Saturday, December 28, 2013

Windows 8 Metro = Active Desktop? ...also some prognostications

Is Windows 8 Metro the new Active Desktop?

            Microsoft has a history of trying some pretty interesting things, especially when it’s a little behind the curve. Consider Active Desktop. If you ever worked with a brand new install of Windows 98, you remember being greeted with a colorful smorgasbord of Active Desktop content. However, in the last version of Windows to support it (Windows XP), you had to know the feature existed and how to turn it on. Few people used it and it was little missed when it was dropped in Vista and Windows 7.
            Active Desktop died, not because it didn’t serve a need, but because it was unworkable for the majority of users upon release. The power of Active Desktop could only really flourish with a high-speed Internet connection, and in the days of Windows 98, most people were still using dial-up modems. Lower bandwidth implementations of similar technology ruled the day such a PointCast and eventually, RSS.
            Metro appears to be in a similar situation. The full effect of Metro cannot be experienced without a touch screen. However, the proliferation of touch screens is nowhere near the critical mass necessary to establish Metro in the minds of Windows users. The cheap hardware that home users demand won’t come with a touch screen, and business users aren’t buying touchscreens either (and haven’t been really migrating to Windows 8 anyway). This leaves the pro-sumer and high end segments that are willing to churn out $700+ for a traditional PC in the age of smartphones and tablets.
            Windows 8 RT tablets such as the Surface are cheap enough to satisfy the home user crowd, but for anything less than a full PC experience on a budget, Android tablets are more compelling (and cheaper in many cases).

The future:
            I predict that future versions of Windows will continue to synthesize Metro and desktop, with Metro becoming more like the desktop and the desktop becoming more like Metro, ultimately resulting in a unified interface that does away with the current desktop/Metro split personality of Windows 8. The desktop will retain the upper hand, and in Windows 10 or 11, you’ll boot to a very touch friendly desktop and there will be no separate Metro experience. Current Metro (appx) apps will transform into something entirely new, possibly a hybrid between sidebar widgets and Active Desktop content, while desktop apps will also move toward a similar paradigm in which everything is infinitely floatable, dockable, switchable, mashable, shareable, etc. But while this interface will be touch friendly, it will be equally mouse friendly in a way where your method of input is actually rather irrelevant, functionally.
            All the brouhaha over form factors (tablet, phone, desktop, laptop) completely misses the point, technologically speaking, and this where Microsoft is getting it right and Apple is getting it wrong. Already we are seeing the proliferation of new form factors such as glasses (Google Glass) and watches (Samsung) and this will only continue. If Microsoft can evolve Windows into a truly form factor and input agnostic OS it will poised to dominate.
            Some may point to the lack of app development for Windows Phone and Windows Metro, but the traditional OS app barrier will not exist for much longer. Apps are being rewritten for the web at an astounding pace, including Microsoft Office.
            The entrenchment of iOS and Android as touch OSes will prove to be a future handicap without significant forward thinking and development on the part of Apple and Google.

Business and corporate:
            Business is all about manageability and control. Traditional corporate IT system management and security practices and hardware and OS upgrade patterns will not permit the rapid deployment of new technologies. There is a tremendous amount of what I call “compliance assurance” that goes into approving new technology, and it is this compliance requirement that defines corporate IT (at least GOOD corporate IT).
            Vendor software that is rapid-release (Firefox, Chrome, etc.) cannot by definition meet compliance assurance requirements. Thus the proliferation of long-term or extended service releases. Microsoft has not been “rapid-release” with Windows so businesses have been able to run XP for a good long time, and will be able to run Windows 7 for a good long time to come, before being forced to upgrade.
            By the time extended support for Windows 7 expires around the end of this decade, I fully expect Microsoft to provide a new OS that business can work with. As I said above, this OS will work on the desktop as well as it will on a phone or watch. I think corporate IT will be pleasantly surprised with one of the next three releases of Windows over the next 5-7 years.
            However, corporate IT has an extremely powerful trump card: desktop virtualization. Corporate IT can decide to check out of the client OS rat-race at any time and deploy thin-clients (hardware or software) that drop users on a personalized, traditional desktop being run on a server. Besides the uncertainty of what Microsoft will do with the Windows client OS, desktop virtualization is extremely attractive because it centralizes administration and reduces client hardware costs. It isn’t workable in every scenario, but it will work in most. Bring your own device, because we don’t care—nothing is running on your Mac/Android Tablet/Windows PC/Linux box anyway…
            Desktop virtualization stands to be greatly impacted by upcoming Windows releases but this is a complex interaction so I won’t even comment on how that might play out. I will simply say that while Windows will become more flexible, security considerations will tend to keep corporate information assets sandboxed even if the client OS can handle different contexts properly while allowing the users to “mash” them together. This is a can of worms, full of potential hurt for whoever is in charge of corporate IT security, and is one of the greatest reasons why BYOD is unworkable unless the IT department is given complete control over the device.


It’s gonna be ok! While you have to appreciate what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 8, you don’t have to be satisfied. In fact, the best is yet to come. The old saw that Windows versions alternate between great and terrible has some truth because new ideas always need improvement. Windows 8 may not be winning a lot of hearts and minds right now, but it is an evolutionary step in the right direction.

P.S. Hey Microsoft if you are listening: Give me an MMC snap-in or a Control Panel option to manage Metro apps (provisioned and per-user). Why should I have to use PowerShell for this?

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