Windows 8: Can we live without the desktop?

Windows 8: Can we live without the desktop?

Summary: A simple tweak to make Windows 8 a lot more usable.

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It's quite clear from the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 that Microsoft is scaling back the importance of the Windows Desktop in favor of the Metro UI Start Screen. But is it possible to live without the 'classic' Windows desktop? Over the weekend I decided to find out.

Windows 8 is undoubtedly an interesting platform, but when Microsoft makes it available for download to everyone, what we all do is rush out to install it on any bit of junk that we have lying about the place.

On top of that, we bring to the table our current way of working and thinking about Windows. We want the new stuff to be fresh and exciting, but muscle memory and workflow practices throw us back into a rut, where we want the new stuff to also be like all the old stuff that we know and love.

That's a bit of the problem.

This weekend I decided to take a different approach. Rather than pining away over the fact that the 'classic' desktop is no longer the default, I decided to embrace the change and see if Microsoft has actually made the PC experience better. Perhaps Microsoft has actually achieved what many think is impossible and come up with a more effective replacement for a computing paradigm that's been around for almost 18 years. Maybe the Start Screen really is a more effective and user-friendly than the Start menu and 'classic' desktop?

I hate to burst your bubble, but it isn't, I still feel the same way about the Start Screen as I did when I first saw it back when the Developer Preview was released in September of last year. The only difference is now I have better handle on what's wrong and a suggestion for Microsoft on how to make it better.

Here's what's wrong. I use the Windows Desktop in much the same way that I use my physical desktop. It's a place on which I store two types of stuff. First, there's the stuff that I want easy access to. On my physical desktop that would be things like pens, paper, Post-It Notes, scissors and so on. On my Windows desktop that would be links to applications and websites and so on that I use regularly. My physical desktop and my virtual one are my workspace. I don't keep them tidy, but every so often I sweep away the detritus and give it a little refresh.

I still have the desktop on Windows 8, but it's not a constant as it has been since Windows 95. Rather than reassuringly being underneath whatever applications I'm using, it comes and goes. Working with Metro and traditional applications makes the problem worse even worse because you have to constantly remind yourself of the limitations of metro apps in relation to a 'classic' workflow. Cycling between multiple apps, especially if they are a mixture of 'classic' and Metro is particularly cumbersome.

It's clear to me that even after months of working with Windows 8 that I still need the Windows desktop, and there's nothing that Microsoft has done with Windows 8 so far is enough to wean me off it.

But Microsoft could make a small change to Windows 8 that would unify the 'classic' Windows desktop and the Metro Start Screen. It's a simple change. All it involves is dedicating an area -- maybe optional -- on the Start Screen to mirror whatever documents and links I have on the desktop.

Rather than having a huge, pointless tile that links to the Desktop on the Start Screen, the new 'active' tile would be useful and give users easy access to their Desktop workspace without having to constantly switch to between 'Classic' and Metro.

This simple tweak to Windows 8 would make the platform a lot more usable for me.

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Topics: Operating Systems, Hardware, Microsoft, Software, Windows

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52 comments
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  • That's not the Biggest Problem with Metro

    The biggest problem is the lack of ability to open more than one application at a time and have them display on the screen. The one application at 3/4 and another pinned at 1/4 does not cut it. It is a step forward on small form factor screens, but does not cut the mustard for real work (tm).

    I know, I know, the desktop is still available. But its deprecated, its legacy, its the red headed step child. MS wants Win32/Desktop apps gone and with them an actual windowed workspace.
    txscott
    • You're mixing stuff up...

      Metro is not meant for this. Would you use an iPad this way? No.
      You need the desktop mode. And if you need the desktop mode, you're not the real Metro target audience.

      The identity problem Windows 8 is facing is mostly due to the fact that Microsoft is trying to push Metro into its "desktop" users throat. Once they realize that marketing Windows 8 as one core OS with two distinct experiences, the message is likely to "infuse" into people way easier than it is right now.

      Alienating the faithful user base is not a good idea. And that's what's happening now.
      TheCyberKnight
      • The problem with your argument is not that it's incorrect,

        but that Microsoft disagrees with you. Otherwise they would have made two operating systems.
        baggins_z
      • Two OS?

        I, in my turn, disagree with you.

        There is absolutely no need to have two OS. The Windows 8 architecture is a marvelous idea and the first true converged OS.
        It is just a matter of recognizing that more than one experience is required to fulfill the needs of both consumers and professional.
        TheCyberKnight
      • @TheCyberKnight

        [i]you're not the real Metro target audience.[/i]

        But this is Windows 8 he's talking about. Not Metro. When you think about it that way MS' target audience always has been anyone with a pulse.




        :)
        none none
      • Once they realize

        It took them quite some time to realize that Vista was a PoS.
        polarcat
  • You Did The Wrong Test...

    AKH,

    Metro is for tablet/slates. It is a touch-first experience. Why bother testing it if it is to do it wrong? I really thought for a moment that you would spend the week-end with a tablet running Metro. You would probably have ended up with the same conclusion as mine. Metro is VERY good on a tablet.

    The problem is that it is so good you want to never revert to the inadequate "desktop"mode. Which bring the fundamental problem with Windows 8 at this moment: it is not possible to exclusively live "Metro". Many settings/operations are only available on the desktop mode. And having to switch back to the classic Windows is a brutal reminder that the job is incomplete.

    Microsoft simply cannot afford to ship a product that disastifies both camps: Metro is disruptive for users that need a primary "desktop" experience. The "desktop" is disruptive for Metro users looking for a real "touch-first" experience.

    Windows 8, the [i]no-compromise[/i] OS, in its current offering, is asking from its users exactly the contrary of what is says it is. A compromise.
    TheCyberKnight
    • Your Testing it Wrong is Incorrect

      If Metro is for tablets only, why is it released for installation on desktops/laptops? MSFT says Metro is Windows. That being the case it needs to be tested wherever Windows runs.
      txscott
      • Metro is for tablets only

        Why are people using the "if?" Metro is for tablets/smartphones. Until MSFT come up with a way to have the desktop interface as the default for the millions of desktop/laptop users, Windows-8 will hardly be a success. Windows-8's failure is when MSFT tried to satisfy two entirely different form factors and uses with one Operating System. Compromises never really work well.
        TsarNikky
      • Yes, and as it currently stands...

        ...it's an EPIC FAIL for desktops.

        NEXT
        ScorpioBlack
      • Metro on Desktop

        [i]"If Metro is for tablets only, why is it released for installation on desktops/laptops?"[/i]

        Because the desktop version CAN do both. And this feature can indeed become one of Windows 8 most important advantage over its competitors. As a desktop user, being able to revert to Metro [b]if you need it[/b] is an absolute killer feature.

        The problem now is that Microsoft does not want to let you choose what primary experience you would like to have. They decided it would be Metro even if you stare at your "desktop" mode for hours during the day (like me).

        It is very disappointing to watch this family feud going on. Microsoft is so close to deliver a game changing product. Unfortunately, something/someone is still preventing the right decision to prevail.
        TheCyberKnight
  • Now that it is the 'Post-PC' era, do we have a choice? :/

    (kidding Folks, j u s t kidding)
    Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
  • Surely you already can, no? Just pin the same shortcuts to the start screen

    Surely you already can, no? Just pin the same shortcuts to the start screen you have desktop.

    Incidentally I virtually never directly use the desktop. I only have Computer and Recycle Bin on it. I prefer being able to look at my wallpaper of choice and having to minimize everything just to open something isn't exactly efficient anyway.

    If you dislike Metro that much, don't use it. Just because it's there it doesn't mean Microsoft is forcing you to use it. It's a single click each time you login to completely forget about it.

    I see myself doing just that most of the time and only using Metro for a quick glance at information such as e-mails, facebook etc... Maybe using the Metro Photo app because that's more enjoyable than using something like Explorer.
    bradavon
    • Ummm, not as simple as you expect

      [i]Incidentally I virtually never directly use the desktop. I only have Computer and Recycle Bin on it. I prefer being able to look at my wallpaper of choice and having to minimize everything just to open something isn't exactly efficient anyway.[/i]

      So you've done away with the taskbar as well? And how can you pay attention to your wallpaper of choice if it's mostly covered up with square tiles? Just so you can see the edges?

      I pin my most used programs to the taskbar. It's no big deal to go to the Start Menu and look for something I haven't used in awhile and if that's too big a deal for ya, Rocket Dock is also available.

      [i]If you dislike Metro that much, don't use it. Just because it's there it doesn't mean Microsoft is forcing you to use it.[/i]

      Wanna bet? How about a toggle during setup for those who want it turned off?

      [i]I see myself doing just that most of the time and only using Metro for a quick glance at information such as e-mails, facebook etc... Maybe using the Metro Photo app because that's more enjoyable than using something like Explorer.[/i]

      Well a lot of people out there do more with their machines than what you describe. Besides, I perfer seeing Explorer trees and navigating that way.
      ScorpioBlack
    • Metro is only for review and non-productive activities

      As I have previously posted, Metro may be just the thing for tablet toting pointy haired managers that want to see as little information as possible to avoid confusion. But for people that PRODUCE, that is - are actually PRODUCTIVE, using a desktop and large monitor, Metro is a huge waste of time and space. Again, why do I need to leave the work I am doing on the desktop to go to Metro to start a helper program?

      Also, what happened to that really great feature in W7 that allowed us to see applications in the Start pane along with a list of the files that these programs last operated on and saved?

      AS I recall, that was a GREAT BIG FEATURE that MS used to differentiate the new Vista Areo (another gonner I guess...) from the old tried and true XP. The Vista/W7 Start pane was redesigned TO INCREASE OUR PRODUCTIVITY. But I do not see Metro as a productivity enhancement in any way. It too will be no big deal to those that claim to like it and be a PITA for those that actually work using Windows.
      Splork
  • Organized?

    I feel like I have to ask. Have you tried organizing the links on your start screen? Once I did that it was a lot nicer.
    Darkninja962
    • He probably didn't

      He probably didn't because he would have lost an article.
      Blogsworth
    • I thought the big advantage of using Windows was that Microsoft

      didn't lock you into one way of doing things.
      baggins_z
      • And having the ability to 'organize the links on your start page'

        is forcing you to do it 'one way'? Seems to me that allowing one to 'organize the links' the way you see fit, is the opposite of 'one way'. English must carry different meanings in the Shire.
        whatagenda
  • The real fix is to....

    ...fully support two modes. I don't think that a user needs to completely disable metro, thus cutting themselves off from metro applications. What they need is an ability to set the OS into "Primarily Desktop" or "Primarily Touch" modes.

    In Primarily Desktop, the desktop would come up. You would a traditional start button and menu, with ability to access the metro apps and search options, but wouldn't necessarily fly back to the metro "Dashboard". (Something like StarDock's new start button for Windows 8)

    Here is the key: metro applications would still be launchable from the desktop, but you would have an option to display metro applications in an appropriate sized window. Since many desktop machines have plenty of real-estate, you could easily have a 1366 x 720 window to run your metro app, and see other desktop apps as well. Rather than fully resizable windows for metro, I would suggest only allow snapping to supported resolutions. That way, the user experience that developers have created for metro will still be intact.

    In "Touch Mode" you would have full screen start "Dashboard" so the tablet experience is better. Additionally, you could still access the less optimized desktop apps, and use them in a pinch when necessary.

    For machines that act as dual purpose, such as a tablet that can dock and support external monitors, you could have a setting that allows it to switch from "Touch Mode" to "Desktop Mode" when docked.

    I think this simple feature would help bridge the gap between Windows 7 and Windows 8 and appease many users. I also think, that it wouldn't be a bad compromise for Microsoft and help further the metro cause in a much less painless manner.

    Can this be done....you bet. The simulator that ships with Visual Studio 11 effectively puts Metro in a desktop window....so it seems reasonable that it can be done.
    gomigomijunk