Desktop PCs and the Windows desktop: Endangered species?

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."
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.)

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