As we barrel toward the release of Windows 8 in late October, let’s not forget that this major software milestone involves another related release, Windows 8’s half-brother Windows RT. This ARM-based version of Windows 8 is, I think, a peek at the future of computing, at least as Microsoft sees it. But Windows RT comes to the party missing a key piece of the puzzle: Compatibility with non-bundled desktop applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Visual Studio.
And I think I’ve figured out a way to fix that.
As I wrote last week in "Microsoft Embraces BYOD," I recently spent some time with a Windows RT tablet, and I was interested to see how well VDI and RemoteApp solutions work for running traditional Windows 8 desktop applications under this new OS. Of course, VDI and RemoteApp require some serious infrastructure, too. If only there were another way.
That way could be right in front of our eyes. As you might realize, Microsoft is only allowing new Metro-style apps -- which are now officially called Windows Store apps and can run on both Windows 8 and RT -- to be distributed and updated through the Windows Store. So unlike with today’s desktop applications, you won’t be able to arbitrarily install code from any website or other source. There are reasons for this related to the new apps model, which involves stringent requirements around security, battery life, and performance.
(Microsoft will also allow enterprises to “side load” Metro-style apps through their own company hubs.)
Looking ahead a few months, the typical Windows 8 user will be able to download and install new Metro-style apps only from the Windows Store. Users will continue to be able to download and install desktop applications from anywhere, as they can today.
But the situation is very different on Windows RT. This ARM-based version of Windows 8 will only allow the downloading and installation of Metro-style apps through the Windows Store. But you won’t be able to install desktop applications at all, no matter the source. Windows RT simply comes with virtually the entire collection of built-in desktop applications you see in Windows 8 (aside from Windows Media Player and Storage Spaces) as well as a specially compiled version of Microsoft Office 2013 Home & Student. That’s it.
Obviously, Microsoft is trying to push (force, really) developers and users onto the Metro codebase, with its inherent security, reliability, and battery life improvements. But we also know that Microsoft has ARM developer tools internally, and that it wouldn’t be difficult for the firm to release public versions of those tools as part of the Visual Studio suite of solutions. Why can’t Microsoft allow developers to write Windows RT desktop applications that would need to meet stringent criteria and then could only be distributed through the Windows Store, just like Metro apps?
It seems like the entire process is in place already. All that’s missing is a set of rules for developers to follow -- which could include, of course, an Office 2013 Touch Mode and other multiple-touch niceties -- and, of course, those developer tools. But one might imagine that the biggest software players, especially, such as Adobe, and browser makers such as Chrome and Mozilla, would jump onboard this option much more quickly than they would with Metro-style versions of their most popular applications. It’s just a perfect fit.
Perfect, except for the harsh reality that Microsoft will never allow such a thing. But I think it’s shortsighted of Microsoft to deny the RT platform to today’s software, and to deny potential RT users the best possible experience. There’s a happy middle ground between the Wild West of available-anywhere desktop applications and the strictly controlled Windows Store ecosystem of Metro-only apps. And that middle ground could involve a new generation of more carefully curated desktop applications (which, heck, could be aimed at both Windows RT and 8). Why isn’t this happening?
I’m looking forward to getting at least one Windows RT tablet. But let’s face it: If this platform allowed just the top 5 or 10 percent of popular desktop applications, it would be much less of a chance and much more of a sure thing.