It seems like the online media is foaming at the mouth about Windows 8.1 Update 1 supposedly making the move to boot by default to the desktop. The first article I came across was by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols over at Computerworld followed by an article at Mary Jo Foley over at ZDNet (who gives the topic a much more balanced treatment).
Where Mary Jo Foley stops at reporting the news, Steven’s opinion piece is vitriolic which is typical of his previous articles. I mentioned to one of my co-workers the other day that I was disappointed in the state of tech journalism these days. Alas, there is only so much news to go around which means that content ends up being rehashed – so the only way to stand out is to write an opinion piece, the more bitter the better.
With that out-of-the-way, I have to acknowledge that where there is smoke, there is fire. So what about the rumour that Windows 8.1 Update 1 will boot straight to the desktop. If the rumour is true it is worth stepping back and thinking practically how this might work.
When Microsoft introduced Windows 8.x, the Start Screen didn’t replace the desktop. Rather the Start Screen replaced the Start Menu. The Desktop was always there in the background, it was just as if immediately after login that the Start button had been pressed and a full screen start menu was being displayed.
I suspect that Microsoft might ideally want to just boot to the desktop by default for devices that don’t have a touch first experience (desktop PCs and laptops) leaving touch first devices to boot to the Windows 8-style Start Screen. This would give users balance the best possible experience on their particular devices form-factor.
Some of the press has pointed out that if you boot to the desktop, then how will users know to launch metro-style apps? Well, remember that the Start Screen did not replace the Desktop, it replaced the Start Menu. So when a user presses the start button on the desktop (or on their keyboard) the Start Screen would still be displayed. If this continues to be the case then metro apps would still be discoverable in a desktop environment.
As Mary Jo Foley pointed out, leaked screenshots of the Windows 8.1 Update 1 UX reveal that users will be able pin metro-apps to the start menu. This means that users could quickly switch between legacy desktop apps and modern apps. I suspect that Microsoft has more plans for blending the metro and desktop environments.
I speculate that in a future release (not necessarily Windows 8.1 Update 1) we’ll see metro apps being able to run in floating windows on the desktop along with API support to make apps intelligently respond to this environmental change. Windows Runtime (or WinRT) is the underlying platform for modern metro applications, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t produce a UI in it that is more optimal for a mouse/keyboard user.
The second change we MIGHT see is a Start Menu / Start Screen hybrid. So far the best concept of how this might work I have seen is this start menu/screen transition video which was posted recently (and received great reviews).
What this video hints at is that the theme for phone, tablet and PC operating systems moving forward is convergence. Microsoft has pretty much confirmed this to be the case for Windows and Windows Phone, but I suspect this will also happen with OSX/iOS. Google is an interesting case because they have two quite different approaches to apps in Android and Chrome OS.
For Windows the key ingredient to convergence is Windows Runtime. Not only does Windows Runtime expose the UI building capabilities, but it also surfaces other OS features, file system, networking, sensors etc. WinRT modernizes key aspects of the existing Windows API (in Win32) in a way that is suitable for desktop, tablet and phone.
In summary, I don’t think that booting to the desktop on desktop-style devices spells the end for either metro, or the Windows 8-style start screen. Rather I think it’s just a continued fine-tuning of the user experience to support as broader range as users as possible. Indeed this kind of UX spread is a necessary feature of a single operating system running on a multitude of devices.