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3/25/2013
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Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?

A recent Windows Blue build is in the wild, sporting a more polished tablet experience. Does this also foretell retirement for traditional desktop computing?

Other recent Windows Blue rumors claim the update will debut, perhaps following a public preview, on ultrabooks and tablets equipped with Intel's Haswell processors, the newest version of the chipmaker's Core family.

Intel has been touting the new silicon as a breakthrough in power management, and Windows Blue is rumored to optimize energy consumption beyond Haswell's base capabilities. If both the OS and processor deliver on their hype, this summer's ultrabooks could offer battery life comparable to ARM-powered tablets such as the iPad or Surface RT while retaining not only compatibility with x86 legacy apps but also the processing firepower of a full-blown laptop.

The nature of that x86 compatibility, however, is suddenly open to more credible debate. Legacy applications such as Microsoft Office are synonymous for many users with the traditional Explorer user interface. However, aside from the fact that Haswell will benefit clamshell-style ultrabooks in addition to tablets and convertibles, little of the Windows Blue enhancements appear directed at the traditional interface. The Modern environment should be more appealing but users are still out of luck if they want to boot straight to the desktop, or if they want the Start button to be reintegrated from exile.

Indeed, earlier reports that Microsoft is offering discounted Windows 8 and Office licensing seem to support not only that it's ramping up for Haswell devices, but also -- given that the biggest price cuts are allegedly reserved for models with smaller screens -- a sense that Microsoft is more concerned with tablets than laptops.

This conjecture would amount to circumstantial evidence if not for the fact that Build 9364's tablet-centricism is so pervasive. It includes not only the aforementioned tweaks but also the ability to modify Control Panel settings -- which previously required that users shift to the desktop side of the OS -- from within the Modern UI. Indeed, with a Modern-flavored File Manager rumored to be in the cards, Microsoft seems keen to translate many legacy activities to its new touch-centered world. The changes can certainly be justified in the name of convenience but they will also wean users off the more familiar Explorer environment by encouraging them to conduct more of their business in the tablet UI.

Due to Microsoft's putative focus on the Modern interface, several commentators are already speculating that Microsoft is preparing to shutter the desktop UI altogether, perhaps with the release of Windows 9. This theory, which has been whispered since Windows 8 was unveiled, is more credible than ever.

Even so, there are several reasons to take it with a grain of salt. Build 9364 isn't a release candidate, and Microsoft could still implement a variety of additional features -- maybe, though it doesn't seem likely, even a Start button. Then again, maybe Microsoft is simply focused on establishing its mobile UI in the near term, with updates that will make it cohere better with the desktop environment slated for later. Windows 7 is a mature product, and Windows 8 is in many ways a more refined, iterative evolution of this solid foundation. Many companies are too invested in Windows 7 to seriously consider a Windows 8 deployment, so with large-scale enterprise sales still months off, Microsoft arguably has some time to sort things out for traditional customers. The longer the company takes to make a serious play against Google and Apple in the mobile space, however, the less likely it becomes that Microsoft will be more than a role player in the market of the future.

To be sure, such a plan could still alienate longtime users if it makes them feel abandoned by a myopic consumer focus. But retiring the Explorer interface is equally likely to incite dismay among the user base, even if Microsoft takes care to be particularly transparent as it ports x86 software into Modern apps. Microsoft faces uncertain ground regardless of which path it follows. Whatever the case, it should only be a few months until users have a chance to judge a sanctioned version of the newest Windows experience for themselves.

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GBARRINGTON196
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GBARRINGTON196,
User Rank: Strategist
3/27/2013 | 8:58:16 PM
re: Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?
But what do you use the Surface Pro FOR? How do we know that your uses will be similar to ours?
GBARRINGTON196
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GBARRINGTON196,
User Rank: Strategist
3/27/2013 | 8:52:43 PM
re: Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?
When Adobe and Corel start talking about how a touch Interface an be used in professional grade graphics applications like Photoshop or CorelDraw, AND how it can make my productivity BETTER, I will be interested in a touch desktop. Until then, it sounds like change for the sake of change.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
3/27/2013 | 4:31:38 PM
re: Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?
Thanks for your thoughts, pblanc108. I think that's true to a point. Microsoft - and this is a point we've reiterated throughout the Windows Blue coverage - has a lot of latitude because of the installed user base. Tablets aren't going to cause billions of existing Microsoft customers to jump ship. Enterprises aren't going to start upgrading OSes/equipment for a while, and Windows 7 is already a solid, proven, and popular product for the traditional computing crowd. This stasis in the legacy desktop market is one of the reasons Microsoft is so focused on the Modern UI: it's the sort of OS that's growing right now, and it's a field in which Microsoft is playing from behind.

Forrester said last fall that Microsoft owned about 95% of the PC OS market but only 30% of the smartphone/tablet/PC/etc market. Based on that, one can see why Microsoft is prioritizing its tablet interests. That's not to say killing the desktop UI is a great idea, but to make inroads where the company is weakest, Redmond needs developer enthusiasm. Some enthusiasm is present, sure, but not as much as the company needs-- and I think its unusual decision to offer incentives is an admission of as much.

So, yes, Microsoft has a lot of leverage due to the existing customer base and the enduring importance of legacy programs. But the company needs to move forward while protecting what it already has, and to do that, it will need developers who understand how to maximize the platform. Touch, voice and all the other pervasive-sensing technology will drive new devices that demand software-hardware synergies, and Microsoft will need to provide guidance and clarity to achieve that. They'll still keep things mum when they think they need to, but I expect they'll feel compelled to explain a lot of their plan when they meet with partners and developers throughout June.
pblanc108
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pblanc108,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2013 | 4:10:25 PM
re: Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?
"Microsoft is going to have to clarify its plan in the next few months. If it doesn't, it could be hard to keep developers motivated and consumers interested"

And what will people use for computing instead of Microsoft. Are all the consumers and businesses using Microsoft going to switch to android, apple or google?

Microsoft has a very stable, fast and powerful platform in Win 7 and Win 8. There is currently no better alternative and i know many, many companies who are very excited about what Microsoft has done lately with Win 8, the Surface pro and touchscreen computing.

I was in the apple store last night exchanging an ipad due to a manufacturing defect. I was playing around with the imac and it seemed antiquated compared to my win 8 touchscreen Lenovo Ideacentre and my dell one 27. I could never go back.
pblanc108
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pblanc108,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2013 | 4:02:58 PM
re: Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?
Try the Microsoft Surface Pro. It has replaced both my laptop and my iPad 4th generation.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
3/27/2013 | 3:51:16 PM
re: Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?
Thanks for the comment, Erik W. The Haswell processors, to hear Intel tell it, should maintain i7 processing power while also bringing ARM-like battery life and enabling OEMs to produce thinner form factors. So in that regard, Microsoft and the OEMs are already in motion.

But you bring up a good point about what a tablet is good for and what a desktop is good for. At this point, iOS doesn't have a great tool for processing RAW images files and lacks support for high-end creative support such as After Effects or Photoshop. There are fun consumer-grade apps but nothing that offers professional tools. This example from the image-making industries is but one of many-- so as you suggest, there are some big holes to be filled if the desktop UI is going to be wholly replaced by Metro tiles.

That said, if Microsoft ends up killing the desktop UI and making Modern the only Windows interface, that move is still years away. Windows Blue is supposed to open a new era in which Microsoft continually improves products through frequent updates-- more like what Apple does with iOS and OS X than the monolithic Windows updates of years past. This means that users should receive improvements pretty regularly-- and indeed, after launching Windows 8 in October, Microsoft has already deployed a major set of app updates. Redmond probably should have had the apps in better shape at launch, but with Windows Blue due this summer, Windows 8 will have received a lot of enhancements within its first nine months on the market.

But these regular updates aren't just about improving the UI. They could also be about slowly killing off users' reasons for jumping from Metro to the desktop environment. Blue is evidently moving system controls in the Modern side. Later releases could incrementally advance this shift-- moving more features over to Modern; translating x86 apps, probably starting with Office, to a native Modern format; etc. There's a lot to be figured out if such a plan is to run smoothly. Not all legacy apps are going to be simple ports, for starters. But there's nonetheless mounting evidence that each set of Modern UI upgrades will coincide with reductions to our collective reliance on the desktop.

Microsoft could still surprise us with some desktop enhancements, or at least some features that make the two UIs get along better. With two big conferences in June and lots of buzz around Haswell, which should be shipping in new Ultrabooks and tablets around that time, Microsoft is going to have to clarify its plan in the next few months. If it doesn't, it could be hard to keep developers motivated and consumers interested.

Michael Endler, IW Associate Editor
Erik W
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Erik W,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2013 | 1:46:51 PM
re: Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?
I have both a tablet (running android) and several desktops. Unless MS is working with venders for a tablet that has the power of a quad core i7 I doubt desktops are going anywhere anytime soon.

I think what will happen is that users will be forced to migrate to alternative platforms like linux.

Like I said, I have a tablet and it's great for keeping notes and surfing, maybe watching a movie but that's about it.

Anything requiring any kind of power will need a desktop unless there are dramatic and sudden advances in the tablet market and seeing as how laptops cannot keep up with desktops, I have trouble seeing tablets do it.
Palpatine
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Palpatine,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2013 | 9:11:09 AM
re: Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?
MS has still not understood killing the desktop is going to harm them bad, and not harm MS competitors at all.
Their current business strategy seems based on the flawed assumption that they own 90% of the desktop market share so they does not need to keep up a good strategy here.
The problem is that as soon as they started called desktop "legacy" developers, OEM, gurus and power users started migrating (all or part of the workflow) to leading alternative platforms - non desktop, non Microsoft - as they understood they were no longer able to rely on the WinPC market for the future so they had better to enter alternative markets soon and abandon Windows - not giving a viable business strategy to third parts (competing with oems, forcing developer through a single store and through less development tools, and a reduced API).
This is driving customer base away from Windows 8, fooling the attempt of MS to use its desktop base as advantage for its mobile strategy, and while desktop machines grew old and needs to be replaced, most user are no longer thinking to a MS Windows PC desktop, but rather to a fresh start in a "non-legacy" world.
Putting shadows on desktop future, MS killed itself with an headshot in the very same moment, but the giant is so tall that will need some years to fall - and it will make a lot of noise!
Mark532010
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Mark532010,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/26/2013 | 4:35:01 PM
re: Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?
I just dont understand abandoning existing customers in the "myopic consumer focus." I have over 20 years of win32 applications, and I understand that I am no longer Microsofts primary focus, but it is so frustrating.

It used to be that enabling productivity was a focus. Refining things so that people were more productive, now that is no longer the concern, it is casual usability...a good thing for some but I don't understand the need to remove processes and workflows that were productive. The new Win8 (and presumably blue) offer so little for centrally managed companies. The lack of GPO's around the new functionality is very telling that Microsoft no longer cares about providing IT depts with the tools they need to make WIn8 a prime workplace computer. its all about tablets.

As a desktop user (with a mouse...gasp!) I just feel sad that I am no longer Microsofts focus
pblanc108
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pblanc108,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/26/2013 | 4:29:01 PM
re: Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?
I dont know how you can say that the end of desktops is near. Every company I go into, Pepsico, Corning, IBM, Regeneron etc, etc are working on desktops and buying more desktops.
Not one client I speak to has any plan to abandon their desktop and do in office work on a laptop or tablet. Desktop is the number one computing device for those working in the building.

In my own company, we just upgraded to new Lenovo and Dell One 27 touch screen desktops running Windows 8. This has proven to be a great move. Win 8 is fast , fluid and powerful as well as ver, very stable and reliable. It boots in under 10 seconds as well.

The combination of touch screen, keyboard and mouse brings computing into the future. It becomes very productive and enjoyable and out employees love it.

We also purchased the Surface Pro to take true computing on the road in a very powerful and sleek form factor. The Surface Pro is very capable with the beauty and portability of an ipad yet with the power to truly replace our laptops.

With Win 8 and the Surface pro, we are in the best computing space we have been in a long time.
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