Five reasons why the Windows desktop isn't going away

The speculation on the next version of Windows (code-named Blue) is getting out of hand. Based on a few screenshots and one offhand remark from a prominent Windows blogger, one of my colleagues is convinced that the Windows desktop is an endangered species. Nope. Not gonna happen.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

I really didn’t want to write about Windows Blue this week.

For one thing, it’s the last day of my vacation. More importantly, there’s practically no actual information about Blue to write about. Microsoft is only talking in vague generalities. I’m not going to download bootleg software from questionable sources and try to reverse-engineer it, nor do I want to spend a lot of time staring at screen shots from people who are willing to do that.


But my ZDNet colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, who seems to write more about Windows 8 than any of the actual Microsoft experts here at ZDNet, has no such compunctions.

Vaughan-Nichols, on the thinnest possible evidence, is convinced that Microsoft is going to ditch the Windows desktop in the next major release of Windows. “No Windows desktop mode!? No!” he writes.

His post begins, “It comes as no surprise to anyone who reads my stories that I hate Windows 8's Metro interface…” Really? Well, at least we can give him some points for honesty.

No points for clear, factual analysis, though. Sorry.

I apologize that you had to read this nonsensical speculation on ZDNet. And even though I didn’t want to do this, I feel compelled to set the record straight.

No, Microsoft is not going to jettison the Windows desktop. Anyone who thinks that’s even remotely possible needs to just stop writing about Microsoft.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Let's start with the “evidence.”

Paul Thurrott, of Windows Supersite fame, has now published two posts about the leaked Windows Blue build 9364.

The first is based on screenshots from a Polish tech blog.

Let me repeat that: An American blogger looked at screenshots of a leaked Windows alpha build published in Polish and wrote detailed captions for them, adding a few morsels of speculation.

Paul then downloaded a bootleg copy of the software from who knows where and did a “quick run-through” in a second blog post. In that post, as an aside, he writes:

More, but not all, of the settings in Control Panel have been ported to the Metro-based PC settings, yet another indication that the desktop environment is on the way out.

There. That’s the line that has my colleague so concerned about the future of Windows.

Of course, I am just a wee bit concerned that his concerns about the future of Windows are less than sincere. This is, after all, the same man who earlier this month wrote Five reasons why Windows 8 has failed, following in the footsteps of his Five ways to skip Windows 8 (July 2012) and Five ways to avoid Windows 8 (May 2012) and Five Reasons why Windows 8 will be dead on arrival (February 2012).

Hmmm. I detect a pattern here.

In the same spirit as those posts, let me lay out the five reasons why the Windows desktop is not going away.

1. Four million desktop apps need to run somewhere. Back in 2010, at the International CES in Las Vegas, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer noted that four million desktop programs run on Windows 7. All of those programs run on Windows 8, too. Backward compatibility is the lifeblood of Windows. The idea that those legacy apps will be orphaned in a single release is ludicrous.

2. Corporate customers and OEMs would mutiny. Corporate customers need to write custom apps that run on Windows. Those apps need to do things that aren’t possible in the highly constrained Windows 8 app model. And those corporate customers with their volume licenses pay billions of dollars in license fees to Microsoft every year for Windows. Say what you want about Steve Ballmer, but don’t try to tell me he’s going to willingly give up one of Microsoft’s most lucrative revenue streams. And if you think that, well, then you probably think Richard Stallman is next in line to be Chief Technical Officer of Microsoft.

3. Refactoring old-fashioned dialog boxes into a more touch-friendly interface is an evolutionary step. The whole point of Windows 8 is to enable touch as a primary user input mechanism, alongside the mouse and keyboard. That makes it possible for Microsoft’s PC-building OEM partners to build hybrid devices that can smoothly shift from conventional PC to tablet and back again. (I looked at three such devices just a few weeks ago.) In the first release of Windows 8, a limited selection of Control Panel functions were converted to the new modern/Metro UI. Did anyone not expect that the long-term goal was to move more and more of these functions to the modern UI? Yes, that means the old desktop Control Panel is being deprecated, and that Windows users will probably need to drop to the desktop less often in Blue. It doesn’t mean the desktop is vanishing.

4. Removing the desktop would be more trouble than it’s worth. Many hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the complexity of Windows. Windows developers have spent years making the OS simpler, and more modular, with some success. But ripping out the desktop completely is, if not impossible, at least highly unlikely. Maybe in a decade the need for the desktop will vanish. But that day won’t come this year or next.

5. Microsoft already has a “no desktop” option: Windows RT. When Windows 8 shipped last October, Windows RT shipped right alongside it. Microsoft is committed to both platforms. One has the ability to run Windows desktop apps; the other doesn’t. Does anyone really believe that Microsoft would dump the OS that sold 60 million copies in its first two months and put all its chips on the one that has sold perhaps a million or two copies in the same period? If so, I want to play poker with you.

As for the leaked build of Blue, all we have so far is a superficial analysis of some UI changes. We don’t know what’s new in the WinRT APIs. We don’t know what changes have been made to the storage subsystem or the security model or the kernel or any of the other crucial Windows internals. For that news, we’ll have to wait just a few months, for the just-announced Build 2013 conference.

Meanwhile, I’m going to predict that bloggers who’ve been hating on Windows 8 and its radical new interface since the day it was announced are going to be dissatisfied with anything Microsoft does with the next version of Windows.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to the beach.

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