Windows 8.1 Makes a Case for Ditching the Desktop

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft is finally getting there.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

When Microsoft first revealed Windows 8.1, many pundits fixated on what they saw as backpedaling. The fact that Microsoft was bringing back a Start button, and making it easier to stay within the confines of the desktop, they said, was a sign that Microsoft had gone too far in pushing the new, touch-friendly side of Windows 8.

While Microsoft has made some concessions for desktop users, the company hasn’t stopped pushing. Windows 8.1 is full of major improvements to the modern-style interface (formerly known as Metro). Apps that were previously cheap imitations of their desktop counterparts are now capable alternatives. Tasks that once required you to visit the desktop have migrated to the new interface. And although Microsoft hasn’t duplicated the windowing system of the classic desktop, it’s created a new one that’s in many ways simpler and easier.

As an experiment, I’ve been trying to do all of my work today within the modern-style interface, using the preview build of Windows 8.1. This isn’t something that everyone can do–lots of people rely on specific software that isn’t available through the Windows Store or a web browser–but since my primary work tools are web-based, working with modern apps isn’t a problem. While there are things I miss about the desktop, Windows 8.1 makes a strong case for doing everything within the modern-style interface. It’s the first version of Windows in which the new interface can become a replacement for the desktop, rather than a supplement.

New Kinds of Windows

The biggest improvement in Windows 8.1 is the expansion of Snap, a neat trick that lets you run multiple apps side-by-side on the screen. Windows 8.1 increases the number of apps you can snap on the screen at once from two to three, and the size of each frame is now fully adjustable.

While working in Windows 8.1, I’ve been using Snap to keep an eye on e-mail and Twitter in their own separate frames, and using a text editor to write in a third frame. Occasionally, I’ll open Internet Explorer in the main frame to check on the TIME Tech chat room or to read news stories. On a laptop, it almost feels like I’m working with multiple monitors.

There is a bit of a learning curve to Snap, especially now that you can have three apps open at once. Juggling multiple apps can be a hassle, because there’s no simple way to swap the order of open frames. Still, it’s easier to set up several snapped apps than it is to place multiple windows side-by-side on the desktop. And while desktop applications aren’t always designed to run in small windows, most Windows Store apps support Snap, and will adjust automatically as you change the size of the frame.

win81IE

Jared Newman / TIME.com

Desktop-esque Web Browsing

One of my biggest problems with the modern-style interface in Windows 8 was the lack of a window structure for web browsing. I spend a lot of time in the browser, with lots of tabs open at once, and on the desktop, I’m used to grouping these tabs into windows. (One for e-mail and other communication, one for writing, one for various articles and research.) Most tablet operating systems–including Windows 8–don’t allow this kind of organization.

In Windows 8.1, you can open up to three separate instances of Internet Explorer 11 by right-clicking or long-pressing on a link or open tab, then choosing the option to open it in a new window. This gets a little tricky, because the second window opens up in Snap view (see above), but if you then hide that window, you can still access it through the tabs menu or the recent apps list.

Another big change that makes IE11 more like a desktop browser is the option to always show the address bar and open tabs. Enabling this option in Settings creates a permanent bar on the bottom of the screen, so you can quickly switch between tabs.

These two new features go a long way toward making the modern-style Internet Explorer feel like a desktop browser. This is the first time I’ve felt comfortable using the app for serious work.

Work to Be Done

Windows 8.1 still has its fair share of rough edges. The Mail app, which received a big upgrade in March, still needs an easier way to navigate through messages, such as swiping or up/down arrows. I’d like to see multiple window support in more apps, such as the new Calculator (so you could calculate two things separately). And while the Photos app now includes a basic image editor, Microsoft should really do a full-blown, modern-style overhaul of Paint–something that could compete on a basic level with Photoshop.

Also, though it’s no fault of Microsoft’s, the near-complete absence of Google services is still a drawback. Google has only offered a basic all-purpose app for Windows 8, and it’s no better than accessing the company’s services through a browser. There’s no Gmail app to stand in for the default Windows Mail app and no Google Drive integration, and in lieu of an official YouTube app, the Windows Store is rife with imitators. Google is not opposed to being on other platforms, but has shunned Windows 8 because the audience isn’t big enough. Hopefully that will change as Microsoft makes the modern-style interface more alluring.

Then there’s the biggest missing piece of all, Microsoft Office. Microsoft knows the cursory touch-optimizations in Office 2013 aren’t enough, and the company does plan to release a true modern-style version of the software. But it won’t be ready until 2014. Until then, the modern interface of Windows 8 will have no chance of replacing the desktop for a lot of people.

Why Modern-Style Matters for Productivity

Using Windows 8.1’s modern interface wasn’t just an experiment for experiments’ sake. The PC I’m using has a touch screen, and I’m warming to the idea of using it more regularly. All the apps I’ve been using are designed for touch, and reaching out to tap or swipe has its perks: I can zero in on opposite ends of the screen faster, and it’s more enjoyable to swipe through web pages than it is to scroll with a trackpad. I still loathe the idea of giving up mouse input entirely, but devices where the trackpad is secondary–like Microsoft’s Surface or Sony’s Vaio Duo 11–are starting to make more sense.

The challenge for Microsoft, then, is to create a better touch-centric productivity platform than iOS or Android. The booming iPad keyboard market is proof that tablets can be used for work (no matter how often people try to deny it), and while the desktop helps Windows stand out for productivity, on touch devices the modern-style side of Windows needs to be just as capable, if not more so.

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft is finally getting there. The whole concept of the modern-style interface has plenty of detractors, but for those who don’t want to confine themselves to the desktop, Windows 8.1 is a glimpse at what’s possible.

Stay tuned for more on Windows 8.1 in the days ahead. We’ll be looking at more of the modern-style interface, and yes, at the desktop too.

42 comments
Jason_DD
Jason_DD

Microsoft can kill the desktop UI if they want to. This is good for Microsoft, who can finally seal off the market and have their own controlled app store. Let's all support this!!

We want Microsoft to make money don't we?

bmorgan269
bmorgan269

You must be insane. If you are TIME's technology expert then TIME is a worthless 'rag mag'. Windows 8.1 is a DISASTER!! (To any professional software developer) Have you taken the time to review Microsofts' own answers area? No ISO's for re-installation. SSD problems when users have re-directed their user area? (Not to mention the inability to type in this useless comment area without losing characters...) What sum of money is Microsoft paying you for such a useless review? You obviously have no tech experience in the real world...  

jeremyclarksonrocks
jeremyclarksonrocks

8.1 is certainly "better" than 8.0, in the same way that dysentry is often better than malaria.

Doesn't make it "good" though, does it?

specific200
specific200

I stopped reading after these two comments, since it's obvious the author knows nothing about desktop, nor Windows.

(1) Windows 8.1 increases the number of apps you can snap on the screen at once from two to three, and the size of each frame is now fully adjustable.

(2) Still, it’s easier to set up several snapped apps than it is to place multiple windows side-by-side on the desktop.

 Answers:

(1) Yeah, we've been able to have 50000 program windows opened at once since windows 3.1. That's why it's called "Windows."

(2) "Task-bar>Show Windows Side by Side." Again, the key word here is "windows" not "window."


Author, you're an idiot.


morejunk
morejunk

Oh yet another "tablets are gonna kill desktops" story.  "Tablets are gonna kill desktops" has because the new "20XX is the year of Linux on the desktop!".

I'll be more willing to believe the whole "tablets are gonna kill the desktop" schtick as soon as someone explains why laptops never killed the desktop.  If a less powerful computer didn't kill the desktop how is an even less powerful computer going to kill the desktop? (Spoiler Alert!: It's not.)  A tablet will never be as fast as a laptop and a laptop will never be as fast as a desktop.  You have to give up something for the small form factor and performance is the first thing to go.  So let me help all you tech writers out there.  Just because desktops are still rectangular boxes does NOT mean that the guts inside the box are the same when you get a new... box.

So just give it up.  The desktop isn't going anywhere.  Windows 8 (& 8.1) will be fine as soon as everyone stops their collective freak out because "SOMETHING CHANGED!!!  I HATE CHANGE!" and realize MS just turned the "Start Button" into a "Start Screen".  As a software developer my productivity was unaffected after about the 3rd day.  Win key, click, Visual Studio/Office/Firefox/etc... launches.  It's like a miracle, except it's not.

bcmugger
bcmugger

What a completely assinine article. If you folks want your touch crap thats fine. But stop trying to ruin the desktop for the ones that have to use it on a daily basis.

SMP
SMP

The author is right, Windows 8 does make a great case for ditching the Windows desktop. 

However, once that decision has been taken, iOS and Android are way better implementations for tablets and hybrids as most users are finding.


MFer
MFer

Yeah great case was made if you don't have a clue.  Just what I want a bunch of panels on my two 27 inch monitors, instead of running 28 programs at a time with any size windows I want, placed where ever I want... axxHoles with obvious graphical ways to manipulate them... or are hidden keystrokes and fixed sized non-overlapping windows that morph into 27 inch gray areas... a step forward?  In what morons mind?

therealdude
therealdude

I hope I sense an Xbox type revolt if they ever do away with the desktop. It would be uber annoying to have to go back to a whole new screen every time you want to do something as simple as launch a program. I know it's already that way but there are ways to get around using Metro's full-screen and use it as though it were "Aero". If they ever remove the desktop altogether, you'd be forced to use this full screen garbage...if you stayed with MS that is.

AsokSmith
AsokSmith

I completely fail to understand how adding back a Start Button that does not take one to the Start Menu, but instead takes one back to the hated, excrable, productivity-killing, single-window, touchy-feely, flashy-jumpy-blinky, no taskbar Metro UI is making a "case" for ditching the desktop. This is one of the stupidist articles I've read yet. People writing these kinds of articles apparently have no idea in the world what people in commerce do with PCs, how they use them, or even why.But don't feel bad, apparently Microsoft doesn't either anymore if they think anybody in the ernterprise or SMB would ever seriously consider replacing mouse and keyboard PC inputs with touch.

Touch on a PC is about as useful as teats on a boar hog. Actually, less useful. Does Microsoft really expect 100 million CAD/CAM designers, accountants, and other industrial content makers to hold their arms up horizontally all day inaccurately poking smudges on their 42" monitors with their fat fingers, working at 1/100th the speed as before Windows 8 with 1000 times the physical effort, in the mean time destroying their neck and shoulder girdle? Touch is an extremely low bandwidth input method with horrendous inaccuracy and extremely harmful ergonomics when compared to a keyboard and mouse. Touch might be ok for looking up the latest cat video, or tweeting, texting, or talking, but that's about it.

LutzBarz
LutzBarz

I used Windows 2000NT years ago for word processing. Now I'm on XP Pro. same difference. wasted effort and windows blah blah touch screen [I have to move actually forwards - not good] does nothing is nothing. why even bother? it's not even innovative. just another complication of something that had worled 13 years ago. who knows Apple might win yet!

FernandoMartinez
FernandoMartinez

I don't think the start button is back... fell most like they put an image over the area where you have to click to go to the metro screen... you STILL have to make a "right click" to open up that awkward looking menu that now has a "shutdown" option when we are already used to the shutdown through the "charms" panel... also If you click on the "start button" you get back to the metro screen.... I mean, I don't think you can say the start button is back is the same thing...and all these other "new features" don't add much and it kinda doesn't makes much sense...maybe if metro was for "tablets only" but still feels like having two OS in one and even though that doesn't sound like a bad thing, when you use two different OS you use one or the other and you're not switching back and forth and that's what Windows 8 is... I like Windows 8 metro interface but I don't know, they should leave metro for tablets only or just use one or the other but not both.. there's personalization through metro screen and personalization through Desktop??!!

alexis.3.reyes
alexis.3.reyes

It amazes me that how much users admit they hate change and the fact that they have learn a new OS as if we were meant to be stuck with the same system for the years to come. I.T is all about innovation and improvements from previous technologies, although there is times where instead of moving forward pushing towards the edge of technological advanced society, we as humans have a much larger stock of unsuitable users who complaint about the littlest things. If you can't adapt to changes please remove yourself from making foolish comments and disregarding newer products as garbage. Leave the feedback/constructive criticism to those who can clearly see where the beta product is heading and what can potentially become.  Steve Jobs was right when he stated "death is very likely the single best invention of Life."  Death remove those who are stuck on their old ways and reluctant to changes, always paving a way for a younger generation to lead/discover  a more sophisticated way of life.

davrus
davrus

What you did not discuss, is the reason why so many computers still run XP, and why they have not changed.  One main reason is that Corporate IT does not like change - because they do not have a budget that enables them to replace thousands of PCs in one go, and retrain thousands of users in one go.  XP computers provide the computing power that business needs for the majority of its users, and they run the applications that business needs to run the business.  Windows 8 requires new hardware, and total replacement of all software, and total retraining of all users. It ain't going to happen.  Thats why Windows 7 didn't get in to corporations (and that is a much easier transition than Windows 8).

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

Dear Microsoft,

People hate change.

This little truism is usually lost on those who embrace it, but believe it or not, technophiles, people really do hate change.  A LOT.  Once they get used to something, they want to deal with that something all the time.  Granted, they COULD get used to a something else, but let's not mince words here.  

People HATE change.

That means making things different EVEN IF IT'S "BETTER" (as in more efficient, quicker, easier - for someone who knows how to do it) is a VERY BAD THING for those who aren't looking for "better" and only want to do what they already know how to do.  This is something that virtually every techie just doesn't get.  When people do things slower, harder, less efficiently, techies are all over them.  But here's the thing...  You don't fix what ain't broken.  So what if a person has a word highlighted and could just type to replace it, but instead clicks to the end of the word and laboriously uses the backspace key to delete it all (I know many who do that!) and then types in their word?  IT WORKS FOR THEM.  They get confused by "just type" when there's something there.  THIS IS THE LEVEL OF THE AVERAGE COMPUTER USER!

PEOPLE HATE CHANGE!

So now that Windows 8.1 has brought back the Start button, all is well and good with the world, right?  Nope.  It's a handicapped Start button  It doesn't have the functionality that all start buttons back to Windows 95 had.  Another point to make is that unlike every Windows OS since Windows 95, there is NO OPTION FOR A 'CLASSIC' WINDOWS SKIN.  People can't get back to at least something that mostly works like it used to work and mostly looks like it used to look like.

PEOPLE REALLY HATE CHANGE!!

Now, the really funny thing is that compared to Windows 8, Linux is more Windows-like than Windows 8 is.  Assuming the Open Source community gets its collective sh*t together and pushes for more "stupid user" friendly ways of dealing with the OS (and yes, that means creating GUI on-click commands instead of leaping to the command screen and typing in the contents of a can of Campbell's Alphabet Soup to fix a minor problem, and making driver installation stupid-simple for them), this hard left turn into some strange finger-painting-obsessed dimension of touch-screen hell that Microsoft has done could be the best thing for Linux since the invention of the OS kernel.  Make it very "Windows-like" (as in Win 95-Win 7) and you'll see more IT support people installing Linux on Win8 computers for their end users.

PEOPLE REALLY, REALLY HATE CHANGE!!!

This would actually reduce the learning curve for them since they are able to do what they want, mostly the way they want to do it without a huge learning curve.  To most people, a widget is a made-up term from the 1930's meaning "some kind of manufactured thing".  An app is just an Egyptian snake that someone can't quite pronounce right.  They understand "Programs", and can't find them in Windows 8.  After all, these are people who don't get the concept of what a highlighted word means.

PEOPLE BLOODY WELL HATE CHANGE!!!!

Now, if Microsoft had INCLUDED provisions for the computer illiterate so that they could get back to - and STAY - in the UI-land in which they were raised, Win 8 would have NO DETRACTORS - at least none with any great validity.  But in its infinite reach for money, they came up amazingly short-sighted.  They threw billions of barely computer literate end users, who have a hell of a lot of money they'll be spending on other kinds of computers now, under the bus of business expediency.  It would not have taken that much of an effort (they had the damn code right there!). 

PEOPLE REALLY BLOODY WELL HATE CHANGE!!!!!!

Instead, long-term windows users were exposed to an assortment of eye-bleeding colors and winking, blinking, spinning, sliding, flashing, BS'ing tiles they didn't understand, didn't want, certainly never wanted and absolutely never asked for with no way to get back to any place that looked even remotely sane to them.  So let this be an object lesson for Microsoft.  When making strategic business decisions, keep in mind that there weren't that many people using Windows 3.1 to piss off when you went to Windows 95.  But there are a hell of a lot more to piss off today by taking away any of the functionality of that stupid, little start button.  After nearly 20 years, people get used to things being a certain way even if it isn't perfect.  The least you could have done, Microsoft, was give them their imperfections back.

PEOPLE REALLY, REALLY, REALLY HATE CHANGE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Stop letting the techies lead, Microsoft.  It works for Apple because their customers have more money than sense and have bought into the whole "ecosystem" nonsense that limits choices and drains wallets.  Yes, you drool at the thought, but your user base is ten times theirs and you have room to be compassionate.  Start building OS's designed by real people.  Or you will find yourself looking at the rapidly-disappearing in the distance taillights of another OS like Lunix who might actually have done something you didn't: Realize that people hate change.

One can only hope you picked up on the subtle hints to that effect which I left in this open letter.

Sincerely,

Dewey Sayenoff

Craig.Herberg
Craig.Herberg

After using 8.1 preview for a few days, I'm starting to like it a lot.  Since I have a desktop, I have it boot directly to the desktop.  Everything you need is within reach, but, as others have mentioned, it does have a bit of a learning curve.  For me, the idea of one OS for all of your devices is quite appealing.

RickHunter
RickHunter

Why in the blue hell does Micro$oft feel like they have to change everything every few years?  For us old heads here who are NOT "Techies", the constant changing is something that really infuriates me.  I was perfectly happy with XP... now, for my last computer (because I desperately held on for Vista go to the way of the Dodo), I had to go to Windows 7.  I am still feeling my way around that and all of a sudden, this Win8 crap comes out.


For those of us without the time OR patience to keep learning new OS's every few years, try keeping things the way they were.  Micro$oft likes to put out multiple versions of the same bloody OS... well, leave one OS designed for Desktops and stop gumming up the works!

jcjet
jcjet

I hate all the 8's It seems techies keep fixing whats not broken. Catering to social Media buildups weather we want it or not. Everything I do on my computer for hours per day is made harder. I want my structure to stay essentially the same everytime I log on. I dont want my visited sites automaticly put into little square boxes across my screen.I realize youth are the innovators but cant you innovate without messing with my structure. Perhap a new choice of features. Everytime I log on lately something has been altered. I am forced to spend time putting things right again. Perhaps Blackberry changed themselves right out of business. Facebook is doing the same. What made facebook so great has changed  and been replaced with  chaos. We go to our page things are moved around, altered, sometime on a daily basis, a mishmash of interferrence.

mahadragon
mahadragon

No matter how you slice it MS is not doing it right. It's like the way Apple released their maps app, it wasn't a finished product. MS has upset many people with Win8 it has left a bad taste in many people's mouths.

Also, no matter how you slice it, Win8.1 will feel like an awkward, clumsy product. You still have an OS with 2 distinct OS's.

Live tiles for most people are like zombies that just won't die and keep

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

I still think it should be called "Windows 7.9"

pharmassist
pharmassist

I'm actually quite excited to see where windows is headed.  I'm a little more confident in Microsoft after what I saw at the build conference this week. 

MichaelOldman
MichaelOldman

Nice article.

Despite the dire complaints of the critics - windows 8 is the best thing that has ever happened to windows, and 8.1 will just be another huge improvement on the best OS in the world!

PerryBradfordWilson
PerryBradfordWilson

"The biggest improvement in Windows 8.1 is the expansion of Snap, a neat trick that lets you run multiple apps side-by-side on the screen. Windows 8.1 increases the number of apps you can snap on the screen at once from two to three, and the size of each frame is now fully adjustable."

Well, in the old days we called this "multi-tasking," and instead of "frames" we called them "windows," and it isn't so much a "neat trick" as it was a standard of every decent operating system.

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

Microsoft isn't paying you enough to compromize your integrity like this.

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@morejunk The term "desktop" in this story refers to the desktop UI, not the desktop PC form factor. There's a case to be made for using the Metro UI on a laptop or desktop, as explained above.

And when did I say that anything was going to be "killed?"

steelcuda
steelcuda

@AsokSmith Have you used Windows 8?  I do app dev all day with mouse and keyboard on Windows 8 just fine.  Touch is useful when touch is useful as the author said (web, docs, games, pictures, etc).  You are right, a CAD/CAM designer isn't going to use touch when doing those tasks, nor does he have to. 

specific200
specific200

@LutzBarz  

I agree. For people who need emails and  word processor, and a little music or photos, then can do all that with a Linux Diistro that costs nothing, like Linux Mint. I loaded Mint on my lifetime Window's user sisters laptop, and she never looked back. And since she uses Google Drive for personal files, she knows how to reload her entire machine with the bootable flash drive I gave her. She hasn't called me for computer work since!

Jason_DD
Jason_DD

@alexis.3.reyes

Your comment makes me sick.

How can something that has limited functionality and exists mainly as a blatant money making scheme for Microsoft be consider innovation? There's nothing innovative about Metro. It's copied from Apple for starters. If a change is for the better then great, but this change is just a another step towards controlling the platform in order to monopolise the market.

You're the sort who will have Google glasses on all day, probably having adds and banners flashebefore your eyes and call it progress. You should get a life.

therealdude
therealdude

@RickHunter It's the general attitude of MS in recent years. I suspect it's the CEO. Look at the mess that happened with Xbox One and with Win 8, which has arguably been a failure. It's like they have a direction they're determined to go and they don't care if consumers hate it. That's something new to me because it's the first time in my life where a company openly and blatantly hasn't cared at all what it's customers think.

Jason_DD
Jason_DD

@mahadragon

The funny thing is they continue not to do it right, digging a deeper and deeper hole for themselves. Like those stupid tablets. Even the Windows Pro tablet is crap. I work in college in Europe and I never see these devices. People who want desktop functionality get a laptop. It's ten times better. Good battery life, sturdy solid case to protect it, proper keyboard. Then for a table they have an iPad or something similar.

mahadragon
mahadragon

...continued from previous comment...

...rearing its ugly head because the vast majority of programs people use on the desktop are optimized for keyboard and mouse and Modern UI is optimized for touch screens which most users don't own.

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@PerryBradfordWilson "Still, it’s easier to set up several snapped apps than it is to place multiple windows side-by-side on the desktop. And while desktop applications aren’t always designed to run in small windows, most Windows Store apps support Snap, and will adjust automatically as you change the size of the frame."

pharmassist
pharmassist

@WilfTarquin it's an opinion piece.  get over it. 

what, people aren't allowed to express their feelings over something? 

specific200
specific200

@newmanjb @morejunk  

See my comment above. You obviously have no clue about how to use Windows Desktop. If you did, you would realize that Desktop is light-years ahead of apps as far as functionality goes. There isn't one thing an app can d better than desktop "programs" except make navigation easier on small screen devices--which is why they were invented. Having three apps on a 1920x1200 26" triple monitor platform is a complete waste of screen real-estate, and much less efficient than having programs open in their own windows available by a click or a tab tap.

specific200
specific200

@steelcuda 

That true, but MS has more than implied it wants to get rid of desktop. The author seems amazed that you can get three whole apps open side by side. I trade stocks and have 15 windows opened at any one time. And I have access to them immediately--as you well know--by using the task bar or Alt-Tab. I can put them side by side instantaneously, or hide them all in one shot. Apps are great for finger like needs, that is, for small screens. But touch on a desktop or laptop, I jsut don't get it. 

People like the author who only run a couple "apps" all day don't even need a computer in the first place. They need a zombie console or, at most, a Chrome type book. But their ignorance both infuriates me, and astounds me, when they think a desktop replacement is found in apps.

bcmugger
bcmugger

So said the MS fanboi...got investments in the POS called windows 8?