Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop? - InformationWeek

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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?

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Windows 8: 8 Big Benefits For SMBs
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An ostensibly legitimate build of Windows Blue, the much-rumored update to Windows 8, surfaced online over the weekend and is currently being circulated on file-sharing sites. The leak caps a spree of Windows Blue rumors over the last few weeks, including videos in which Microsoft officials casually reference the update and numerous indications that an official release will arrive soon.

The leaked build is incomplete, marked by several non-functional features and placeholders. Nonetheless, observers have already unearthed new insights into Microsoft's strategy to remain dominant as its core PC business cedes ground to the tablet market. Many of these inferences reiterate earlier rumors, such as refinements to Windows 8's touch-oriented Modern user interface. But the build also suggests a tablet-centric mindset that has already seeded new speculation, the boldest of which suggests Microsoft will soon retire one of its most iconic Windows features: the desktop itself.

Microsoft has yet to officially acknowledge that Windows Blue exists, let alone to comment on the update's unscheduled appearance in the wild. With screenshots and videos now documenting the upgraded OS in detail, though, there's now little doubt that rumors have been largely valid, and that the project is in an advanced stage of development. Citing unnamed sources, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, who broke several of the earliest Windows Blue stories, reported that the leak, dubbed Build 9364, is a direct internal engineering build that was current as of last week.

[ Want more on Windows Blue? Read Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve? ]

Many of the enhancements are designed to make the tile-based Modern interface more personalized and fluid. Improvements include the ability to scale Start screen tiles from as little as one-fourth to as much as four times their default size; tools to modify color accents and other aesthetic cues; and, perhaps most notably, support for running Modern apps side-by-side. Desktop-style multitasking would give Windows 8's tablet interface a meaningful advantage over the iPad, and Microsoft's implementation not only permits up to four apps to be open simultaneously but also offers multi-monitor applications.

Other Windows Blue features include new alarm, sound recording, video and calculator apps; support for additional touch gestures; and Internet Explorer 11. For the most part, the new browser isn't obviously different in the leaked build from the current version, but there are indications it will add the unique ability to synch tabs across a user's various devices. When discussing Windows 8, Microsoft representatives often describe online experiences that transition seamlessly from laptops to smartphones to tablets, and the Internet Explorer conjecture certainly squares with this vision. Build 9364's deeper hooks for SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud service, only bolster this notion.

The rogue Windows Blue copy follows a busy week for the Microsoft rumor mill. On March 21, MSFTKitchen released videos in which Eric Rudder, Microsoft's chief technical strategy officer, and other company representatives openly reference Windows Blue while demonstrating an improved version of Windows 8's Fresh Paint app and dramatically faster and more accurate voice recognition technology. In one of the videos, Rudder declares Microsoft's intent to "extend touch in an even more dramatic fashion," although it's not clear what he means beyond Fresh Paint's enhancements and Blue's handful of new gesture controls.

With the ability to resize tiles and otherwise customize the Modern interface, Windows Blues echoes the focus on personalization trumpeted by Windows Phone manager Jon Belfiore and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer when they introduced Windows Phone 8 last fall. The leaked version suggests the personalization theme is only likely to spread, as an MSFTKitchen teardown of Build 9364's system files suggests Windows Blue is coming to virtually all Microsoft platforms. This corroborates early rumors that Windows Blue would unify Microsoft operating systems around common code, presumably to streamline developer efforts and improve synching across devices.

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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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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.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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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
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