Windows Blue won't be the end of the Desktop UI

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. What really is important though is how changes to the operating system will affect software developers, plus businesses, and why considering this may be far more important in the long run.

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 80s and early 90s, computers were business tools, not consumer products. A computer with a 20MB hard drive, 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 average people could afford PCs.

The strange thing about this though was the consumers didn't know what to do with their computers, they looked for software that 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 became a toy, an entertainment device. Many of these same consumers -- who were watching videos online, buying stuff at Amazon -- failed to see the key functionality built into their PCs. 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 that came with their PCs, after 90 days.

Looked at from this perspective, it's obvious that many consumers used a tool which they barely knew anything about. Having been a computer consultant and programmer for so long, time after time I find myself again and again suggesting to consumers I deal with that maybe they should buy a book about Windows and learn a little more about and what the software can do.

I realized the average consumer bought something he or she didn't fully utilize -- the PC exceeded need. Then along came MP3 players, smartphones 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 PC. Finally, people started buying what they wanted all along. Something designed to do a specific task, and that is it.

Now we see PC sales slowing down significantly. Manufacturers should have seen this coming. The computer market is changing in ways we 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 business computing, 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 bridges the Gap between Consumer Devices and Business Tools

The Modern UI or Windows Store side of Windows 8 are 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 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 (for Surface).

Businesses can ill-afford to waste their money on mobile devices if they don't have a real purpose to their core operations. 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 employee's hands won't automatically improve productivity. Put a tablet PC into the right employee's hands and with the right software and for the right reason, 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 bad investment.

Having written software for a variety of businesses from local mom-and-pop stores to manufacturing environments, I appreciate how important PCs are, but only when they are used effectively. Journalists like to talk about software and how once Microsoft Office is ported to Modern UI, the Desktop is no longer needed. The real question, though: How much do these writers 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 specific tasks or for specific vertical markets. Large corporations likely spend millions of dollars developing 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 must be spent just to keep up. The less a company has to redo things that currently work fine, the more money they save (and that is important today). Why do you think so many companies still used Windows XP? The old adage "if it is not broke, don't fix it" means saving money in the long run.

So, for consumers, 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 the company, but I venture a guess of yes. So how does one create a totally new operating system that 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 was not important, it would be broken already in Windows 8

The Desktop has huge value, is evident in Windows 8's dual-motif design. Windows 8 doesn't break the Desktop. One of the first things I did when first getting my hands on Windows 8 Developer Preview in late 2011 was to test and see how well it supported the core WIN32 APIs, which have been around since Windows 95/98. I expected a lot of things to possibly be broken, since Windows 8 is so different, but amazingly it all worked and very well.

Now I was not testing just some simple user interface stuff but quite a lot of lower-level stuff, 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: Would Windows 8 break a lot of my code ? It didn't. I had only one little problem and even that was fixed in a later preview version of Windows 8. Given Microsoft's care for core WIN32 APIs, 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 Microsoft's need to promote the new UI stuff in Windows 8. It is important to the consumerization of PCs and to mobile. But the Desktop surely is not dead yet and hopefully 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 most organizations, a computer is a tool. No touchscreen can replace a real keyboard for fast character input. This is so obvious I cannot 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 older one. Big Blue built 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 cannot (trust me it's 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 (like 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 look of Modern UI 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 interface with some machine?
  • Does it do the job it was intended to do?
  • Does it make critical calculations a business may depend upon?

The whole reason many started using PCs is that computers don't mind doing boring jobs, unlike people who do. 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 original application worked fine and 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 ust because they bought some new computers. That is not cost-effective.

We still need the Desktop, and it's nonsense tech writers spread about its imminent demise. How long the Desktop will stay with us, I cannot 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.

Photo Credit: auremar/Shutterstock

Chris Boss is an advanced Windows API programmer and developer of 10 year-old EZGUI, which is now version 5. He owns The Computer Workshop, which opened for businesses in the late 1980s. He originally developed custom software for local businesses. Now he develops programming tools for use with the PowerBasic compiler.

32 Responses to Windows Blue won't be the end of the Desktop UI

  1. joeybowles says:

    here's my thought/guess/prediction. The desktop will stick around on Pro versions for the foreseeable future. However, the desktop will disappear on RT in August. Today, the desktop only exists on RT so that you can run office and do some basic file management. Since there will be a new Office release (Gemini) about the same time Blue is released I am predicting it will be more touch friendly. Plus, Blue itself is adding file management capabilities. With these two advancements, why does RT need a desktop?

    • psycros says:

      Because users won't have a clue how to get anything done without it. Metro still lacks many core features or implements them so poorly as to be unusable.

      • frankwick says:

        Don't think of RT as Windows. Think of it more like an Ipad or phone. All those features you are referring to don't exist on the ipad so who says they should exist on RT? If we want to use a "real" OS, we will use Windows.

    • testman says:

      Because Office RT isn't a Modern UI app - Gemini isn't going to change that. Really that simple.

      • frankwick says:

        Are you an Office tester? It sounds like you have some inside knowledge. I kept hearing Gemini was a move towards Metro.

  2. Bob Grant says:

    Well thought and accurate, but I think you place too much confidence in the business sense of Microsoft.

    Touch interfaces, and pushing to make them more common is great and all, but I just wish they would have the option imbedded into the OS to have it only load the desktop, and never use the new UI. (I may use it for consumption and games, but I can't use the new UI efficiently, even when it works)

    • Whodaboss says:

      I'm not being flip. But you sound like my grandparents. The good ole days when everything was good and pure. I know it's difficult for some when changes take place, but it's necessary. The new UI is Awesome! And it's here to stay. I love progress.

      • mshulman says:

        I agree - people keep pointing to the start menu screen which is great for touch, but also great with a keyboard and mouse. I think people just see it as a touch interface and make up their mind right then and there and can't get beyond that.

      • Axel Börjesson says:

        Personally I'm fine with "change" as long as the change is toggleable (and default: OFF) so to speak, I don't enjoy getting hit in the face with it.

        Last month I had a friend who bought a new laptop, and yes he's not all that tech savy and fit more in the consumer (game/media) class.
        But at least he had gotten to the point where he could do basic things like copying files making folders, organizing pictures and the like in windows 7.

        The day after he bought the laptop he more or less came begging me to
        format and reinstall it, because even if it looks "tablet-ish" which he could get used to, he had trouble finding and doing any of the basic things he was able to do in windows 7.
        So while sitting there and checking out Windows 8 before reformating I was amazed by how many god damn loops and annoying paths there was, there wasn't any straightforward -> start -> control panel -> services or the like but you had to go through 10 or more menus/clicks just to get to points where previously only 2-4 click where needed.

        So I'm all for change, but change that's pushed into your face is very offensive, and honestly change is supposed to be more efficient and not
        the other way around which is just counter-productive.
        This is especially true for old semi-competent window users (it's hard enough just getting them to google problems before asking for help -_-).

        My overall feel of Windows 8 was more like they "stupified" it, showing big shiny icons with music and things in your face and making it harder to reach any system settings / files you want just makes it closer to a point and click media device in my eyes.

        And really though, if you wanted a PC with a tablet look with quick access to files / media / programs / Gadgets, this was already pretty darn easy to do in Windows 7, perhaps you needed to use 3rd party software but at least it was
        doable and optional.

        Instead now your stuck in a situation where you need 3rd party software just to get your computer to work like a computer instead of a media tablet.

        *Don't get me started on the windows app store, it'll most likely make my next forced OS switch (like xp->win7 was) to linux, hopefully MS will release a non-tablet / non-app store OS in the next ten or so years so I can go for that and skip learning Linux through trial and error, like I did with windows. (Win 95 -> Win 7)

  3. TheCyberKnight says:

    Stars may finally align to yield what should have been since Windows 8 launch : a separate experience for "touch first" and "desktop" worlds.

    A "touch first" world with no desktop at all. Fully "Modern" without any links to the past.

    A "desktop" world for professional and whoever wants it, with a keyboard and mouse focus that can, optionally, launch the "Modern / touch first" experience in a dedicated window (somewhat like MediaCenter is used).

    Will Microsoft se the light?

  4. fgump says:

    Chris, great article! MS knows (one would think) they can't lose businesses or developers. They also know that those businesses which have invested so heavily in the Windows OS, can't really go anywhere else. So, MS can most likely play around for a couple of new versions of Windows (aka Windows 8, Windows Blue, Windows 9, and maybe one or two more) to try and get a firm grip on the consumer (touch and mobile) markets. As you say this is where people don't really use the PC for what it can do, but as a social or special purpose device. So, I see MS pushing the Modern UI more and more with future versions - as they want to build up their apps and their app market - since that's where the money is at these days. The corporation I work for has thousands of employees and we're still on WinXP - just moving to Win7 by the end of this year! So, I can't see many businesses moving to Win8 anytime soon. MS knows this and it gives them time to mess around with Win8 for consumers where Win7 fits businesses for the foreseeable future. At some point the ModernUI and Desktop will merge (and as @joeybowles says in his comment - the desktop will most likely go away on RT and just be a feature of Pro). I believe it will be a "major" feature of Pro - unless they can get all the existing apps running in the ModernUI. Point is, when companies finally upgrade be assured that they will be able to run their old apps without any issues along with any new apps designed for the ModernUI. If they can't, then just give MS some rope and a chair now! I'm hoping that .NET will still be a strong force to develop apps for the desktop and/or ModernUI. I'm still uncertain at where that may be headed. Either way though, I could never work in a full touch environment for coding. A keyboard and mouse are definitely required! I want to be able to code the way I do today in Visual Studio to create my apps for the desktop, server, web, or mobile. Again, I just think that MS needs to merge things together nicely to allow Pro users to accept Win8 a bit more. I think they'll get there - but they make take their time doing it right now.

    • Bob Grant says:

      That Intel processor you're talking about... Try looking at the Intel Atom...

      • fgump says:

        I'm aware of the Atom, but it's still not quite there on the power. I believe I did read something not long ago that Intel was working on an updated Atom or some similar new processor which would be released in 2014 giving them a closer match. Things keep changing and it makes the industry fun to watch.

  5. guru_v says:

    Someone should give this writer a permanent position, as he seems to know how to get the essentials out without any of the "clickbait" sort of nonsense that the rest on staff seem to.

    Or is it that the Microsoft ad dollars haven't been doled out this month, just yet?

  6. cannie says:

    Thank you for wording so well what many of us really think. Business computing is a very different world and must be taken "as is". Machines must accomodate to their function and not the opposite.
    Earlier or later Microsoft will have to wake up from their "single OS for everything" dream and offer to each sector what best suits to its needs.

    • mshulman says:

      Their single OS for everything still works, they just need to keep the desktop. The start screen in Windows 8 is just fine on a laptop or desktop. I really have not had anyone give any serious reasoning as to why it is less productive or a problem. Fact is you can launch stuff just as quickly and spend very little time at that screen.

      The desktop is crucial for productive work though and I agree will remain. I think Microsoft would take a hit in productivity themselves is they tried testing without access to the desktop.

  7. nvic says:

    Finally, a decent article about Win8 in business.

    Enterprise still doesn't see a use for touch or the new UI based on how it's going, simply because in most places, there is no benefit or use for either. Yes there are times where this may make sense in business (tablet PCs for sales, etc.), but most things in enterprise don't get anything from it, meaning its a big waste of time and money for zero benefit in many cases.

    MS seems to have become too focused on the consumer market with Win8 and has forgotten that a PC can be a tool useful for more than playing games and sitting on facebook. Yes they leave the functionality in the desktop for the people who need it, but they force those users to put up with a bunch of prettiness and often useless (to them) apps anyway. If I want my PC to be a tool and not an entertainment machine, give me an option that lets me get rid of the stuff that exists for that purpose and actually be productive. That means no flashy start screen and crap, just a plain and simple system like the one that millions of people have been productive with for 17+ years.

    • mshulman says:

      I agree that there isn't a big use (if any) for touch in the enterprise. That doesn't mean however that their goal of a single OS for both touch and non-touch devices doesn't make sense. I use windows 8 on everything and on my laptop (which happens to be touch) and my desktop (which also has touch screen monitors) where I tend not to use touch much at all (read as - hardly ever) the full screen start menu is not a problem and I find accessing programs is actually faster. I often just hit the windows key, type in the name and hit enter and I'm in - this is faster than moving the mouse when your hands are already on the keyboard. For my most common apps, I simply pin them to the taskbar.

      As far as getting rid of the entertainment stuff - just organize the start screen - no big deal. I've never once heard someone complain that their start button has a games and entertainment folder...

  8. Guest says:

    Thank you for wording so well what many of us have thought. Business computing is a very different world and must be taken "as is". Machines must accomodate to their function and not the opposite.

    Earlier or later Microsoft will have to wake up from their "single OS for everything" dream and offer to each sector what best suits to their needs.

  9. aretzios says:

    Very good but does not go far enough. Yes, Win8 preserves the desktop, but it has degraded it in many ways. Win8 is a ***touch-first*** OS and thus really inappropriate for desktop work. It is as simple as that. The rest is all Microsoft marketing like such stupidities such as "Genuinely Digital" (whatever this means) and "immerisive experience" (read full screen applications) and other funny stuff. In any way, Betanews has become a paid service for Microsoft marketing (how much money does this site get to advertize the 10 best Metro apps weekly???)

    • psycros says:

      BN isn't on anyone's payroll. Wilcox just pretends to be in someone's pocket all the time to generate rageclicks. Its clever, if totally despicable. Who he's currently cheerleading for will change about every 10-15 days on average.

  10. MikeInParadise says:

    Wow, very well written article. Logical and well presented.
    No shock headline, no biased slant. Gee I usually use betanews as my source of illogical opposing views on technology to see what the fringe is thinking.

  11. Joe Blo says:

    Now I`m so glad Sinofsky is gone...he was a control freak and was holding Microsoft back IMHO.

  12. Michael says:

    People are going to stick with windows 7 for a long time. And when Microsoft stops supporting windows 7. You will see the linux users go up.

  13. teralgoe says:

    May be this is the best article written about windows 8, kudos Chris.

    Windows 8 have a lot of room for improvement, but is far from being a failure, the blue update will improve the experience based in usage feedback, the merging or split of desktop and touch only time will tell, but my guess is that will be the same of win 8 with some adjustments.
    I do a lot of CAD drawing and win 8 works fine in my old non touch xps16 laptop.

  14. Adamodeus says:

    What an excellent article!!! Thank you! It's been a while since I've read something so well thought out. Keep up the great writing.

  15. TimT2011 says:

    Excellent article. However, I don't think it's an issue between pros/business and average consumers. Average consumers have repeatedly said no to Microsoft's Metro design, going all the way back to the Zune, the phones and most importantly Windows RT. If Microsoft's new answer to computing were correct, the Surface RT would be the hot product, not the Surface with Windows 8 and it's fully functional desktop. Metro is just a toy and Blue just shined it up a bit, consumers aren't stupid and Microsoft needs to wake up and realize that before it's too late. It's one thing to make consumers mad, but once they see you don't at all care what they think, they won't think about you at all.

  16. Noah Nason says:

    This is a very well written article. Just a thought, perhaps all those old WIN32 APIs were kept working to allow virtualization to work and to not break the many games that people still are running from the early 2000s.

  17. PC users who want to work with efficiency don't work with Windows or have
    no clue. Therefore all these complaints about Windows 8 and "Blue" make
    no sense at all.

  18. MikeTechno says:

    Windows Blue is actually much more likely to make the end of the Metro UI. Almost no one likes it. The first thing users as when seeing it is "Where do I click to get back to the traditional desktop on this thing?" The Metro UI was great for phones and tablets. It's a huge mistake for desktops and laptops - even ones with touch screens.

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