Paul Thurrott’s piece (some might say rant) this weekend over where Microsoft seems to be taking Windows with Windows 8.1 Update 1 adds more fuel to the fire about the future of Windows. Put simply, Microsoft began a re-invention of Windows with Windows 8 and that releases market failure and follow-on updates have done more to confuse the situation than add clarity. Now I have a different take on the future than Paul seems to have, but let me be clear that I don’t totally disagree with him.
One of the things that everyone has to realize is that much of what we got in Windows 8.1 was in the Windows 8 plan, then dropped to make the 2012 holiday schedule. I don’t know about Update 1, but I suspect that is still the case. For example you don’t have to wait for Update 1 to experience desktop-style context menus in the “Metro” interface. If you have a mouse, in 8.1 just bring up the recently used app list on the left side of the screen and right-click on one of the apps. You’ll get a context menu that looks something like:
So we can see the path Microsoft was on and that they made more progress in Windows 8.1 Update 1. The problem is, and this is what I think Paul points out well, is that its a confusing work in progress. Microsoft could have had two separate user experiences, one mobile and one desktop, on a single operating system. Instead they telegraphed they were moving to a single, touch-centric, more mobile than desktop, experience for both. With 8.1 and, even more so, 8.1 Update 1 they seem to be on the way back to separating the user experiences. But they still haven’t made that clear.
Of course everything about Update 1 is based on speculation since all we have is leaked builds. For example one of the great improvements for mouse users reportedly in Update 1 are more cases where a right-click brings up a context menu instead of the app bar. One of the big negatives is that this isn’t what happens inside a Metro app. BUT, what if doing this inside apps requires developer effort and that is not something Microsoft will introduce until the Build conference?
I think I know where Microsoft is going with all these changes. We really are going to end up with two Windows experiences, and probably SKUs to match. One experience is a unified Phone-Tablet mobile experience that is touch-first, touch-centric, and perhaps even devoid of support for desktop apps. The second is a Desktop experience that retains touch as a primary means of manipulation but is much more centered around the mouse and keyboard. It will have a more traditional Windows look and feel, but modernized (pun intended) of course. Most importantly, both of these variants will be capable of running the same set of Metro/Modern apps.
The Mobile experience will run Metro apps in an immersive way much as we already experience in Windows 8/8.1 while the Desktop experience will run them as windows (of course). And just as many desktop apps today have a full-screen mode, Metro apps will support a full-screen immersive mode when running in the Desktop experience. This is the state that Microsoft is aiming at with Windows 9.
When taken in this context the moves in Windows 8.1 Update 1 make a lot of sense. What’s missing though is the context. If Microsoft elaborates at (or before) Build on the vision and how Update 1 fits into it then the user community is going to embrace these changes. If they fail to lay out the vision then Update 1 will just be seen as the latest monster to escape Dr. Frankenstein’s lab.