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

on March 21, 2012

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.