The Microsoft technology blogosphere has been buzzing lately due to last weeks leak of the next big Windows 8 update code named “Blue.” Pundits from ars technica to the Supersite for Windows by Paul Thurrott have been burning the midnight oil trying to predict what the future of Windows might be, based on the new features they see in the leaked code.
Their collective conclusion: The Modern UI (originally called the Metro interface) is the wave of the future. Of course, this isn’t really news as most tech writers said that Microsoft’s big gamble with Windows 8 was that people would use the new UI on all of their devices, from Windows Phone, to the new Surface tablets to traditional Desktop and laptop computers.
The bet, most of the writers are saying, is that the traditional desktop interface, initially called the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointer), will disappear and be replaced by a simpler interface that provides the user with a one App at a time view of their world. At least, that’s what Microsoft wants us to believe.
And Windows Blue seems to be evidence that the company is still on course to do just that. More features are being moved from the Desktop to the Modern UI. More of the apps that Microsoft builds will be built on top of Modern UI.
In fact, some are predicting that Microsoft will phase out the Desktop as early as 2015, when Windows 9 is set to ship. While some say that is probably too soon, most agree that Microsoft wants to see the Desktop becoming less and less conspicuous with the average user spending all of their time using Apps within the Modern UI.
For Microsoft this is a big deal because the more people spend time in the Modern UI on the traditional personal and laptop computers, the more they will be inclined to want the same interface on their mobile devices. Windows Phone and the Windows RT/8 tablets, which have failed to capture any significant market share, might both benefit from users who will come to expect their OS to behave in a certain way. Microsoft currently dominates the PC marketplace with over 90% of the market share. If they can convince a sufficient number of those people to at least try the new mobile devices it would severely threaten Apple and Google’s current strangle-hold on the mobile market. A market which is growing faster than any other tech market and will for the foreseeable future.
But is that the best thing all around? Are consumers, and the very important business users ready to switch to a Tablet style operating system UI on their workstations? In many places, the single app at a time approach can help the user to focus on what they are doing. If you are writing a document, for instance, using a full screen text editor can be a great way to eliminate some of the distractions that adversely affect productivity.
But if that is always the case, then why do companies pay out millions of dollars each year for larger displays? And why do many of them provide multiple monitors for each worker? We already know several productivity studies have shown that some knowledge workers perform better with multiple monitors. Even Microsoft’s own research has made this point. Anecdotally I can confirm my own experience as a developer that having documentation, source code and other reference material available across my desktop cuts down on context switching and the time to perform even simple tasks can be greatly increased.
So what are we to think of this apparent contradictory information? Is Microsoft giving up too much by forcing people into their vision of the brave new computing world paradigm?
It’s not clear yet how far Microsoft really intends to go with eliminating the Desktop. What we do know is that many of their early testers for Windows 8 strongly suggested they keep the desktop with its highly controversial Start menu button. Despite numerous suggestions and protestations, Microsoft remained intransigent and stubbornly stuck to the plan. They even appeared ready to make third party replacements for the old UI impossible.
What if they do pull the trigger and remove the desktop all together? Leaving knowledge workers and other power users with no alternative in any version of the operating system formerly called “Windows?”
It could be an opportunity for some of their competitors. Linux, for instance, is unlikely to ever give up the windows interface. And even though Apple has shown signs of merging the Macintosh OS X system with the iOS design, it is unlikely they would drop the desktop metaphor entirely.
Microsoft may very well drag users into their Modern UI future. Or they could push many of them to explore alternatives that, until recently, might not have seemed attractive to most.