Windows 9 Threshold: Why Microsoft Shouldn’t Kill the Desktop

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Rumor has it that the next version of Windows, Windows 9 or codename Threshold, will automatically disable the desktop on smaller tablets like my Dell Venue 8 Pro. Some people say that this is a natural and logical progression because the desktop on such a small device is impossible to use. On the other hand, one can speculate that Microsoft might remove the desktop because they’re giving Windows away on smaller devices and want to differentiate the free from the paid version.

(Edit: it’s not clear to me that a Windows SKU that removes the desktop is the equivalent of today’s Windows RT, that is, a version that runs on ARM processors and explicitly eschews the desktop by definition. That’s entirely possible, but reading the rumors seems to imply that we’re talking about the version that runs on any device with a screen smaller than 9″. However, if it ends up being the equivalent of Windows RT, then what I write here is probably not applicable.)

Regarding the first argument, that the Windows desktop is impossible to use on a small device, I disagree completely. I’ve found the desktop very usable on my Venue 8 Pro, and indeed rely on a desktop browser (Internet Explorer 11 or Chrome) for my research. The modern UI version of Internet Explorer doesn’t support plugins such as the Evernote Web clipper, at least as far as I can tell, and so my research workflow relies on access to the desktop.

Honestly, I’m curious as to how many people complaining about the Windows desktop on smaller tablets have actually used one. I find the buttons and other controls very easy to access on the Venue 8 Pro with the proper scaling, and have rarely experienced a situation where the desktop was so uncomfortable that I longed for a larger screen. I don’t use the Dell for my most complex tasks, but for content consumption, general research, and light productivity work it’s been a very useful and pleasant device.

The second proposition, that Microsoft wants to remove the desktop to differentiate the free version, makes some sense at first blush. Certainly, one could argue that Microsoft can’t give Windows away forever so long as the free version provides exactly the same functionality as the paid version.

However, if Windows 9 does remove the desktop, for whatever reason, then I hope that the modern version of IE 11 is updated to support robust plugins and extensions, and that Evernote and other developers enhance their current offerings. In addition, the modern UI version of Office had better be fully functional, and the Windows Store had better be much more fully stocked, or devices such as the Venue 8 Pro will lose a tremendous amount of their present value.

Today, Windows 8.1 tablets of all sizes make for great media consumption devices because most or all content providers, including HBO, Showtime, Starz, Hulu, and others, can be accessed via the browser. This is true regarding the desktop browser; I haven’t verified that it’s quite as true regarding the modern UI version of IE 11, which has occasional issues with Flash and other software layers. If these content providers can no longer be reliably accessed via the browser, and if they don’t provide modern UI Windows 9 apps, then smaller Windows 9 tablets won’t be competitive when it comes to media consumption.

In addition, and perhaps most important, the ability to run desktop Windows apps has so far been the saving grace of Windows 8.1 tablets, no matter the size. The Venue 8 Pro’s screen might be smaller, but it’s better to run a desktop Windows app on a small screen than to not have access to the required functionality at all. In short, if Microsoft removes the desktop and developers haven’t released enough high-quality modern UI apps, then small Windows 9 tablets will suddenly be at a distinct competitive disadvantage.

Now, one might argue that removing the desktop will force developers’ hands, and that perhaps they’re not creating modern UI apps on Windows 8.1 because the desktop bails them out. That’s entirely possible. One might also argue that Universal Apps, or the ability to write one app that can run with minimal changes on both Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1, will also greatly increase the number of modern UI apps. In general, though, this is a huge gamble on Microsoft’s part, because if the apps don’t come soon enough, then they’ll have essentially neutered Windows 9 and drastically reduced its value on smaller tablets.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Microsoft does here. Hopefully, they’ll make the smart decision and at least offer the option of running the desktop on all Windows 9 machines. To date, I don’t see customers or manufacturers complaining about paying for Windows on larger devices but not on smaller ones. Maybe there’s a pricing issue that’s holding back the sale of larger Windows 8.1 devices, but that’s not going to be solved by gimping their smaller cousins.

Either Microsoft makes the desktop optional, or they open up the coffers and spend some of their billions of dollars in cash on convincing developers to start making modern UI apps. If the Windows Store is in the same shape when Windows 9 ships that it’s in today, then the lack of a desktop could kill the small Windows tablet market.

And I have to say, I certainly won’t be terribly pleased if my Venue 8 Pro suddenly becomes a paperweight.

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