The Windows desktop environment has traditionally been dominated by 'rich' applications that are feature-packed and multipurpose in nature (think of something like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word or Mozilla's Firefox), but with Windows 8, specifically Windows 8 on ARM (WoA) devices, the pendulum is swinging the other way, towards lightweight, single-purpose, touch-based apps such as those found on smartphones and tablets.
Will Windows 8 be the death of 'rich' apps?
I think that the answer is yes, but that Windows 8 will be long gone and forgotten before 'rich' apps are gone.
I've written before about how one of the strongest points of Windows is the legacy support it offers for software and hardware. I wrote this on the subject earlier this month:
First, legacy. One of the things that keeps people using Windows is excellent legacy support. Windows offers unprecedented support for old hardware and software. It’s one of the things that Microsoft is good at doing. This comes at the cost of bloat and bigger install images, but increases in disk capacities and processing power have offset that. With the move to ARM, there is no such thing as legacy. The word will not apply. The slate will be wiped clean and it will be a fresh start.
WoA hardware won't offer any support for existing x86 software (all the stuff that you've already bought and paid for), and the only source for apps that you'll have is Metro apps from the Microsoft app store or side-loaded enterprise apps (it'll be the same model as currently applies to the iPad), and it's unlikely that these Metro apps won't be 'rich' apps.
I'm not alone in thinking that 'rich' apps are dead. But I'm also not alone in thinking that the demise of 'rich' apps won't happen overnight. Here's how Patrick Moorhead, former VP of AMD and now president and principal analyst at Moor Insight & Strategy, sees the situation:
I’ve heard the argument that says, “rich” apps are yesterday and the apps of the future are like Metro. To some extent they are right, but if you were around when the market moved from DOS to Windows, you know if took years to make the switch. Many enterprises still use DOS-based apps in a shell today. Just like many consumers fought moving from DOS to Windows, many will fight moving from Desktop to Metro. There are differences between then and now. The biggest difference is that on WoA systems, users won’t be given both, they will only be given one choice, Metro. Secondly, there isn’t a good way to make a dense layout work on Metro. Some will be OK with it, some won’t. Those who won’t will buy systems based on Intel or AMD.
WoA will mean the death of 'rich' apps on ARM hardware right from the start, and users will have to choose whether they're happy with this and buy into the platform or choose to stick with Intel or AMD based systems (although it's possible that this will still mean being exposed to the touch-based Metro UI, even on non-touch hardware). But Metro apps will also be available for Intel and AMD (x86) hardware, and users will have the choice of traditional 'rich' apps, or simplified Metro apps. Because Metro apps (like iOS and Android apps) will be significantly cheaper than corresponding 'rich' apps, this will mean that they will appeal to users (cheap always appeals). Also, the simplicity of such apps is likely to be attractive to many. Over time, cheaper Metro style apps are likely to erode the dominance that 'rich' apps have on the desktop, and as a result of this the landscape will evolve.
Note: Bear in mind that there is always a tendency to move towards complexity. As devices such as smartphones and tablets get faster, it's possible that Metro style apps could evolve into something that's between the simple apps we see today and the more complex 'rich' apps.
There will always be room (and a need) for 'rich' apps, but cheaper, simpler apps will be attractive to consumers and enterprise alike (assuming developers get on board). But I'm also willing to admit that it's quite possible that a few versions of Windows on from Windows 8 that Microsoft will have fostered an ecosystem that allows it to make Metro apps he default and relegate 'rich' apps to legacy.
That will represent a massive shakeup of the PC industry.