Will Windows 8.1 kill the desktop? No!

I can't believe we have to have this conversation again. Microsoft's plans for their update to Windows 8 (codenamed Windows "Blue") have started to leak out, and many are claiming it will kill the desktop.

I can't believe we have to have this conversation again. Microsoft's plans for their update to Windows 8 (codenamed Windows "Blue") have started to leak out, and many are claiming it will kill the desktop.


So since I know you're probably going to hear something like this at work, I want to look at the facts we know about Windows Blue and explain, again, why it's not going to "kill" anything. (And why that's okay and why it's still awesome.)

What is Windows Blue?

Quite simply, Windows Blue is the internal codename for an update to Windows 8 (and RT and Server 2012). Those who have seen it are claiming it's like a "combo feature pack /  service pack"—or a minor update for Windows—rather than something major like Windows 9.

The main point of Windows Blue seems to be updates to the "fit and finish" and polish of Windows 8 specifically around the touch-based side of things. (You know how a lot of people have described Windows 8 as being rough around the edges and feeling a bit like Microsoft rushed out the door? Windows Blue attempts to fix that.) Blue also seems to move a lot of the previously "desktop-only" settings out of desktop mode and over into the touch-based tile world mode.

Windows Blue means the desktop is dead?

Here's where things get weird. Many articles like these have been written in the past week or so:

This is the kind of stuff that your boss will read and ask you about. So here's the deal:

First, these are all talking about the "desktop mode" in Windows. They're basically saying that in Windows 8, while Microsoft wants you to use the modern touch-based UI as much as possible, there are still a lot of times when you'er thrown into the old-fashioned desktop mode to do tasks (file manager, many control panel items, etc.). Since Windows Blue moves many of those "desktop-only" tasks to the touch-based world, users won't be forced into the desktop mode as often. Therefore it makes sense that if you continue down that path, it's inevitable that in some future version of Windows (Windows 9?), the desktop will be gone altogether.

So according to the opinion of the Internet, it's not that Windows Blue itself will kill the desktop, rather, because Windows Blue is continuing down the path of "more touch, less desktop" (rather than rolling back the forced touch of Windows 8), Windows Blue just confirms that Microsoft is planning on killing the desktop eventually.

But the "Desktop" Microsoft will kill isn't the "desktop" we care about

The good news is that for us in the enterprise space, this is no surprise and something we've been talking about for 2+ years. So we can stop worrying and go back to work.

Oh wait. We forgot that we have to explain this to our bosses.

Okay, here's the deal. If you take everything we've talked about for the past two years and condense it down to a few paragraphs, it would be this:

First, a lot of people are talking about the "death of the desktop" (or "death of the PC"), thinking it will be replaced by tablets and web apps. While it's true that tablets are outselling devices with keyboards and mice, in many cases people are buying tablets because they already have a device with a keyboard and mouse. (In other worlds, they're buying a tablet to augment their laptop, not to replace it.) The same is true for people who "only travel with their iPads" now. Sure, they only travel with their iPads, but they still have laptops at home.

For the foreseeable future, we will always have some applications and some tasks that work better with keyboards, mice, several huge displays, and the brain focus to sit in one place without distractions for a few hours. Today those apps are "desktop mode" apps, not because they need the Windows desktop interface, but because all apps used to be desktop mode, and when Microsoft invented the touch mode modern UI, the first apps that everyone moved over were the apps that made sense to be used on the go.

But there's nothing fundamentally stopping developers from building Windows-based modern UI applications that are meant to be used with a keyboard, mouse, multiple displays, and while sitting down. And if Microsoft kills the desktop mode of Windows, well, that's just all the more impetus for application developers to finally start converting their "desktop mode" sit-down apps to "modern touch mode" sit-down apps. (Like Facebook blocking the Facebook.com desktop website from their offices.) Again, they can still be designed to use a mouse, a keyboard, and multiple huge screens, even in the modern UI.

So "modern UI" is not the same thing as "touch only,"—that's the first key point of the past two years.

The second key point is that Microsoft can "kill" all the desktop mode they want, but killing the desktop mode does not suddenly make all the hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of existing desktop mode applications disappear overnight. You can pejoratively call these apps "legacy" all you want, the truth is they still exist and enterprises still use them. (And it's not like the app makers can just snap their fingers to convert desktop mode Windows applications to modern touch mode apps. I mean look at Microsoft Office. Microsoft themselves hasn't been able to get it done yet after two years and counting!)

So if Windows 9 (or Windows 9 Red or whatever's next) unceremoniously drops the "desktop mode," that's fine, but all it means for us enterprise folk is that we're just not going to migrate to it until we figure out how to deal with our legacy desktop mode enterprise apps.

Of course dealing with legacy desktop mode enterprise apps in a modern world is kind of our sweet spot. We can run those apps on old OSes and deliver them remotely (VDI, RDS), we can run them in VMs running on older OSes on the clients, we can slap some app refactoring paint on them, we can run them remotely and deliver the important bits via HTML—really the sky's the limit.

So, will Microsoft eventually kill the desktop? Yes. Is Windows Blue another hint of this? Yes. Does it matter to us as enterprise desktop architects? No. Sure, our jobs are complex now, but they're made complex by iPads and users and consumer-focused services and FUIT. Whether or not Windows has a "desktop mode" or not is not something we care about, and it won't affect our end user computing strategy one way or the other.

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I am guessing that developers of enterprise apps are in general not going to rewrite for tile world with 8 or Blue because not enough enterprises will be using it.  Why re-write to serve less than 100% of the market when even those touch devices (ignoring the brain-dead RT for a moment here) will have a desktop mode.

And even the previous paragraph assumes it is possible today to write as good of enterprise app in tile world as you can in desktop mode, which we aren't at yet.

Give it 5 years, then we can talk.


In fact...

...maybe the conversation should be about what obligation that Microsoft has to continue to support the past.  MS has a long history of allowing old crap to work on the new, at least as much as is reasonably possible.  

I sense a change in attitude towards this in Redmond, but only a slight shift.  They simply don't want to continue to support everything forever.  And they are trying to draw lines about this in simple ways today; practicing a more carrot than stick, but there is some stick involved.