Slick trick: $5 tool runs Modern apps on the Windows 8 desktop

ModernMix goes where Microsoft fears to tread

A Michigan developer last week started selling a $5 utility that lets Windows 8 customers shun the new Modern UI by running apps on the classic desktop.

Stardock, best known to Windows 8 users for Start8, software that restores the Start button and menu, shipped a beta of ModernMix on March 6. As it did with Start8, Stardock priced the ModernMix beta at $5 and promised buyers the final software when it's released later this month or in early April.

Once installed, ModernMix lets Windows 8 users run Modern apps -- still labeled "Metro" by most outside Microsoft -- within a Win32 frame on the desktop, eliminating the need to switch from the familiar Windows 7-style user interface (UI) to the newer, and to many, the jarring tile-based UI of the Janus-like OS.

Because the Modern apps run inside a traditional desktop window, they can be resized, which is impossible on the Modern UI, where every app defaults to full-screen, and at best can share the display with only one other app.

Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock, cited the Modern app for Skype, Microsoft's instant messaging, video chat and Internet calling software, as an example.

"Skype in Metro is just insane," Wardell said. "It's this giant thing that takes up the entire screen. It's a pretty nice app for casual users, but it's completely useless as a full-screen app. What instant messaging app, going all the way back to ICQ, ran in full-screen?"

But when ModernMix is in place, Skype's Modern app can be resized and moved to a corner of the screen, just as can any traditional Windows application.

ModernMix adds several other features to make Modern apps behave like native Win32 programs, including support for pinning to the taskbar, cycling through them with the Alt-Tab key combination, and shutting them down by clicking on the traditional close button in the window's title bar.

The F10 key toggles between full-screen and windowed Modern apps.

Wardell declined to describe exactly how Stardock pulled off ModernMix, saying only that, "We take WinRT apps, encapsulate them as if they're Win32 apps, and run them in a Win32 frame."

WinRT is the overarching API (application programming interface) that developers call to write Modern apps; Win32 refers to traditional Windows applications, those that run not only on the Windows 8 desktop but also on Windows 7, Vista and XP.

Wardell did confirm that the utility does not run Modern apps in a virtualized environment, and that the apps have not been recompiled to run on the Win32 desktop.

Microsoft could have done the same. "I'm surprised that they didn't," Wardell said. "I'd love to see this implemented in [Windows] Blue, to be honest."

Blue is the code name for the upgrade, the first of a faster release cadence for Windows 8, that some have linked to a summer launch.

And Wardell dismissed the idea that Microsoft would modify Windows 8 to block ModernMix. "They could, with enough effort," he said. "But we tried to do this like we thought Microsoft would. If they did this, I think they'd do it the same way."

The question about Microsoft choking off ModernMix wasn't moot: Although Microsoft did not block Start8 from restoring the Start button and menu to Windows 8, it did change Windows last fall to bar another popular work-around, one that, like Start8, let users boot directly to the desktop.

Stardock began work on ModernMix before Start8, even though the latter launched in final form last September, said Wardell, because the company was sure that Microsoft wouldn't let Modern apps run on the desktop. "They won't ship [Windows 8] without the Start button," Wardell said he remembered thinking last year.

Wrong.

The two traits of Windows 8 that have raised the most complaints are the disappearance of the Start button and menu, and the jolting transition between the desktop and Modern UIs. Stardock has now created workarounds for both, which Wardell said was good for not just his company, but for Microsoft.

"I think [ModernMix] will cause more people to try Modern apps," said Wardell.

A 30-day free trial of ModernMix can be downloaded from Stardock's website; customers who buy the $4.99 beta will receive the final when it launches.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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This story, "Slick trick: $5 tool runs Modern apps on the Windows 8 desktop" was originally published by Computerworld.

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