Windows 8: Can we live without the desktop?

A simple tweak to make Windows 8 a lot more usable.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

It's quite clear from the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 that Microsoft is scaling back the importance of the Windows Desktop in favor of the Metro UI Start Screen. But is it possible to live without the 'classic' Windows desktop? Over the weekend I decided to find out.

Windows 8 is undoubtedly an interesting platform, but when Microsoft makes it available for download to everyone, what we all do is rush out to install it on any bit of junk that we have lying about the place.

On top of that, we bring to the table our current way of working and thinking about Windows. We want the new stuff to be fresh and exciting, but muscle memory and workflow practices throw us back into a rut, where we want the new stuff to also be like all the old stuff that we know and love.

That's a bit of the problem.

This weekend I decided to take a different approach. Rather than pining away over the fact that the 'classic' desktop is no longer the default, I decided to embrace the change and see if Microsoft has actually made the PC experience better. Perhaps Microsoft has actually achieved what many think is impossible and come up with a more effective replacement for a computing paradigm that's been around for almost 18 years. Maybe the Start Screen really is a more effective and user-friendly than the Start menu and 'classic' desktop?

I hate to burst your bubble, but it isn't, I still feel the same way about the Start Screen as I did when I first saw it back when the Developer Preview was released in September of last year. The only difference is now I have better handle on what's wrong and a suggestion for Microsoft on how to make it better.

Here's what's wrong. I use the Windows Desktop in much the same way that I use my physical desktop. It's a place on which I store two types of stuff. First, there's the stuff that I want easy access to. On my physical desktop that would be things like pens, paper, Post-It Notes, scissors and so on. On my Windows desktop that would be links to applications and websites and so on that I use regularly. My physical desktop and my virtual one are my workspace. I don't keep them tidy, but every so often I sweep away the detritus and give it a little refresh.

I still have the desktop on Windows 8, but it's not a constant as it has been since Windows 95. Rather than reassuringly being underneath whatever applications I'm using, it comes and goes. Working with Metro and traditional applications makes the problem worse even worse because you have to constantly remind yourself of the limitations of metro apps in relation to a 'classic' workflow. Cycling between multiple apps, especially if they are a mixture of 'classic' and Metro is particularly cumbersome.

It's clear to me that even after months of working with Windows 8 that I still need the Windows desktop, and there's nothing that Microsoft has done with Windows 8 so far is enough to wean me off it.

But Microsoft could make a small change to Windows 8 that would unify the 'classic' Windows desktop and the Metro Start Screen. It's a simple change. All it involves is dedicating an area -- maybe optional -- on the Start Screen to mirror whatever documents and links I have on the desktop.

Rather than having a huge, pointless tile that links to the Desktop on the Start Screen, the new 'active' tile would be useful and give users easy access to their Desktop workspace without having to constantly switch to between 'Classic' and Metro.

This simple tweak to Windows 8 would make the platform a lot more usable for me.


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