For desktop diehards who thought the next version of Windows might roll back some of Windows 8’s sweeping changes, keep dreaming.
Windows Blue, an update to Windows 8 that will reportedly launch this year, has leaked onto the Internet. Features include new Modern-style apps such as Sound Recorder and Calculator, easier home-screen customization, the ability to make app tiles even smaller or larger and an expanded Snap view that lets each app cover half the screen. Paul Thurrott has good overviews here and here. Engadget has a whole bunch of screenshots.
The most noticeable — and the most positive — change is the dwindling importance of the traditional desktop. Don’t worry, the desktop isn’t going away in Windows Blue, but it doesn’t seem as vital as it is in Windows 8 and Windows RT.
Exhibit A is the handful of new apps that will be built into Windows Blue, particularly Calculator and Sound Recorder. By creating these Modern-style apps, Microsoft is duplicating core programs that are currently desktop-only.
A more significant example is the expansion of the Modern-style PC Settings menu to include things that used to reside only in the desktop Control Panel. These expanded options include default-app controls, time-and-language settings, display options and network settings. Microsoft may also be building sync options for SkyDrive into the Modern-style interface, so you don’t have to go to the desktop to choose which files are stored in the cloud.
The net result will be fewer mandatory shifts between the Modern-style interface and the desktop, and less of a feeling like Windows 8’s big changes are merely superficial. This is especially important for tablets, on which the desktop is a cumbersome tool, but it also makes the new interface more practical for laptops and desktop PCs.
For people who aren’t power users, the new interface in Windows 8 is a simpler alternative to the desktop. The Windows Store provides a safe place for useful, eye-catching apps, and features like Snap and search are more intuitive than their desktop analogues ever were. Windows 8 is also better-suited for future input methods like motion and eye control.
The problem is that Windows 8 still uses the desktop like a sewer system; once in a while, you’ll fall through a feature manhole and wind up there. From what we’ve seen of Windows Blue, fixing this problem seems to be a top priority for Microsoft. As Windows moves more core functions over to the Modern-style interface, the desktop will become more of a utility — something you turn to for a particular task or legacy app.
Of course, power users will howl, but I see no reason that third-party solutions can’t continue to fill in. Programs like Start8 and Pokki are doing a fine job of retaining the desktop-centric experience of Windows 7 and earlier. As long as Microsoft doesn’t kill the desktop completely — something that doesn’t seem likely to happen for a long time — those programs will stick around.
Meanwhile, Microsoft isn’t pulling back on its plans to make Windows a touch-friendly, app-driven operating system. Nor should it if the company wants to compete as the definition of a PC changes.