Unless Microsoft pulls an Apple, they won't bet the company on Windows 8

The one thing that Microsoft must never imitate is Apple's restrictive policy about software that it does or does not allow to run on its systems.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Like many of us who ply the geek trade, I've been giving Windows 8 a lot of thought. Like you, I've been wondering about Microsoft's foray into whole Metro thing, and just how much trouble it'll make for us IT folks and users in general.

ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan's recent article Windows 8: Give Microsoft credit for betting the farm had me ruminating on this all weekend. Is Microsoft really betting the farm on Windows 8?

I don't think Microsoft's betting the company on Metro, for one simple reason: Microsoft isn't Apple.

Oh, sure, Microsoft has the potential to want to eat the forbidden fruit and follow Apple down the rabbit hole of enforced computing. If they do that, if they prevent users from actually using their systems in meaningful ways, then Microsoft is in real trouble. Let me illustrate.

See also: Windows 8 Metro UI and how previous attempts to revamp the desktop failed

Historically, Microsoft has always had a "thing" for finding the next big desktop UI innovation. Each iteration of Windows has had some "great" new mode or some "great" new way we'll all interact with our computers. And, with each new iteration, Microsoft got a few things right and utterly failed in other ways.

Take Microsoft Bob, for example. Microsoft Bob is now the go-to example of a failed UI experiment, but back in the days of Windows 95 and Windows NT, Microsoft really believed they needed a kinder, gentler UI instead of Program Manager for casual users. They were convinced Bob was the answer.

Uh, not so much. It was terrible. Now, if Microsoft had shipped Windows 95 with Bob as the only interface and if Microsoft's OS had been like iOS, there would have been no way to tweak the system, remove a stupid option, and go on with our work just like, if you'll pardon the expression, Bob's your uncle.

Then there was Active Desktop and Channels for Windows 98 (although it was hinted about for Windows 95). Oh, you don't remember Active Desktop, do you? It was the thing, the big Internet-transformative feature that everyone would use with Windows 98.

You could lock Web pages and widgets onto your desktop and they'd always be there for you. Oh, goody! It was PointCast for the Desktop, and like PointCast, no one cared.

Sure, there are still high-profile, productivity transforming downloads like the Louisiana Bikini Team 2003 Desktop Calendar 2.03 still available in ZDNet downloads (seriously!) for your Windows 98 Active Desktop, but what was once a central push is now long forgotten.

Of course, if you were forced to only use Active Desktop, like Apple forces you to only use the iOS icon interface, Windows might not have grown in popularity the way it has.

Even the powerhouse known as Windows XP had some silly UI enhancements, although they were not nearly as intrusive as Bob, Active Desktop, or Metro. Microsoft took a page from Bob and gave us Clippy in Office, and animated Search companions like Rover, Earl the surfer, and Merlin the magician.

Vista was a universally reviled release. But if you waited a year or so after golden master to install it, until the various drivers worked, it was actually quite a fine OS. Vista introduced the Aero look, which was fine except it took too many CPU cycles for many of the computers of the day, giving everyone the impression that Vista was slow.

But, more to the point, Microsoft also introduced the Windows Sidebar and Desktop Gadgets, again reasoning that we're all about having little panes or gadgets on our desktops so we can always know the weather at a glance.

No one cared.

Not to be undone, Microsoft came out with IE 8 and "WebSlices". This was going to be a whole new way we all wrote Web pages, because darn-it-all, we want widgets on our browser home page.

No, no we don't.

By now, you can probably see a trend. To Microsoft, the forbidden fruit seems to be these widgets/slices/gadgets things, because they've been trying to tell us how important they are for over a decade.

None of us care. And now, Metro is all about the widget interface, front and center. And none of us care. Unless we're planning on giving up our iPads for a Windows tablet, no one will really care about the touchy-feely interface of Metro.

But that's okay, because those of us with real work to do need real desktop interfaces to do that work. And while Microsoft may ship Metro as the forced UI of Windows 8, some enterprising utility writer will offer a DeMetroifyer program within weeks of Windows 8's release.

We'll all run DeMetroifyer, and go on with our merry way, enjoying the faster boot times and higher reliability of the Windows 8 experience.

And that's where Microsoft differs from Apple. Apple will not let you modify your system. So even if those tiny icons on my iPad folders infuriate me, I can't change them. Even if I'd like to add (or even write) a better launcher program for my iPad, I can't, without jailbreaking the device.

But for Windows, all it'll take is buying or downloading a nice, helpful utility and the productivity inherent in a grown-up, big boy and big girl operating system will be back in our hands.

It's clear Microsoft has some Apple envy. It always has, otherwise we wouldn't have icons and windows that work the way they have since Windows 95. The one thing that Microsoft must never imitate is Apple's restrictive policy about software that it does or does not allow to run on its systems.

That -- and to a large degree, that alone -- would be a bet-the-company mistake.

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