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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