Windows 'Blue' shows desktop's days are numbered

Microsoft's sticking to strategy, says analysts

Microsoft won't back away from a radical overall of Windows, and is determined to kill the decades-old, decades-rich desktop, analysts agreed today.

The experts were reacting to a leak of a preliminary build of Windows "Blue," the code name for the anticipated summer upgrade to the five-month-old Windows 8. That build, which has hit file-sharing websites, includes numerous cosmetic fixes and feature improvements, all in the "Modern" user interface, or UI, the tile-based, touch-first half of Windows 8 formerly called "Metro."

By all accounts, Blue will not include any modifications to the "Classic" UI, the one that resembles Windows 7, unless Microsoft drops them into a later build.

The Modern-only changes will disappoint those who have clamored for a more Windows 7-esque desktop UI, hoped that an upgrade would restore the Start button and menu, and let users boot directly to the desktop without having to go through the Modern-style Start screen -- in other words, make Windows 8 less like Windows 8 and more like Windows 7, Part 2.

Analysts read the current composition of Blue to mean Microsoft isn't caving to that criticism, and is continuing with its strategy to emphasize the Modern UI and deemphasize the desktop.

Not that there was ever any doubt of Microsoft's commitment.

"Microsoft is serious about the Modern UI," said Patrick Moorhead, principal of Moor Insights & Strategy, of the Modern-only changes. "They're sending a signal that [Modern] is the future for Windows."

By sticking to the program, Microsoft is following through on comments it's made previously, that it's in Windows 8 -- meaning the OS's assumption that touch is critical -- for the long haul, a line it's taken since the launch of Windows 8. The latest version of Windows has not sparked PC sales as some hoped, and, based on usage patterns, has had a slower uptake than the flop that was Windows Vista.

Blue's spotlight on Modern -- and its scorning of the desktop -- also illustrates Microsoft's long-range goal, to, at some point, abandon the Windows desktop for the touch-and-tile app model.

Microsoft's said nothing of such a plan -- not surprising -- but the analysts saw portents in the changes that will boost the functionality of the Control Panel in Modern, which will be able to handle chores previously only doable in the desktop UI. Users will, it appears, be able to do more in Modern than they can currently, an obvious attempt to keep them there and wean them from the desktop.

"Microsoft is ultimately going to move away from the desktop," asserted Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research. "They want to move away from that programming model."

"Remember, it's not just about the desktop, it's getting people and developers to embrace the WinRT API [application programming interface] set to make the new stuff successful," added Michael Silver of Gartner, in an email.

In fact, last summer Silver said that minimizing the Windows desktop was a key goal of Windows 8. "Gartner expects that the Windows desktop and legacy Windows applications will decline in importance in future Windows client releases," he wrote in June 2012. "Metro is a new programming model that will lock organizations into the next generation of Windows."

The decline of Windows applications isn't new: In 2010 Gartner published research that showed the percentage of Windows applications in organizations had been declining for years. "Today, we believe 45% of a typical organization's portfolio is made up of Windows applications," Silver said today. "By 2020 it will likely be about half that. And Microsoft reducing the importance of the desktop could speed that up."

So if the desktop is destined for the dustbin, when will that happen?

Some saw it as a very-long-term project, akin to the decade that it took for Microsoft to move users from the character-based DOS to the graphical, point-and-click Windows desktop.

"It will take a long time, probably around 10 years or so," said Silver. "They certainly can't discard the desktop until there are Windows Store App versions of Office, and it will take a long time before those versions of the Office products have all the features of the desktop versions."

Moorhead, however, bet that it wouldn't take that long.

"Just as it took 10 years for DOS to get out of everyone's system, only when 'Modern' is completely ready will the desktop disappear. It will take five, six or seven years, to bring all the important desktop apps into the Modern UI," predicted Moorhead.

The parallels between today and 1985, when Microsoft debuted Windows even as the world still ran on DOS, are striking, Moorhead said. "Remember how stunning it was to move from a DOS box to Windows? This is very, very similar," he said. "Most of the people in corporations then were running DOS apps using only the keyboard, but not the keyboard and the mouse."

The discontent today over touch and Windows 8 -- users complaining of the new OS's unfriendly attitude toward keyboard-plus-mouse -- is just history on repeat.

But some experts were on the side of the Windows 8 resistance, including Michael Cherry of Directions on Microsoft.

"Everything I see about this [Blue build] will be nice to have," Cherry said. "The split screen giving equal amounts to multiple apps, for example. But what am I going to run in those windows? Windows 7 apps? No. The biggest problem with Windows 8 is that most of us are using it in Windows 7 mode. So long term, I don't care about Metro because the reality is that the first tile I hit is the Desktop tile."

Even so, Cherry seemed to accept, like the other analysts, that Modern or Metro was inevitable, and that the desktop as the world knows it, is doomed.

But he isn't going to like it. And neither, he said, would enterprises.

"Unless they figure out a way to run Windows 7 apps in a Metro container, or something like that, I will have to replace all of the apps that I now use," Cherry continued, talking not just about himself but also about all Windows users.

"Enterprises and organizations are right in the middle of Windows 7 deployment, so they're still looking for value in Windows 8," said Cherry. "Where does it increase productivity? They're still looking for those places where Windows 8 has value. This isn't Field of Dreams, where if you build it, they will come. There has to be a compelling reason [to adopt Windows 8]."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Windows 'Blue' shows desktop's days are numbered" was originally published by Computerworld.

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