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Windows 8 is Microsoft’s bet on the future

At their developers’ conference, Microsoft unveiled Windows 8 and Metro, a new interface for the operating system marking the 3rd major change in the way windows has run over its history. The changes presented will probably be as significant as the move from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95.

Desktop and the Web as one

Much has been written already about how Microsoft is trying to be all things to all people by offering a single operating system for both tablets and computers. The company announced an operating system that marries a lot of the tablet experience as presented by the likes of the successful iPad, and the many other contenders for the crown currently on the market, with what has more traditionally been known as a windows PC.

Along the way, Microsoft has introduced Metro, a new way to interact with Windows that brings much of the tile-based experience they first unveiled with their Windows Phone 7 operating system. Like them or not, tiles are Microsoft’s attempt at getting a spot at the mobile table and they are now taking this mode of interaction from the phone to tablets and PCs. The Metro UI is probably the single largest change in the way Windows has looked since Microsoft unveiled Windows 1995, an operating system that was a significant user-interface departure from its predecessor.

Lost in the commentary has been the fact that tiles are programmable using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, three core technologies used by millions of developers around the world. With this, Microsoft is basically saying that the languages that power most of the user interfaces for the web should be the languages that power most of the user interfaces for Windows. This is both a radical departure from mainstream thinking (although Palm tried to go down that route with WebOS) and a return to the source for Microsoft.

Looking back, looking forward

In 1997, I had the privilege of being among the people selected as launch partners for Internet Explorer 4. As such, I was able to see the product evolve from idea to release, seeing along the way many false starts and ideas that did not make it into the product. One of the most intriguing idea at the time was that of replacing the UI shell with a web browser one, essentially allowing for HTML  widgets to run directly on a user’s desktop.

I was smitten by the feature and heartbroken when I learned that it would not ship for reason that went beyond the technical. Around the same time, Microsoft was in a major war with Netscape and rumors of an anti-trust lawsuit being launched against the company were swirling. At hand was the idea that Microsoft’s ability to tie the web experience to its near-monopoly on operating systems gave it an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

While it is true that Microsoft had the leading position in the operating system, there was little evidence of the success that resulted from it tying other components to it: its web browser offering were poor and had made little headway in the marketplace, where the Netscape browser held a significant lead. So there was little evidence that just tying two products would help lift both. It wasn’t until Microsoft started matching features with other successful browser that their offering started gaining traction.

But none of this mattered in the fall of 1997 and the idea of integrating a user’s desktop with the web was either too ahead of its time or seen as too risky by the legal departments at Microsoft. The net result was that when Internet Explorer 4.0 came out, the feature to connect web and desktop had been reduced to a way to push content to the browser and potentially use it on screensaver, an offering that fell far short of the promise.

Moving forward almost 15 years, Microsoft is no longer seen as a threat on the technology market. The antitrust lawsuit has made the company tentative in its offering, often staying as far away from controversy as it can. The new darlings of the technology world have taken over most of the mindshare that was held by the Redmond giant and only a few faithful follow what the company is about. It is not a significant player in the mobile phone market at this time (this title is split between Apple, with its iPhone line, and Google, with its Android ecosystem) and many see the tablet market as one that is making the personal computer, the very arena where Microsoft is king, irrelevant.

So the house that Bill built had to do something dramatic to regain attention. It had to offer an operating system that would meet today’s users’ needs, an operating system that could compete, in terms of setting the agenda, with the much smaller iOS and OSX produced by Apple.

Along the way, I suspect that somewhere in Redmond, some of the people who had tied the web and the desktop in 1997 started talking about how this could be their time…

… and the result is the Metro UI:

The first screen in Windows 8

The first screen in Windows 8

OSX Xeroxing or not?

Many of the Apple zealots have pointed to the Metro UI and the fact that Microsoft can still run a more traditional Windows look in parallel as a showcase of why the company will “fail” in the market. They present this as a example of Microsoft being unable to make the tough decision of separate offerings for separate computing devices. They highlight that Apple is much smarter in its approach because it has decided to create two operating systems: OSX for traditional computers, iOS for everything else.

So I think it’s fair to assume that no one can say that Microsoft is looking to copy Apple here. I think it’s OK to point out that Apple fans have basically said that the idea of marrying a mobile experience with a PC experience is not terribly smart.

That being said, it’s also interesting that Microsoft and Apple seem to be sharing a view of the future. And that view seems to say that smaller, single purpose applications bought from an online store will take over your whole screen, scraping away any piece of the visible interface. For Apple, this is best manifested with the version of OSX they most recently released (Lion) which offers the experience I described above and tries to marry some of what the company has learned from iOS with what has traditionally been seen as their computer operating system.

So the idea of an App store is definitely something where Microsoft is following Apple; the idea of running apps in full screen with no vendor interface is also something where Apple had the lead; the idea of bringing tablet and phone-like behavior to an operating system is something Apple has claimed as its own.

So the only question remaining is really: should we have separate operating systems for separate devices or should we have a single operating system that can be used for multiple devices. For Microsoft, the answer is now the latter; for Apple, the answer to date has been that OSX is for computers and iOS is for everything else. My question to Cupertino might be about how long it will be before they decide that one OS is sufficient for both computers and all other devices.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Yup – though they’ll live a good long time, we’ll see MacOS X (and Windows) increasingly marginalized. Many efforts will be made to enhance iOS and Android to take over increasing lengths of the long tail of desktop use cases. Some will be more successful than others. Apps will be ported, “emulators” and “simulators” will be written, desktop-esque features will be added (both good and retrograde). Already, most of the difference between the platforms is in the minds and habits of users. Particularly for those who struggled to learn computers, tiny changes in UI metaphors loom large, making anything new a challenge, even if it improves the overall experience.

    I can’t speak of iOS, because Apple keeps information on its internals secret, but architecturally, Android is  substantially superior to both of the widely used desktop operating systems, and is perfectly capable of growing to fill most desktop roles without revolutionary changes. Amusingly, Motorola will sell you two phones today that are dual mode (Android with a more traditional “windows and folders” Ubuntu desktop that snaps open when docked). Though overpriced, crude and toy-like in this first iteration, it suggests another way these devices are itching to evolve – and probably another advantage in Microsoft’s approach as they do.

    I remain unimpressed with HTML/CSS/Javascript as a platform for technical reasons. I would be surprised if efficiency, responsiveness, stability and high potential for cosmetic problems did not play some role in the lack of “desktop-integrated web” on early Windows as well. If I recall correctly, the hardware of that era brought the performance and reliability of native versus web UIs into particularly stark contrast. That said, today we have many years of sandpapering over the web’s rough edges behind us and quite a few cycles to burn. And technical merit has never been the best predictor of success. So you never know… 🙂

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