Windows 8 screen shot

Windows 8, Metro, and Desktop: The ISV App Challenge

Windows 8, at least in its current Consumer Preview form, presents a confusing picture to folks trying it out on a conventional, non-touch PC. It’s one operating system with two user interfaces–the traditional Desktop and the new tabletized Metro–and you find yourself jumping back and forth between them a lot.

Windows 8 screen shotBut users aren’t the only ones who will be jumping. The split personality of  Windows 8 creates some big challenges for the independent software vendors whose efforts will play a big role in the new operating system’s success. And these choices will not be easy.

Sticking with Desktop requires minimal changes. Existing programs will run fine, but ISVs looking to update will probably want to include a “touch mode,” similar to that used in the forthcoming Office 15, enlarges icons and other UI elements to make their use easier on tablets or touchscreen PCs. But it remains to be seen how usable these touch mode Desktop applications will be on mouseless, keyboardless tablets. Perhaps more significantly, sticking with Desktop closes an ISV out of the Windows on ARM tablet market because ARM tablets will support only Metro apps.

Apps rewritten (or, to really work well, reconceptualized) for Metro will run on all platforms. But  just as Desktop apps are awkward to use on tablets, Metro apps are not very comfortable on traditional PCs. The requirement that they run full screen, or at best, as a second app in a sidebar, won’t make many computer users happy. (As I write this, I have 10 windows open in 10 different applications on my 27″ iMac.  And by my standards, that’s an empty desktop.)

Microsoft itself is splitting the difference with Office 15. Based on information that has leaked out from test of a technical preview edition, Microsoft is splitting the difference, creating Desktop applications with a Metro look and feel. But Microsoft has a unique advantage: Office applications and the Windows Explorer file manager will be the only Desktop apps allowed to run on ARM tablets.

Most heavyweight Windows productivity applications are likely to stay with Desktop. Filemaker Pro, for example, has no plans for a Metro version of its flagship product, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see a  Metro edition of something like the iOS Filemaker Go for database field entry and lookup on windows tablets. (Filemaker is owned by Apple, but over half of its installed base is Windows.)

Related post: Windows 8 and Mountain Lion: Same Problem, Different Answers

Adobe has invested a great deal over the years in creating an Adobe UI that achieved a high level of consistency between the Windows and Mac versions of its Creative Suite products and I can;t see them giving it up for Metro.  But Adobe has a real opportunity in creating lightweight, distinct versions for Metro. Windows tablets, for example, will desperately need an app to compete with the new iPhoto for iPad, an app that rips the heart out of Adobe’s consumer-oriented Photoshop Elements.

In a world of unconstrained resources, ISVs would develop touch mode Desktop apps that retain the full capability of current versions as well as lighter weight Metro editions. But in the real world, the constraints are tight and getting tighter as the reluctance of consumers to pay as much as $10 for tablet apps puts relentless downward pressure on software prices and margins.

I suspect the overwhelming majority of ISVs will stick with Desktop. That’s where the installed base is and where pricing still gives them a chance to make some money. And that could be bad news for Metro and for Windows tablets, because if the iPad vs. Android has proved anything, it’s that apps are the key to tablet success.



Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

4 thoughts on “Windows 8, Metro, and Desktop: The ISV App Challenge”

  1. Steve, I think you have really hit the proverbial nail on the head. Microsoft’s “solution” to desktop and mobile goes back a decade to their “Windows Everywhere” model. It has failed with tablets and with phones. Rather than abandoning that model, they are simply sticking a version of Windows 7 with an additional Zune Metro (another failure) UI. I have no idea how they can possibly believe that a failed model with a failed UI will result in success, but that’s their decision.

    Apple, on the other hand, saw that mobile is not the same thing as desktop. They have a different interface for mobile (iOS) and for desktop/laptop (OS X). Because they have similar roots, it is easy for the two to transfer data. Is their model better? I don’t know, but certainly it has been a financial success probably beyond even Steve Jobs’ wildest dreams.

    Will MS succeed? Well, they make a lot of money and are willing to spend it in order to support their business model. They lost $8 billion on the XBox before they started to make money. They could only afford it because of the astounding amounts of money they make from their illegal OS and office suite monopolies.

    I have no doubt they will sell a lot of copies of OS8 to manufacturers, but will consumers like it? Only time will tell.

  2. I agree, this review is spot on.
    I’ve said this before but I must say it again. MicroSoft reminds me of the Leacock image: He flung . . . himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.
    What time it shall take to catch up to a fine tuned Apple!

  3. But how well will these desktops with win8 sell remain to be seen especially when many of us use the pc to surf the net and answer email.

    We may need one machine but the rest will be tablets.

    MS and Intel are entering into a period of great uncertainty with the introduction of mobile devices which are small, handy and serve our purposes very well.

    The next killer is the very low cost of the apps and I believe Adobe is also in the same boat which make her money from selling softwares at very inflated prices.

    As mobile devices developed further they will be a force to reckon with in term of low price for both sophisticated hardware and software.

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