Where is Windows going?

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.


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15 Responses to Where is Windows going?

  1. stefanolson says:

    I can understand use of the context menu in the app selection list. But, it’s completely baffling to me to have a context menu on the start screen when the app bar does a perfectly acceptable (and consistent) job. If as developers we have to deal with creating a context menu as well as an appbar, depending on how they do it, it could result in substantially more work. But as you say, hopefully Microsoft will explain this very weird change in strategy at build.

    • halberenson says:

      The more I use Windows 8.1 on a desktop machine the more I dislike the appbar, at least for item-specific things. It’s particularly frustrating in using a mix of desktop and metro apps. Sometimes what you need is right there where your eyes and mouse pointer are focused, sometimes you have to go searching for it along the bottom of the screen. So if you envision a world in which a desktop-centric paradigm still serves a primary role then you want a way to unify the app experience for those desktop users. Right-click behavior is one of those things.

      • stefanolson says:

        Yes, that is a fair point, as long as everything is consistent across the whole operating system. The real challenge is to create this consistency. At the moment clicking the right mouse button brings up the app bar for an application (regardless of selection, the app bar generally has functionality not related to selection), should that change? Is it going to bring up the app bar in some cases and a context menu in others? It has the potential to become very confusing, but if Microsoft can create a good explanation, then it might work. Microsoft had all sorts of rules to follow for the first release of windows 8, many of which have since disappeared, so it makes it kind of hard to design an application knowing that the rules could change at any moment.

  2. JimmyFal says:

    “Microsoft could have had two separate user experiences, one mobile and one desktop, on a single operating system. ”

    But they didn’t, and now they have to deal with it, and so does Paul, and he does every day, because he uses Win 8 every day. I think Paul tends to think and rightfully so, what would the average consumer think when faced with this? Sometimes it’s hard for us techies to figure out what the average joe thinks. I deal with consumers every day, and when properly introduced to Win 8 and all the differences from Win 7 most people are much less afraid. However I do fear for the average consumer with a non contact syncing POP email account for example, that goes into this big change all by themselves. The update process alone from 8 to 8.1 often gets dis-regarded altogether, and the consumer ends up missing out on crucial interface changes, AND the built in tutorial among many other aspects. I setup the Toshiba 8″ the other day and wow, with 8.1 preinstalled, your pretty much up and running in minutes, assuming you have that whole Microsoft account thing all figured out.

    I think the X to close a Window will be a huge improvement for consumers, but then again I have not seen the Frankenbuild that Paul is running. I hate to put the Vista label on Win 8 because it is so stable of an OS, and so much more capable and faster than Win 7, but when this many folks are complaining, it’s time to heed the complaints and hope that Win 9 is the Win 7 to Win 8.

    • halberenson says:

      I don’t want to cover old ground on Windows 8’s problems. I can find non-techies who totally got and love Windows 8 and others who never got it and really hate it. But the bottom line is that it isn’t gaining the acceptance that Microsoft needs, and Microsoft must adapt or watch the Windows business die.

  3. Joe Wood says:

    I think a separate SKU would be a big mistake. Microsoft is trying to sell a dual (or multi-) input OS that supports adaptable and convertible devices. The question is, which parts of the OS UX are common to all input mechanisms and which should be separate. I see the shift to a modal OS UI as inevitable. The OS would switch UI based on which input methods are active, including voice, pen, touch, gesture and keyboard. That has big implications for app designers, nobody should expect apps to pick up these changes automatically.

    The context menu is a great example of this. What is right for touch and mouse? What about the radial menu, which is also context based? What happens to windowed apps when switching to metro mode? I assume they switch to full screen, or even snap. The OEMs are doing this one already, Lenovo added an extension to do just this on their Yoga where desktop apps go full screen when switching modes.

    What about the web? These same challenges will also apply to web pages. Microsoft needs to seriously consider if its worth solving these modal UX problems in their OS, and then be trumped by a W3C submission that approaches the problem differently. This is going to be an interesting indication of what impact the new CEO has on general policy towards open standards.

    Back the Paul Thurrott’s posting – this is not the design of a Frankenstein OS, this is the reality of device and ecosystem convergence. It’s not something that can be ignored.

  4. Edgar says:

    Hi Hal

    The problem here is that windows is a multi input OS, you can interact with the computer with keyboard, mouse, stylus, track pad, fingers and even voice.

    All have their uses where are more efficient, and work better depending of the context. The trick here is to integrate all these input styles in a efficient, logical, intuitive manner.
    My biggest complaint in the windows 8 experience in a desktop pc is the hot corners. Is difficult to get right, also in laptops my other complaint is that the track pad doesn’t mimic the touchscreen gestures. The complaint about the start button, after 8.1 update is nonsense.

    Microsoft must have to build their own pc’s, even if that upsets their partners, to better integrate the experience, they have to build very high end hardware with the experience optimized for every device.
    The right click context menu dilemma could be revolved with a tool menu similar to the one in the metro version of one note, for both styles, metro and desktop.

  5. John says:

    I think the dilemma for Microsoft is that they have been pushing for one device for everything in your life. This mantra of one device for everything in your life implies one operating system for everything in your life as well. With two operating systems, then you will need probably need more devices that harmonize with the corresponding hardware. So, I guess the push to make the desktop more touch-friendly aims at making one device for everything you do in your life a reality. But I am not sure if many people care about have more than one devices for different purposes. If Microsoft brings two operating system, then they will have to rethink or repositioned Surface as different product not one device for everything in your life.

    I honestly think that Microsoft should have two operating systems because the way I use my phone is completely different than the way I use my desktop. And, I still think the convergence of the desktop and the modern UI still needs to be improved. There are some inconsistencies that need to be fixed and I am not sure adding context menu is the solution.

    Remember that Microsoft is supposedly a hardware company and so they need to take into account how the OS relates to the hardware. Surface 2 is a good start but once the desktop disappear from Surface 2, then we will have a real picture and vision of the surface line of product. I am not really sure what the best advice for Microsoft but one thing for sure is that the way I use my desktop is very different than the way I use my phone or tablet. That is also true for a lot of people.

    • stefanolson says:

      I actually don’t think Microsoft is pushing for one device everywhere. What they are pushing for and what they must push for is one operating system for everything. The huge failure that Microsoft made in the last 10 years is not following through on Bill Gates version of windows everywhere. Xaml and C# meant that Windows code was all of a sudden portable to different hardware, and that should have been the huge push. Instead they created four different versions of Xaml and windows is not running in fridges, TVs etc… where it should be. It’s very telling that Nokia are choosing to develop an android-based feature phone, because clearly the windows kernel is still not small enough to run on those devices, which is absolutely key.

      I’m hoping that some of this core version will be returned to Microsoft with Bill Gates spending more time there, but it may be too late. The true beauty of the one operating system theory is that you can write the same piece of code that runs all the way from small embedded systems all the way out to windows azure. Sure, there will be some technical differences in the underlying implementation, but Microsoft has always been focused on making developers lives easier up until windows 8, and that ease of development is crucial to getting developers to develop for their platforms. Unfortunately it’s not so much of the focus right now.


  6. David Eiche says:

    I agree with your two SKU comment, and note that AAPL (Federighi, maybe) talked recently about
    the limits to OSX – iOS convergence. It has been fun to watch the center of gravity change since 2007, however.

    OSX users have similar love/hate views about the Dock to yours about the W8 equivalent.

  7. Meg says:

    I agree that I think we will end up with two Windows experiences/ SKUs. One experience is that is touch-first, much like windows 8, but does not have a desktop. The second is a desktop experience that is better with touch then the desktop is on windows 8 today, but is mouse and keyboard first, a traditional Windows user experience but modernized.

    Then important thing is that the same modern apps run on both. One immersive with a start screen where apps run full screen or side by side, and one where apps run in framed, floating windows and no start screen. The look needs to be consistent even though windows management is different. Here are some quick mockups of the desktop SKU I imagine:

    And windows can be snapped and run full screen as well.

  8. eq1 says:

    What you keep calling “Windows 9” should just be Windows 8.2 or 8.3. I mean, 20% of the population are just moving from XP, 98% never even tried Vista, most are sticking with 7, and 8.1 is just barely catching on. So does it make any sense at all to jump to “9” already? “Windows 9” shouldn’t come out for another 4 years minimum…

    • halberenson says:

      If Windows 8/8.1 was taking the world by storm then Microsoft would probably stick with an 8.x naming convention for a couple of more releases. However I think there are two factors at play that suggest rumors the next big release (there may be another modest update first) will be called Windows 9 are probably correct.

      The first is the level of negativity around Windows 8. Far too many people don’t want to run Windows 8 or 8.1 just because they’ve been told it is bad (true or not). Microsoft apparently wants to distance themselves from the Windows 8 brand as soon as it makes sense to do so.

      The second is that if Microsoft merges Windows Phone and Windows RT into a single mobile-oriented SKU, and at the same time makes changes to other SKUs that fully re-embrace the desktop user, that certainly is the point where it makes sense to do the rename.

      • eq1 says:

        Well, on the negativity aspect, it’s just too soon to abandon the ‘8 brand’, especially since they’ve already stuck with it in naming an 8.1. If Microsoft doesn’t stick with its own product then surely no one will. Yeah, there’s no way moving to the 9 name is going to help them: You just can’t dump a product like Vista and then dump another one like 8 in the time span they did and hope to come out of it with any respect from the buying public.

        Their plan is actually almost working, in the sense that you can’t get a computer with Windows 7 any longer, the only thing out there is 8 or 8.1. And you can’t find a retail version of Windows 7 either – only the ‘system builder’ disks. So XP users who are migrating I’m sure are dealing with this problem and many will likely – are likely – ending up getting 8/8.1. If MS sticks with the 8 name it WILL catch on, just make it a bit better, name it incrementally. If they move to the 9 name too soon it will more firmly anchor the ‘loser L’ in front of Microsoft’s forehead…

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