Desktop PCs and the Windows desktop: Endangered species?

Desktop PCs and the Windows desktop: Endangered species?

Summary: The PC industry worldwide sold 136 million desktop PCs last year, along with 160 million traditional notebooks driven by keyboards and touchpads. Those big numbers explain why Microsoft is feverishly improving the desktop experience for "the next iteration of Windows."

TOPICS: Windows, Windows 8

At the Build Developer Conference earlier this year, Microsoft officially announced plans to return the Start menu to “the next iteration of Windows,” along with a new option to run Metro/Modern-style apps in their own windows on the Windows desktop.

Microsoft Executive Vice President Terry Myerson made the announcement at the Build Day 1 keynote on April 2, 2014. You can watch the clip on YouTube, with Myerson's remarks coming a little more than two hours in to the morning’s proceedings.

This screenshot is taken from the demo (prerecorded, not live) that played on the screen behind him:


Update: In remarks at the Worldwide Partner Conference the day after this article was published, Microsoft Windows Marketing head Tony Prophet used this same screenshot to describe upcoming changes that will make Windows more attractive for keyboard-and-mouse users.

And this week rumor sites are abuzz over the appearance of a newer version of that Start menu, as seen in a screenshot supposedly taken from a recent (leaked) build of Windows. It could appear as early as this fall.


Assuming that screenshot is legit (and there’s no reason to believe it’s not), then we have a yawner of a story: Microsoft is continuing to develop Windows on a new, more aggressive schedule, with another update probably scheduled for this October and a major new release for delivery sometime in 2015.

Why the renewed focus on desktop users? I can think of 136 million reasons.

That 136 million figure is how many desktop PCs businesses and consumers bought in 2013, according to the latest Gartner numbers. That’s not a bad showing for a technology segment that is supposedly on life support. And the number of desktop PCs sold is likely to go up slightly in 2014, thanks to an improved economy and a business PC refresh cycle driven by April’s end-of-support milestone for Windows XP.

And you could probably add another 160 million reasons to that total, one for each of the traditional notebooks sold worldwide in 2013. That total is separate from the 21 million devices sold last year that Gartner classifies as Premium Ultramobiles, a group that includes lightweight Windows hybrids like the Surface Pro line as well as lightweight conventional notebooks like Apple's MacBook Air.

Although touchscreens are becoming more common, most of those traditional notebooks are still driven primarily by keyboards and trackpads or mice. And that will also be true for the 250 million (combined) desktop PCs and traditional notebooks that will probably be sold in 2015.

Back in late summer 2011, before the public reveal of Windows 8, then-Windows boss Steven Sinofsky wrote a meticulous explanation of the process that led to the design of the Windows 8 desktop.

Windows 8 brings together all the power and flexibility you have in your PC today with the ability to immerse yourself in a Metro style experience. You don’t have to compromise! You carry one device that does everything you want and need.  You can connect that device to peripherals you want to use. You can use devices designed to dock to large screen displays and other peripherals.  You can use convertible devices that can be both immersive tablets and flexible laptops.

Which brings us back to the improvements we’re making to the desktop experience: we believe in the Windows desktop. It powers the experiences today that make a Windows 7 PC the most popular device in the world. So, even if we believe that over time many scenarios will be well-served by Metro style apps, for the foreseeable future, the desktop is going to continue to play a key role in many people’s lives. So we are going to improve it. We’re having a good dialog about what folks might think about our design choices but also wanted to put these choices in a broader context of the unmatched utility of the desktop.

It's a fascinating essay to read three years later, after decidedly mixed reviews for Windows 8 in its first two years.

One phrase in that introductory post leaps out at me today: "Essentially," Sinofsky wrote, "you can think of the Windows desktop as just another app." That's indeed what happened, and perhaps the root of Windows 8's identity crisis. On a tablet, the desktop is just another app, and in fact one you're not likely to use often. But on desktop PCs and traditional clamshell notebooks, the desktop isn't an app, it's a destination, and anything that takes you away from it is a potential distraction.

As I argued six months after Windows 8 was released, that original Windows 8 design was both bold and arrogant.

I believe Microsoft’s motives were sincere, but their decision was mistaken. In the desire to take a bold and determined step into the future, Windows 8 eliminates some of the touchstones of the Windows 7 desktop interface, while still leaving most of that desktop intact.

That decision alienated many desktop users and created a wedge issue that has distracted from the many impressive accomplishments in Windows 8.


Microsoft had the ability to include at least some options in Windows 8 so that upgraders could get the many benefits of the new Windows while still keeping those familiar touchstones. They chose not to. That decision is widely perceived as arrogant. As a result, people who should be happily using an upgrade that’s filled with genuine goodness are clinging bitterly to the previous version. And they're telling their friends.

With the Windows 8.1 update, Microsoft added a slew of features designed to improve the desktop experience for keyboard-and-mouse users. A key part of that update is an increased use of "device type detection," which tailors the Start and desktop experiences differently for different types of devices.

Using that detection logic in Windows 9 to tailor different experiences for different users could go a long way toward winning back Metro haters (especially with an option to choose a pure desktop role for a PC regardless of its manufacturer-defined role).

And make no mistake about it, that's Job #1 for "the next iteration of Windows," whatever it's called. I think desktop computing on Windows and Macs will hang on much longer than anyone expects.

Several years ago, with Windows 7 just around the corner, I looked at the historical intervals between Windows releases and noted that "the most stable and successful releases of Windows arrived roughly 1000 days after their trouble-plagued predecessors." If Windows 9 follows that timetable in the wake of the trouble-plagued Windows 8 release, it will ship on or about July 23, 2015.

Consider this my entry in the Windows 9 release date prediction poll. (You'll get the chance to add your prediction soon.)

Topics: Windows, Windows 8

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  • Desktop PCs and the Windows desktop: Endangered species?

    No. At least not anytime soon until there is a disruptive technology that can do things better than the PC. Wouldn't the 250 million number be higher this year or next year since that is PC's sold last year they won't resell them but that leaves a billion other people with older PCs that can upgrade? I see a lot more potential for the sales. As long as Microsoft continues to make Microsoft Windows as good as it has been and people can run their apps the desktop PC won't be endangered.
    • Microsoft's big mistake...

      Microsoft's big mistake with Metro apps was that they didn't make them useful... on the desktop or to desktop users... who were still 1.3 billion strong at the release of Windows 8.

      It seems like they're fixing most (if not all) of this with Windows 9... and Microsoft will continue to rule the desktop world.

      Hopefully, by making Metro apps useful to desktop users, desktop users will finally start to use them... and like them... and then eventually make their next tablet and/or phone a Windows device.

      I guess we'll see...
      • Windows 8 on a regular computer

        I agree, a lot of the metro apps have zero use for me using my laptop. If Microsoft made a really good WordPad metro app and a movie maker metro app, Metro would have been taken more seriously by desktop users.
        Pollo Pazzo
        • Look Under the Hood

          And not just kick the tires. Metro provides a lot security to apps that are not there in Windows 7 apps. It is just like Vista apps provided a lot of security to Windows XP apps. Vista was an important advance in security. Perhaps over simplified but Windows 7 was Vista with backwards compatibility. It took awhile but now most Windows apps use the Vista security system. Metro apps are an important advance in security. Déjà vu. The next version of Windows will use Metro apps with better backwards compatibility. We will see a transition to Metro apps we will probably not be aware of.
          • sure but

            security and UI are separate issues. even if MS didn't do metro at all they could still bring in improved security.
        • And even the apps that are useful...

          Don't require the entire real estate of my 23" monitor. To this day, I still use gadgets on my Windows 7 computers, and I miss them in Win8. I can glance at a small gadget on my desktop to see the current and future weather conditions, CPU activity, and look at a calendar. I'm hoping Microsoft's new fearless leader will consider these usability factors in future developments.

          But of course, to get to that point, they will have to take a few steps backward:

          "At the Build Developer Conference earlier this year, Microsoft officially announced plans to return the Start menu to “the next iteration of Windows,” along with a new option to run Metro/Modern-style apps in their own windows on the Windows desktop."

          Translation: Due to the overwhelming success of Stardock applications that return familiar functionality to Windows, we are now going to do the same.
      • Microsoft's Big Mistake

        Exactly. Microsoft really goofed by messing with the desktop paradigm in the first place. They should have developed "Metro" as a separate system for mobile devices and left the desktop alone. I have no doubt they could have put hooks (or develop a subsystem) that would have allowed slaving the Metro to the desktop so developers who wanted it could install it under Win7 or whatever. With 8.1 they're much closer to what should have been in the first place but the fact they are trying to make everything (including WINDOWED Metro apps) desktop-centric really vindicates developers that steered clear of this monstrosity and waited it out.

        Yeah, the "app store" is improving to some degree but lack of apps such as "Words with Friends" and other things that everybody seems to be using these days (on both iOS and Android) really speaks volumes about acceptance of "Metro" as a platform. The jury sure ain't out on this one!
        Max Peck
        • Big Mistake? Is it?

          How many people, who don't like Windows 8, will now be buying the new OS? When I bought my latest laptop I didn't have a choice. It was Windows 8 or nothing. I am not a fan. So, come the next release, I will be paying for a new OS. More money for Microsoft!
          Wayne K
          • Mistake

            LOL Wayne! I wasn't saying the thing is totally dead in the water, just that their approach is questionable. When I say the "jury is out" I mean on its acceptance as a mobile platform. I have a Dell Venue Pro 8 myself and it's a nice piece of hardware but as a tablet I routinely put it down in favor of my iPad. I (and obviously a huge section of the market) aren't sold on their mobile implementation. I wouldn't dare give the Venue to my wife. She'd put it down and never pick it up again the way Win8.1 works now. Microsoft has a ton of work to do if they're ever going to compete with iOS and Android.

            As for paying for the O/S, that's pretty inconsequential. Regardless of whether we "like" the thing right now it's one hell of a big product. People will go out and spend $300-thousands on junk like Home Theatres, spinners for the wheels on their cars and gasoline and call those routine expenses - but ask people to spend, what, $100 or so for an O/S and they go apes#*t. The big evil Microsoft. Don't even go there.
            Max Peck
          • 100 dollar apesh*!@ upgrade


            Part of the reason people go ape over a 100 dollar upgrade, is because the only reason they have to get it, is because microsoft stops fixing what shouldn't be broken.

            The only other reason is that microsoft starts refusing to build things for the older os.. take internet explorer as a prime example ... Microsoft got lazy .. rather than build the application better and better.. they tied bits and pieces of it into too many other things, and made it "impossible" to run 10 and 11 on XP ...

            The biggest proof? Every other browser out there that was developed and continued to be developed long after microsoft said IE couldn't play any longer.

            Microsoft will continue to do everything they do, to force people down the microsoft golden path, claiming innovation, claiming security, claiming it had to be ... and yet in each itteration, they deliberately make choices that are counter to what the PEOPLE have wanted.

            There was a time microsoft had followed the same playbook as all the other GUI Windowing systems out there (X, Gnome, KDE, Xfce, LDXE, etc etc etc) in that they worked with themes, other companies even made alternatives for a time (Norton Desktop was decent for its time) the problem is that Microsoft is not continuing down that path and Skinning their OS the way they should have, then this whole thing woudl be moot. Instead they restrict restrict restrict .. Outlook 2013 anyone? can't stand the 3 color salute? grey, darker grey, and white? And when did they deside applications couldn't have user controlled color elements .. boarder, title bar, background, foreground, etc.

            Oh sure.. "theme" it but require users learn XML to figure any of it out.. so they finally stripped out the XP styled "Advanced" color selectors and left you with piss poor options.

            Thats a lot of what gets people APES*** with upgrades too.
          • IE 11

            In your comment you mentioned IE11 although in a different context. I was prompted to comment that IE11 is not an example of "better and better". Microsoft keeps bugging me to install it (I currently use IE10 and Win7 Ultimate 64 bit) but I've resisted because I've read so many negative comments about it.
          • Re: Big Mistake? Is it?

            You did have a choice: Use your downgrade right to install Windows 7 on your laptop. Also, you could buy an Apple laptop or transfer an old Windows 7 license to your laptop.
            Fleet Command
          • Apple - uhhh, no!

            WHY would you pay three times the price for an Apple???
          • No choice indeed!

            I agree! I had to buy a new laptop for school and it was Windows 8 or, as you say, nothing. Thankfully a free update to Windows 8.1 did improve things, but all I really wanted was Windows 7 and my desktop widgets back! I tried installing Linux on here as well... and with the new UEFI instead of BIOS booting the new PC just would not allow a dual-boot setup. I hear there are ways to get Linux on here... but it's going to take a time investment I just don't have right now.
          • Windows 9 will likely be a free upgrade...

   least for Windows 8.1 users, but very likely for Windows 7 users as well. At the very least, I think we will see the upgrade be $40 on a permanent basis. Regardless, the upgrade needs to be easy for users to do it.
      • Windows-9 will tell

        Windows-9 will reveal how well Microsoft has listened to its business/serious consumer users. The desktop will be very alive and well for many years to come--businesses don't and can't afford to change hardware nearly as often as the casual consumer user.
        • Actually, there are some intelligent consumers out here..

          Tsar, I think you underestimate the intelligence of most consumers. There will always be a few "buyers of the newest", but very many of us think of "computers" and the internet as tools in our lives. If so many students weren't living on their parents bank accounts, the constant churn of semi-useful little toys would dry up tremendously. I agree that the desktop isn't dead, but building a business on "pocket money" is proving a lot harder than Micro$oft thought..
        • Windows 9 wil tell

      • Question - what desktop users even *cares* about useful "Metro" apps?

        To me the *hipster* new term "app/apps" to me implies a useful little utility in favor a full fledged powerful application. What "reason" would desktop users even *care* about whether or not they get to use "metro" apps? Your thinking is as flawed as Microsoft's was when it mistakenly thought desktop users *cared* about the "Metro" interface itself. WE DON"T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT 'Met-trough' or 'Met-trough Apps'. If you don't GET THAT yet, I'll say it again so you can read my lips.
        "Apps" in my eyes are "crippled" gimmicky applications, the primary target of which, is tablets.

        I have several applications running on my Windows 7 desktop that aren't called "apps". uTorrent is one of them.

        I don't even understand the reason for the terminology other than because it's the "hip" thing to call software these days?

        I don't give a DAMN whether developers make any useful desktop "apps" because there are already thousands of native desktop applications that already provide functionality at the same level or beyond what any "app" can do.

        The only reason to shoehorn a desktop application into an "app" mold is so that it can be ported and constrained to other less powerful devices.

        God what a disaster Windows 8 has been. What a disaster to recover from.
    • The disruptive technology is ARM.

      Now that they are beginning to focus on throughput.

      Would it do away with desktop PCs? No - it will replace them with ARM based PCs. And MS has already shown difficulty with that platform.

      "Wouldn't the 250 million number be higher this year..." not necessarily. Why upgrade since they are already fast enough?

      "I see a lot more potential for the sales." just not of Windows based PCs. That is more likely to remain static at least for the next year.

      "As long as Microsoft continues to make Microsoft Windows as good as..." This is a severe problem as MS has NOT been able to "make Microsoft Windows as good as" the previous versions. So far, in the last 5 years, not even as good as XP, though Windows 7 comes close to acceptability.