Windows 9: What It Should Be

Posted Sunday January 26, 2014 at 10:14:20 am in Technology

Windows 8 was a necessary evil.

Windows 8.1 is what Windows 8 should have launched as.

Those two sentences sum up my takes on Windows 8 and Windows 8.1. But with that Windows 9 needs to remedy quite a few wrongdoings. But I want to point out that the Modern UI isn't going to go anywhere. And nor should it.

The Early Days (Modern UI)

The Modern (colloquially referred to as Metro) design language has its roots in Windows Media Center and Zune. To those not familiar with the tenets of the Modern UI, it's all about content, not chrome...relying heavily on typography and imagery. This was/is very much in direct conflict with the Skeumorphic design language made popular (and unpopular) by Apple with iOS and OS X.

The Modern design language was a fledgling at Microsoft until the release of the Zune (2006). The Zune expanded on heavy typographic based navigation(found earlier in Windows Media Center) by adding bold imagery to the mix. It was around this time that the Metro nomenclature started being popular.

Since then, the adoption of the Modern design language across Microsoft's entire product line was a slow but necessary one to build a solid identity for Microsoft. Just like people associate Skeumorphism with Apple, people associate Metro (Modern) with Microsoft. We've come a long way from the desktop.

Where We Are Today (Modern UI)

I mentioned that the Zune was released in 2006. And as the entire mobile industry knows, the iPhone was released in 2007. This set the wheels in motion at Microsoft. They needed to hit the refresh button, but they weren't fast enough to release a new OS (Windows Phone 7). So it was with this that Windows Mobile 6.5 was born (2009). Windows Mobile 6.5 was very much a stopgap. Even Steve Ballmer had this to say:

...not the full release we wanted.

I mention Windows Mobile 6.5 because it had a lot of what made the Zune OS (not the product itself) so popular.

Slowly but surely other Microsoft properties started to adopt the design language. Windows Phone 7 was launched in late 2010, the Xbox 360 launched the Metro Dashboard in 2011, Windows 8 was unveiled in 2011 (Developer Preview in early 2012), Outlook.com launched in 2012, and the Xbox One launched in 2013. To date, the following Microsoft properties are leveraging the Modern design language in some shape or form:

  • Windows Phone (mobile)
  • Windows RT, Windows 8, Windows Server 2012
  • Xbox 360, Xbox One
  • Outlook.com
  • SkyDrive.com and all of its apps
  • Other Microsoft properties: Internet Explorer, Bing, Office, etc.

I list the history and the progression to simply make a point: the Modern UI is Microsoft. It's not going anywhere. If anything, it'll continue to be adopted across all of its properties.

But there is one very prominent "area" in the most popular desktop operating system to date that doesn't leverage the design language: the desktop. I emphasize the desktop for a reason. It'll come into play later on in this article.

And it's with this reason that I must talk Windows XP and what Windows 9 has to do right.

XP Is Dead, Long Live 9

As of January 25, 2014, according to NetMarketshare, Windows XP currently commands 28.98% of the desktop operating system market. That is a large number. It is more than Windows 8, Windows 8.1, Windows Vista, Mac OS X, every version of Linux, and everything else that isn't Windows 7...combined. And support for Windows XP (released in 2001) ends April 2014. So it's very, very important that Microsoft gets Windows 9 right, because a good portion of those XP users will be upgrading to Windows 7, 8, 8.1, or 9 (when it's released).

To put it bluntly, Microsoft largely ignored desktop users with Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 (even though there were desktop improvements). It was a necessary evil as I said earlier as Microsoft needed a touch first platform, but could ill afford to release the Start Screen without a desktop counterpart. The Windows Store was immature at the time...and an operating system with 90% of the market looks a hell of a lot more enticing to developers than an operating system with 0%. Yes, new platforms are placed in a vicious cycle from the get-go: developers won't develop for it without users, users won't use it without apps. So, Microsoft did what they had to do: Frankenstein the Modern UI and the desktop.

But during this transition to making Windows a hybrid operating system, Microsoft neglected its largest group of customers: the enterprise. So, it's with that that Microsoft needs to make Windows 9 right. And this doesn't just mean improving the Modern UI. But also improving the desktop.

Back To The Desktop

On October 20th, 2010, Apple held its "Back to the Mac" event. Since then, Apple has largely ignored their desktop OS and professional market until releasing the Mac Pro (2013). Yes, Apple ignored the Mac to focus on its most popular platform (iOS). And who could blame them?

In much the same way, Microsoft ignored the desktop. But while Apple could afford to ignore the desktop (most marketshare sites peg OS X at anywhere from 4% to 7% of the market), Microsoft could ill afford to do so. But they did so. They gambled. They did what they could to get developers to create Windows Store apps. They did what they could to push the Modern UI on Windows.

But the iron is hot. And Microsoft needs to strike. The two most popular desktop operating systems are Windows 7 (47.52%) and Windows XP (28.98%). Windows XP's support ends in April (2014). Microsoft needs to do everything possible to make Windows 9 the success that Windows 7 was.

So what should they do with Windows 9?

Give users options. Don't force their hand. They don't need to any longer.

Windows 9 is most likely going to be released in early 2015. In January 2014, the total number of Windows Store apps was about 145,000. By 2015, Microsoft will have released its Office suite for the Modern UI. It's high time to give users 2 different experiences:

Desktop First or Modern First.

It's quite simple. The default experience should be based on the device. Is the device a touch and gesture first device? If so: Modern First. Is the device a keyboard and mouse first device? If so: Desktop First.

Give your partners the option to set what the default experience is. For new installs, let users pick their experience. Give the user what they want.

So what is Desktop First?

Desktop First

I'll put it quite simply, Desktop First should be a very much improved Windows 8 without the Start Screen enabled. The option to enable the Start Screen should be there, but it should be disabled by default. The user will live on the desktop. And the enterprise and professional users will love it.

Refine the UI. Make it lighter, easier to use. Continue to build on the desktop improvements that came about in Windows 8/8.1 (a badass Task Manager, file transfers, faster bootup, smaller RAM footprint, etc.). There needs to be desktop versions of Microsoft's entertainment services: Xbox Music, Xbox Video, etc. Make any Windows 8/8.1/9, Xbox, Windows Phone, etc. a device that can have content beamed on it (if signed in from a Microsoft account). Make all the default file associations to those of their appropriate desktop applications.

And if you can't/won't make desktop versions of Xbox Music, Video, etc...at least make Windows Store apps run in a windowed mode on the desktop. And make them mouse and keyboard friendly.

Oh, and can we simplify PowerShell? It's getting better, but not quite perfect, yet.

Now, let's compare that to Modern First.

Modern First

I'll also put it quite simply: picture Windows 8.1 without the desktop. But instead of not having the desktop at all, make it an option for users and Microsoft's hardware partners. That is, it makes perfect sense for the Surface Pro to have the desktop. It doesn't make much sense (with Windows 9) for the Surface (RT) to have a desktop. Let the user live in the Modern UI. By 2015 they'll have Office. In 15 months since Windows 8's release, there were 145,000 apps created. I don't think it's unrealistic to say that by early 2015 that there will be at least 200,000 Windows Store apps. Suffice it say the Modern UI should be a very mature platform by then. Let's not forget that Microsoft has its own suite of apps for the Modern UI now. And they'll be more plentiful and mature by 2015.

All Modern First devices should at the very least get Office for free. Anything with a desktop should be a prime target for Office 365. But Modern First devices should get Office for free. It's a selling point now, it'll be a selling point then.

Basically Windows 9 should make the desktop obsolete for Modern First devices. There certainly should and will be Modern First devices that can benefit from the desktop, but those will largely be the exception...not the norm.

Oh, and with the improvements that Windows 9 should (ideally) have in regards to simplifying the experience, overall footprint, etc. By disabling the desktop, Modern First devices should be even more capable than they are today (faster, better battery life, etc.). And let's not forget another great benefit of disabling the desktop on Modern First devices: HIGHER RESOLUTIONS. Yes, users won't have to worry about tinny, tiny desktops. The Modern UI scales well. The desktop? Not so much.

But I don't want to stop at Modern First for Windows 9. I want mobile to converge (somewhat).

Combining (Converging) Mobile

We keep hearing that Windows RT and Windows Phone are going to merge. And damn well they should. Windows Phone is based on Windows 8. And Windows RT is essentially Windows On ARM (WOA). There's a reason why it was so impressive that Windows was able to run on ARM based devices. And now Microsoft can reap the benefits.

Converge Windows RT and Windows Phone. The OS should very much be responsive. And for the most part, the Modern UI plays well into that paradigm. There are certainly edge cases, but I think one of the big selling points of this merge should be the following:

Windows RT should be able to run Windows Phone apps.

By sharing a common design language on a framework that plays well into being responsive (and let's not forget being able to Snap applications), I think it'd be pretty fantastic to be able to run Windows Phone apps on Windows RT devices (right now they're just tablets). This is much different than how Apple handles things on iOS. Right now, iPads can run iPhone apps..but it merely magnifies the apps. There is not a concept of running multiple apps side by side. And there certainly isn't a concept of responsive design when it comes to scaling an iPhone app on an iPad.

FWIW, the inverse I don't think is a great idea. That is, I don't think Windows Phone apps should run Windows RT apps unless the developer has designed the app as such. As a developer, I think it's very important and powerful to have a shared core with a common API. Not to mention: development tools (IDE's), stores, etc. So while you can converge platforms to an extent, you can't always converge (entirely) a user interface. It's possible, but not always a great idea.

Combining Stores

Let me give you an example. Right now you can download and run SkyDrive: through a web browser, Windows, OS X, Windows Phone, Android, iOS, Xbox , etc. Now, imagine if that app cost $5.00. If you're a user and you own a tablet, a laptop, an Xbox, and a smartphone..do you want to spend $5 each time across all platforms? I don't think you should. But I don't think the developer should give it away to as many devices. I think the developer should have control on not only how they price it, but if they want a single Microsoft account to have an app installed on many platforms. Give the developer and user the option.

And for the love of simplicity, can we combine the stores? I know Microsoft is working on it, but I'm real curious how they pull it off.

Licensing

It's high time that Microsoft made it more enticing for its hardware partners to use Windows RT and Windows Phone. I think they should reduce license costs to zero for Windows RT and Windows Phone to push the platforms. And reduce the costs of licensing Windows. If Microsoft wants to stomp the threat of ChromeOS completely, just get rid of the reason partners are supporting it: licensing costs. It's not because of popularity. It's quite simply because of cost. If you look at Chromebooks right now, every single one of them that isn't a Pixel is pretty much old hardware. It's the modern day netbook.

Give your partners and incentive to push certain platforms. And a great incentive is free.

Versions

Make it as simple as possible. Period. Basically there should just be Standard and Professional. No more, no less. Microsoft has gotten better at this. But not good enough. Yet.

Consumer Cost

Now here's the kicker. It needs to be cheap. I think Windows 9 has to be free or something like $15 for Windows 8, 8.1, and RT users. For Vista, 7, XP, etc...it can cost more, but it can't be a deterrant. Maybe something like $60 or so. By 2015 Microsoft should be worrying about making more money through services, hardware, and productivity. They should not put such an emphasis on licensing for operating systems (Windows, Windows Phone).

The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer’s view