Tech journalists are talking about what Windows Blue will mean for the future of Windows. Actually, no matter what anyone suggests, only Microsoft really knows what it has planned for future versions of Windows. What really is important though is how changes in Windows will affect software developers, plus businesses, and why considering this may be far more important in the long run.
Windows means more than browsing the web, watching videos and visiting facebook.
In recent years we have seen the over consumerization of computers, in particular the shift from desktop PCs to tablets and other portable devices. Everything seems to be all about mobile today. But is mobile and touch the future of computers ?
What we are seeing is not the shift from desktop computers to mobile, but a significant split between business and consumers. When I started programming in the late 80′s and early 90′s, computers were business tools, not consumer products. A computer with a 20 meg harddrive, RGB monitor and 640 KB of memory could cost you $2,000 to $3,000. A computer was a business investment and productivity was vital to make it worth the investment. In time the prices of computers dropped significantly, so much so that consumers (average people) began to buy computers. The strange thing about this though was the consumers didn’t know what to do with their computers, they looked for software which provided some kind of entertainment value. Consumers played games. They listened to music. With the coming of the internet, they browsed the web, did their shopping online, emailed friends and family. A powerful tool had become a toy, an entertainment device. Many of these same consumers who were watching videos online, buying stuff at Amazon, didn’t have the slightest idea of key functionality built into their computer. Many didn’t know how to create folders, copy files, delete files, etc. Many consumers never realized that they needed to purchase a new subscription to the antivirus software which came with their computer, after 90 days. It became obvious that consumers were using a tool which they barely knew anything about. Having been a computer consultant and programmer for a number of years, time after time I found myself again and again suggesting to consumers I dealt with that maybe they should buy a book about Windows and learn a little more about it and what it can do.
I had come to the conclusion that the average person (consumer) was being sold more than they really needed. Then along came MP3 players, smart phones and tablets. Consumers didn’t need a keyboard, they simply touched the device. They didn’t have to learn all the complexities of a full blown computer. They finally were purchasing what they wanted all along. Something which did a specific task and that is it. So now we see computer sales slowing down significantly. Manufacturers should have seen this coming. The computer market has made the shift that all should have expected. But there is a problem here. Windows means more than browsing the web, watching videos and visiting facebook. Windows is part of another key market and that is the business computer market, not just consumer devices. Computers started out as tools, not toys. They still are tools and very important ones. So where does Windows 8 come in ?
Windows 8 is not the end of the desktop but it bridges the gap between consumer devices and business tools.
The Metro (or Modern UI or Windows Store) side of Windows 8 is all about two things. Consumerization of electronic devices and touch. These two aspects are not necessarily the same thing. Touch has a big value in consumerization, but it can also be a useful tool in the right situation. Touch though is more meaningful for consumer devices because that is what consumers want and need. Touch is useful for business, but it is not the end all. It has a place, but is also has its limits and why many don’t see this is confusing. Businesses can’t make their decisions about tools by watching fancy TV commercials with everybody dancing around and touching their computer screens. Businesses can ill afford to waste their money on mobile devices if they don’t have a real purpose to their business. A tablet PC is only valuable if it really increases productivity for a business. There are some cases where it will and there are many cases where it simply won’t. Just putting a tablet PC in an employees hand won’t automatically improve a business. Put a tablet PC into the right employees hand and with the right software and for the right reason and then it may make a difference. Computers cost money and like any business tool they must be used in the right way and the right situation, otherwise they are a waste of money.
Having written software for a variety of businesses from local mom and pop stores to manufacturing environments, I can appreciate how important computers are, but only when they are used effectively. Journalists like to talk about software like Office suites and how once Microsoft Office is ported to Metro, the desktop is no longer needed. The real question is though, how much do they really know about how computers are really being used today in business ? Many people may not appreciate that a significant portion of business software is custom designed for a specific task or for a specific vertical market. Large corporations likely spend millions, if not billions of dollars in development costs of custom software specific to their business alone. Every time there is a change in how an operating system works and rewrites of their software become necessary, huge sums of money have to be spent just to keep up. The less a company has to redo things which currently work fine, the more money they save (and that is important today). Why do you think so many companies are still using Windows XP ? The old adage “if it is not broke, don’t fix it” means saving money in the long run.
So, as far as the consumer side of things, maybe Windows could do away with the desktop. But as far as businesses are concerned, to do away with the desktop could mean the loss of millions, if not billions of dollars. But wouldn’t Microsoft recognize this ? I can’t speak for them, but I would have to venture a guess that they do. So how does one create a totally new operating system which solves the needs of the consumer, while satisfying the needs of businesses ? The answer, merge a new operating system into the existing one and have the best of both worlds. That is what Windows 8 does.
If the desktop were not important, it would have been broken already in Windows 8.
If the desktop had no value, I would venture to say that Microsoft would already have broken a lot of it already in Windows 8. Guess what ? They didn’t. Actually they did a really good job in making sure they didn’t break it. One of the first things I had to do when I first got my hands on the build version of Windows 8 was to test it to see how well it supported the core WIN32 API’s which have been around since Windows 95/98. I was expecting a lot of things to possibly be broken, since Windows 8 was so different, but amazingly it all worked and very well. Now I was not testing just some simple user interface stuff which one would expect to work. I was testing quite a lot of lower level stuff. I was testing things like the Windows DIB engine, OpenGL, subclassing, superclassing, ownerdraw, customdraw, GDI drawing, MDI, MCI, complex window regions, custom window classes, drag and drop and more. I wanted to know right at the start, was Windows 8 going to break a lot of my code ? But it didn’t. I had only one little problem and even that was fixed in a later preview version of Windows 8.
Now if Microsoft has taken the same care with things like dot.net as it has with the core WIN32 API’s, then developers should feel confident that the desktop is well and alive in Windows 8. So why all this effort to maintain what some may refer to as legacy technology ? Because it is important, no vital, to businesses. I can understand Microsofts need to promote the new UI stuff in Windows 8. It is important to the consumerization of computers and to mobile. But the desktop surely is not dead yet and hopefully it will be with us for a good time longer.
Touch and the Modern UI don’t fit all business needs.
Another reason the desktop needs to stick around for some time is that touch is not the solution to everything. Touch is great in the right situations. It may even be preferred by consumers. But touch is not going to replace the mouse anytime soon. Productivity is vital in business and remember, for a business, a computer is a tool. No touch screen can replace a real keyboard for fast character input. This is so obvious I can not see how anyone could even suggest otherwise. As a programmer the speed of typing is so critical to me that I still use a 20 year old IBM keyboard because few modern keyboards come even close to the quality of my old IBM keyboard. IBM learned how to make some of the best keyboards ever and mine is key to my own productivity. The mouse is far superior to touch for fine tuned accuracy in pointing. Actually a mouse can do some things touch can not (trust me its true). Not even a touchpad on a laptop comes close to the accuracy of a real mouse and that is surely better than touch alone. The beauty of the mouse comes from its ability to separate movement from a touch action (a click for a mouse), plus its accuracy. Many business applications require a real keyboard, a real mouse and yes a real desktop environment (aka. the Windows Desktop).
A lot of software is boring.
Most consumers get excited about the latest fad in software. It has to look pretty. It has to be exciting (ie. touch). It has to be new ! Not so with business. Actually a lot of business software is quite boring and that is a good thing. The so called modern UI look of Metro is meaningless for some software. It doesn’t matter whether the look is flat or 3D. What matters is the job the software does. Many tasks a computer is used for are simply boring. It is the work they do which is important. Does it solve a problem ? Does it make critical calculations a business may depend upon ? Does it interface with some machine ? Does it do the job it was intended to do ? The whole reason many started using computers was that computers don’t mind doing boring jobs, unlike people who do mind. For many businesses software is just a tool and the tool has to do its job and do it right. Some companies spend a lot of money developing such boring software, because it does the job and does it right. What businesses need to know though is that all the efforts to create such software is not in vain. A lot of money is lost by companies trying to “build a better mousetrap” as they say, only to find that the originally application worked fine and it wasn’t worth the effort to recreate it as something new. What businesses need is backward compatibility in the operating systems they use. They don’t want to have to rewrite every application they use just because they bought some new computers. That is not cost effective. To them the computer is a tool and they don’t need a new tool which can’t do what the old did.
Do we need the desktop anymore ?
Absolutely ! How long it will stay with us, I can not say and won’t even try guessing. But for now, there is a good reason why Windows 8 provides all the necessary desktop features we require. If it wasn’t necessary, it wouldn’t be there in Windows 8.