Every time I mention the possibility that Microsoft might kill off the Windows desktop, I get pushback from IT admins, power users, developers, and anyone else who currently relies on complex desktop applications and can't imagine such a future. Folks, it's time to face reality. It isn't a question of whether this will ever happen. It's just a question of when.
In fact, we can already see the first steps toward this future in Windows 8 and RT.
I've written before about the ways in which Windows 8 reminds me of the original NT. Windows 8, like NT, is a new platform—in this case the mobile "Metro" platform—stealthily delivered as a traditional version of Windows that can also run existing apps (DOS and 16-bit Windows applications in the case of NT; Windows desktop applications in the case of Windows 8). But Windows 8, like NT, is most notable in the ways that it points to the future. Twenty years ago, that was 32-bit computing. Today, it's multi-touch and cloud computing integration.
I was reminded of this again while recently rereading G. Pascal Zachary's astonishingly good Showstopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft for probably the fifth or sixth time. (This time was on the Kindle, and while I usually prefer this format, it's clear that translation from print to eBook occurred courtesy of scanning the actual book with absolutely no proofreading, so I can't actually recommend that version. But it was still incredible: Do pick up a copy if possible.)
In the book, Zachary writes about how Bill Gates understood "the shock of the new," and that "the mass of PC owners could [only] accept so much innovation at once. Customers wanted to carry the past into the future, so NT must support old [DOS and Windows] applications."
And so it is with Windows 8. If you were to strip away its Metro accoutrements—something an alarming number of users seem quite interested in doing—Windows 8 would be a fine upgrade to Windows 7, with a nice visual refresh and more new features than many seem to realize. Indeed, I've made the argument that the improvements Microsoft made just to the desktop environment in this release make the Windows 8 upgrade a bigger improvement over Windows 7 than that OS was over its own predecessor, Windows Vista.
I know, you don't believe that last bit. Please go back and check out "In Praise of the Windows 8 Desktop" for one rundown of the new features.
And then, come to this disconcerting reality: Despite its improvements, the desktop is going to disappear, just like the command line before it. Not completely, of course, but it is going away.
And this isn't a bad thing.
Consider my earlier NT/Windows 8 comparison. In the early 1990s, Microsoft knew it needed to create a more reliable computing platform for the future—NT architect Dave Cutler once said his goal was to create a system that lasted as long as UNIX had to that point, 20 years, a milestone that NT just surpassed—and so it started over from scratch. This was an effort that future Windows chief Jim Allchin accurately described as "probably the most ambitious [software] project ever completed successfully in the world," and a huge part of its success was that it was able to take on DOS and Windows "personalities," which enabled its users to take those legacy applications forward with them. (Not to mention PC-compatible hardware peripherals and actual PCs too.)
With Windows 8, today's new platform—which I will continue calling Metro—was built on top of the current (NT-based) Windows core, which says a lot for the original NT vision. It sits in Windows 8 alongside Win32, or what we think of as the Windows desktop, as well as other platforms that exist on top of Win32, such as .NET and Internet Explorer. NT was a strong enough base that it can continue. And Metro is essentially just a new runtime engine—or what its original architects might call a "personality" that can (and today, does) coexist with the desktop.
But where NT facilitated the removal of MS-DOS, which was then the core of the 16-bit Windows versions that were current in the 1990s, the Windows 8.x generation will facilitate the removal of the desktop. You can see the first hints of this in Windows RT, the ARM-based Windows 8 version that only provides the desktop because it has to, for backward compatibility reasons. I assume Dave Cutler is quite proud of this accomplishment.
In Windows 8.1, this move toward the end of the desktop is advanced by the maturation of Metro, which in this version no longer requires users to return to the desktop to accomplish many settings changes in the legacy Control Panel. In Windows 8.1, most of the settings that users typically access are available in the Metro-based PC Settings interface.
It's not hard to imagine Microsoft taking the next step in Windows RT 8.2, or 9.0, or whatever, and making the desktop—at least in ARM versions—optional if not completely unavailable. By that next release, the Metro version of Microsoft Office will have shipped. Microsoft can ship more Metro-style utility-type apps on top of the ones it delivers in Windows 8.1. And those who are looking for a pure tablet experience will be able to make that happen.
And while it's not hard to imagine why Microsoft would even want to deprecate the desktop—I see it evolving into an optional, sandboxed environment in future x86 versions of Windows, something like the Classic OS environment that Apple provided for years in Mac OS X—some of the reasoning may be news. Yes, the desktop environment is the root of all evil in the sense that hackers target it and the applications that run within it because the desktop is a wide-open, hard-to-protect mess. But I don't think that's the real reason.
The real reason the desktop is heading into oblivion—is in fact "dead platform walking"—is that it is no longer a vital, viable platform for legitimate developers. There is no example of a major new Win32 app from the past several years, whereas developers have embraced mobile apps and web apps en-masse. Microsoft wants a piece of that action, and it's not going to happen with the desktop.
Furthermore, of the top ten desktop applications installed on Windows 8 today, the top two—Chrome, by a wide margin, and then iTunes—are both themselves platforms whose very aim is to take users away from Windows. And the remaining eight? They're all system utilities that include antivirus/malware applications and those silly little tools that make Windows 8 look and work more like Windows 7. See the problem?
It's clear to me that Microsoft is quite eager to relegate the Windows desktop to the dustbin of history. It's equally clear to me that the company will not admit such a thing now, not while it is trying to convince 1.5 billion desktop-using Windows customers to upgrade to Windows 8 and its mobile device future.
Give Microsoft some credit, though. As with NT, the firm will continue to let its customers "carry the past into the future." In Windows 8.x, this means the full desktop experience. In future versions, it might mean a desktop app that works much like today's command prompt, a vestigial reminder of Windows' past. Beyond that, I bet it's optional. And then gone.
Many reading this are silently compiling the list of desktop applications they can't live without, I know. Photoshop. Visual Studio. PowerShell even. I get it. But the reality is that the desktop is already more of a liability today than a benefit. Even its biggest defenders will admit as much. Including me.