The desktop computer: some say it's dying, some say it's waning, while some say it's doing just fine, thank you very much. Regardless of your take, the landscape is definitely shifting, and it's all your fingers' fault. The touch-friendly interface of the mobile device has rapidly become the thing that people expect on all their gadgets, but as we've seen, it doesn't always work -- and work well -- on the PC.
Microsoft has seen the writing on the wall for some time now. "Our journey of touch has actually been a long one. It wasn't until 8 that we said 'Listen, to get touch right, we need to re-imagine the PC.'" That's Chaitanya Sareen, Microsoft's Principal Program Manager Lead on Windows. Basically, he's the guy who oversaw the development for this most recent flavor of Windows, and his tenure in that capacity dates back to Windows 7.
Windows 7, you may recall, followed up on the horrorshow that was Vista. Vista tried to be friendly, secure, and attractive. Instead it wound up being obnoxious, annoying, and bloated. Windows 7 was lean, fast, and by all accounts very, very good -- a practical, logical update that was improved over its predecessor but did nothing to rock the boat. "Learning through shipping is one of the most powerful ways you can learn," says Chaitanya. "Win 7 was a product of shipping Vista."
In that case, being reactionary resulted in a great OS. However, you can't always play it conservative and, with Windows 8, Microsoft made a series of radical changes. Perhaps the biggest? In Windows 8, the desktop isn't really a desktop at all.
"We thought of the desktop as an app," says Sareen. "What if there was a tile that said 'Desktop' and your machine was actually designed to work well with it, you would really get the best of both worlds. That really was the vision." This vision goes a long way toward explaining why the Win 8 desktop can feel so disjointed compared to the rest of the OS: it simply wasn't intended to be a key part of the experience for most users. Unfortunately, nobody told them. Many tried to use the desktop like before, and many found themselves stuck thanks to the removal of many familiar graphical elements and controls that had been there since the Windows 95 days.
For example, if the desktop is just an app, it isn't really serving as the container for other apps, and so it doesn't need a Start button -- though Sareen is quick to point out that there originally was one in preview builds of Windows 8. Its presence, and ultimate absence, was a hot topic amongst the team at Microsoft. "It's important for your readers to recognize that there is awesome debate within the company. It's not like someone sits there and says 'There will be no start button.' It's a long discussion. A very, very long discussion."
The decision to remove it was something of a calculated risk, but it was more than that. "This was an opportunity where you have to teach people things. There's nothing innate about going to the top-right corner and closing something. There's nothing innate about using Ctrl-Alt-Delete. There's nothing innate about resizing a window. You have to learn them over time."
The problem is, for whatever reason, people didn't want to learn this time. They wanted something a little more familiar. Sareen refers to the Start button as a "warm blanket," a comfortable feeling of familiarity that was yanked away as soon as users upgraded. The deletion of the button "was a hypothesis and a thesis we had, and it seemed to study well." Sadly, it didn't play well in the wild, and so the button returned. That addition was one of the most talked-about features in Windows 8.1 and now, with the first major update to that update (called, charmingly, "Windows 8.1 Update"), we see some more concessions in the sake of desktop-friendliness.
The operating system now configures itself dynamically based upon what sort of machine it's running. Touch-focused devices, tablets and the like, will continue to see the same experience as before. However, more traditional PC machines will now see a title bar at the top of applications, complete with the familiar 'X' in the upper-right. Right-click context menus now work on the Start interface, and a power button icon has been added there as well. All logical, sound updates that will make the OS far more enjoyable to use for those with a keyboard and mouse.
All updates, it could be said, that move Windows 8 closer to Windows 7. But don't call it a step backwards. Call it being responsive to lessons learned. "The product is living. There are some times when you have to take a bet, and there are times when you have to adjust what you're doing." Sareen describes the process as "ordering pizza for 1.5 billion people." It's difficult to find a topping that everyone will like on a pizza so expansive.
That number, by the way, is the worldwide install base for all versions of Windows. It's an impressive figure, one that the market is watching closely. With XP retired and tablet sales soaring, will Windows installations rise or fall? To continue strong sales, the Windows OS must continue to evolve, and do so much more quickly than in the past. A three-year lifecycle just won't fly these days.
"You better believe that we are faster and faster responding to feedback than before," says Sareen. "We really believe the product is never done." Indeed, Windows 8.1 Update becomes available roughly six months after the release of Windows 8.1, which itself came 12 months after the release of Windows 8, in October of 2012 -- three years after Windows 7 shipped. Sareen and others from Microsoft declined to speculate when we might see the next major update to Windows, but at this rate it's safe to expect something else before the year is through.
And will that help sales? There are signs of life. For the release of Windows 8 in 2012, Microsoft commanded just four percent of the touch PC offerings at retail. A year later, by the launch of 8.1, that number had climbed to 40. "Are we happy with where it is? I think I would say we always want things to go faster, but there's a certain amount of time it takes these things to unfold. But, to see four to 40 I think is incredible. It's awesome. Would I like it to be 100? Yes. Will it be 100 any time soon? No, and that's fine. These things take time."