Microsoft starts de-emphasizing the Desktop with Surface 2

Microsoft starts de-emphasizing the Desktop with Surface 2

Summary: Microsoft has removed the Desktop tile as one of the Start Screen tiles it displays by default on its ARM-based Surface 2 devices. Here's what's changed.


A number of us who've been using the ARM-based version of Microsoft's Surface (and the underlying Windows RT operating system) have been wondering how long it might take Microsoft to remove the Desktop completely from the platform.


We still don't know when Microsoft will pull the Desktop plug, but it appears the company has taken a first step in that direction.

Microsoft has removed the Desktop tile as one of the default Start Screen tiles displayed on its second-generation Surface 2 devices, as first reported by Tom Warren at The Verge. (I'm betting the situation may be the same on Nokia's just-announced Lumia 2520 ARM-based tablet.)

The Desktop has not been removed. It is still there on the new ARM-based tablets. It is still listed as one of the apps installed by default on new Surface 2 devices. But it's not pinned to the Start screen, like it was with the first-generation Surface RT devices.

The Desktop is currently required, even on ARM-based devices, in large part, because most of Microsoft's core Office programs are not yet available as Metro-Style/Windows Store apps. There is a Metro-Style OneNote and a Metro-Style Lync client, but no Metro-Style Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Outlook apps. There are Metro-Style versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint coming (codenamed "Gemini"), but they aren't expected to be available until some time in 2014. (My tipsters say around "summer.")

I just received from Microsoft my Surface 2 review unit on October 22, the date the devices went on sale. Because I used my existing settings when setting up the device, a Desktop tile did automatically install for me on my Start Screen. But for those who haven't used Windows RT before, the Desktop tile won't automatically show up as a Start Screen tile.

"If you want a Desktop tile (ala Windows 8.0 RT), you can go to All Apps, and the Desktop tile is in the list of apps there," a company spokesperson told me when I asked. "Simply right-click, or press-and-hold (with touch), and you can pin it to the main Start screen and make it as large as you want.”

What happens once a user opens a Desktop version of Word, Excel or PowerPoint, I asked. The response:

“The only desktop apps without modern versions which run on RT are the Office apps: Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. In order to streamline access to them, we pinned those apps directly to the first page of Start. Clicking any of these takes you directly to that Desktop app. You can also bring up the switch list from the left edge if you have a Desktop app open and click Desktop to get back to the Desktop."

But back to Gemini for a moment. Microsoft execs have gone on the record saying that they are (understandably, for competitive reasons) not going to deliver touch-centric versions of Microsoft's Office suite for non-Windows platforms before they do so for Windows. I heard a while back that the target for iOS and Android tablet versions of Microsoft Office might be Fall 2014 — which makes sense if you believe Microsoft won't get its own Gemini suite out much before Summer 2014. 

After Apple's announcement yesterday that it plans to drop the price of its own iWork Office apps to zero (from roughly $20 for the full suite), it's been interesting to see some of the reactions. They've spanned everything from Microsoft is really doomed now, to Microsoft must immediately release Office for iPad. Ironically (or maybe not), many of those spouting these sentiments are the same ones who've been predicting no one will want or care about Office on the iPad.

I'm happy I'm already getting Office apps — albeit ones that don't support macros — available for free on my Surface. (Update: Previously, these apps were missing a number of features in their full-fledged cousins, but now they're only missing macro support.) I'll be happier when I get more touch-first versions of them for my ARM-based device. But Desktop or no Desktop, it's nice to have them there for the relatively few times I need to use them.

Topics: Microsoft Surface, Microsoft, Mobility, Tablets, ARM, Windows 8


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Are they not still full office apps based on average user needs?

    I thought the only features missing from the Arm based version of Office is Visual Basic support.
    • Yes and with every office app pinned to the start screen theres no reason

      to keep the desktop pinned there. Every app you can run in the RT desktop is already pinned so why pin the desktop as well? They're just cleaning things up a little.
      Johnny Vegas
  • Actually it's a few more things than just VBA that aren't in there

    Hi: Here's a list of what is different (last I heard):

    Mary Jo Foley
  • Not sure, but I think he meant 8.1?

    "If you want a Desktop tile (ala Windows 8.0 RT), you can go to All Apps, and the Desktop tile is in the list of apps there," a company spokesperson told me when I asked.
    Youssef Samir
    • This.

      All Microsoft really did was remove the tile by default.

      It's still there for people who want it, like power users or when Office launches.

      No problems here, since all you have to do is pin it back to the Start Menu.

      (Touch: Tap and Hold the Icon, options will appear at a bottom ribbon)

      (Mouse: Right-click the Icon, you'll get options)
      • An ephiphany

        Of course it isn't a problem, it's a sign. A sign from on high. The oracle Mary Jo is showing the direction that the olympus gods will take in the coming years. The desktop is dead! Long live the desktop!
        • The consumer desktop may very will be dead but there may always be ...

          ... a professional and a "prosumer" segment who will want/need the Windows Desktop.

          The Surface 2 is intended for the consumer and, if developers jump on board, it is entirely possible than within the next year, the typical consumer could completely dispense with the Windows desktop on the Surface 2 tablet.

          The rest will turn to the Surface Pro 2 - for the professional or to Windows 8.1 tablets from OEMs for the "prosumer".
          M Wagner
          • I agree

            Windows RT and Windows Phone will become the OS that consumers need. As Microsoft keeps improving RT and WP they will be able to run all consumer apps. Business needs are different and while the modern Windows Apps will not replace the critical desktop apps businesses use throughout a work day any time soon. Businesses will not even start to look at that for another year or two and then an additional few years to rewrite those applications.
    • Task Bar for Metro apps...

      Microsoft really needs to give us a Task Bar for Metro... and then there would be no need for the desktop at all. The new Task Bar should include both Metro & desktop pinnable apps.

      In other words, say you're working in Word but want to quickly check the weather. Instead of going all the way back to the Start Screen, you could simply pin your favorite weather app to the new Task Bar... and simply by moving the cursor over the pinned app, one could quickly see the weather, or stock quotes, or whatever. A right click would reveal even more detailed information--a Metro "jump list."

      I really hope they do this. It'd make Metro a lot more inviting and useful to desktop users... and it would quickly wean people off of the desktop altogether.

      One Start Screen. One Task Bar. One Windows.
      • swipe

        if you swipe from the left edge of the screen about .5"-1" then back you get the "taskbar" for metro.
        • missing the point

          A hidden taskbar isn't informative, and needing a special gesture for a core feature is a dumb idea.

          And by the way, the gestures are completely different with kbm (which Surface has), so it's not even a matter of learning one thing.
      • If there is no place except the Start Screen, there is no need ...

        ... for a taskbar ON the Start Screen. From within any Metro app, you can use the Start button to get back to the Start Screen. To keep from scrolling, you can use the smallest tile size on he Start Screen and only put those items you use a lot on the Start Screen. Those lesser apps then can be removed from Start since they will only be one more click away.
        M Wagner
      • I like that idea

        Though, by grouping you can effectively do that anyways. Though without desktop you can't do those desktop things like dragging files around between windows, etc. Admittedly not your usual tablet tasks, but they are tasks that make RT good.
  • No big deal

    It's not a big deal they removed the Desktop tile for Windows RT. This platform is really about the apps, and if it wasn't for Office and access to few system settings, it wouldn't even be missed there.
    • and links

      to websites which circumvent the app problem
  • Metro Office

    Really hoping Microsoft plans to make Metro Office available to first gen Surface owners. I forwent trading it in for a new Surface 2. It still meets my needs as a student and travel companion, so why go through the hassle, especially when Best Buy isn't interested in paying out a great deal?
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • Microsoft on wrong track

    Given the lack of interest in Windows 8 RT or the lack of interest in Windows 8 all together. It troubles me to think this is only a start to the direction Microsoft is going. Does Microsoft realize that in not too long (2 or 3 years) much of apps used will most likely be available through any browser on any OS. That not only solves every sync compatibility and sharing problem. But also eliminates the need to stay in a ecosystem of companies like Microsoft, Apple or Google. If Microsoft actually had success with Windows 8 on tablets. I could see them accepting the pain of losing PC users. But this whole platform has not done well by any stretch.
    • Apply

      They are accepting applications to replace Balmer - maybe you should apply. FWIW, there are more W8 users than all versions of OSX. By your standard Apple should drop out of the PC business.
      • Of Course

        since new PCs are coming packaged with Win 8, most people in the market for a new PC have little choice but to get it (unless they get it built to specs with something else), and despite that Win 8 is performing badly compared to Win 7 and even Vista, and many on XP are resisting change. Mac has always had a much smaller percentage of the market than MS, so making that comparison instead of noting trends is not a great analysis. Windows appears to be sticking with a gameplan that has already backfired. This doesn't mean Windows should drop out of business (something not suggested) but that it should reconsider its strategy, particularly if reasons for brand loyalty (e.g. the fact that Windows is the most universal operating system) start to vanish.
        • windows 8 > wndows7

          in terms of speed, windows 8.x is at least as fast as windows 7. overall I like the OS better (just don't ever user use Metro - set it to boot onto the desktop and use desktop IE). Nevertheless I still use XP and I love it.