, developers will likely respond by making even more Windows 8 apps. (They can't miss the gravy train!) The Windows 8 app ranks will swell over time, and it doesn't have to happen quickly. Microsoft always plays the long game.
The pieces all tie together--and they foretell the death of the desktop in Windows 9, whenever Windows 9 appears.
Of cockroaches and catalysts
Don't cry for the desktop. (Did you cry when graphical interfaces devastated the command line?) Its demise will herald a new era, an era of ubiquitous computing and touchscreen everything. Haven't you seen Minority Report?
Besides, the desktop won't truly die with Windows 9. Like a cockroach, it will live on in dark corners, in the form of specialized editions or premium tools designed to let enterprise users run the XP-era programs their businesses still rely upon. And when Microsoft finally gets around to pulling the plug, you can rest assured that the companies that haven't released a Windows 8 app will do so in short order. A modern UI-driven Windows will be different, but it won't be devastating.
Nor will it be tomorrow. Enjoy your time with your cherished legacy apps while you can, dear enthusiast. All the tears in the world won't change the fact that we're staring at a dead desktop walking.