There has been a lot of discussion here lately, both in posts such as Why IT buyers are Excited About Convertibles and Hybrids and Microsoft Surface: How Relevant Are Legacy Apps and Hardware? about the failings and the potential of Windows 8. So inspired by these posts, and even more so by readers’ comments on them, here is a radical if only partially baked idea: How about a hybrid operating system for hybrid devices?
In Metro (I’m going to go on calling it that until Microsoft comes up with a real alternative), Microsoft has designed a very good user interface for tablets and touch-based apps. The legacy Windows Desktop is still an excellent UI for a traditional mouse-and-keyboard PC. But in bolting the two together in Windows 8 and, to a lesser extent, Windows RT, Microsoft has created a very ugly two-headed calf. The tendency of Metro to pop up while you are working in Desktop, and for Desktop to be necessary for some tasks even while in touch mode, renders both interfaces far from optimal.
Microsoft should do three things. The easiest is to get Metro out of Desktop by allowing booting into Desktop and restoring traditional UI elements, such as a start menu, that were removed from Windows 8. Fixing Metro is harder. Basically, Microsoft has to finish the job by creating features, utilities, and apps that allow the user to do everything in the touch interface. The toughest challenge is Metrofying Office. It would be extremely difficult to recreate all the functionality of Word, Excel, and the rest in a tablet app and almost certainly unwise to try. Instead, Microsoft has to pick a core feature set that can work in a touch interface on relatively small screens and build the applications around these. (If reports are to be believed, Microsoft is doing this for iOS and Android anyway; why not Windows?)
But the really cool thing would be hybrid Windows for hybrids, a shape-shifting operating system designed for a new generation of devices that can convert from traditional PCs to tablets (the forthcoming Surface Pro probably belongs in this class.) Why not an OS that presents the traditional Desktop UI when the device is being used with a keyboard and touchpad or mouse, then converts instantly and automatically to a touch-first Metro-type UI when the device transforms?
The key to making this work is the use of solid state storage, which allows for very fast saving and restoration of state. I envision a system where you could be editing a Word file in Desktop, then switch to tablet mode, where you make some changes to the file in the touch version of Word. When you switch back to Desktop, Word would still be open with your file, but it would include the edits made in tablet. I suspect that the Desktop and Metro versions of programs would still have to be different applications and this would require closing and reopening of files when switching modes. But SSDs can make this happen so quickly that the user will barely notice.
I’m not suggesting this is at all a trivial job or that in can be done very quickly. The Office project alone is a very large undertaking, one that I can only presume is already underway, although Microsoft has been totally silent about it. There is a great deal of work beyond that, and third-party software vendors would have to get on board with mode-switchable versions of their applications. But the result would be new and exciting computing experience.