Wait a second, wait a second, wait a second. I don’t think the world is adequately excited about what happened this week with Microsoft. This happens often nowadays; the world is never as excited as it ought to be about big news coming out of Redmond. The giant announces something huge, it gets a few links on Techmeme, and then we all go on pretending that the tech world revolves around Cupertino and Mountain View. Which it often does, but still.
In an 8,000-word blog post bursting with new details about Windows 8—which is part of the problem, of course; you don’t get anyone excited by an 8,000-word blog post—Steven Sinofsky, who heads the Windows division, did something that may be unprecedented in Microsoft’s history. He broke with Windows orthodoxy. He dropped backwards compatibility.
We’ve known for more than a year that there will be two completely different kinds of apps for Microsoft’s next version of Windows. You can think of them as “desktop apps” and “mobile apps,” but that’s not quite right. It’s better to think of them as old apps and new apps, or yesterday’s apps and tomorrow’s apps. Old apps are the ones you’ve been using forever on Windows: They require mice and keyboards and usually run in a window taking up a small part of your screen. They’re given full control over your machine, which is sometimes good and often terrible. You can download and install them from anywhere. And they don’t care about maintaining system resources like memory and battery life.
New apps—which Microsoft strangely calls “Metro style” apps—are optimized for touch screens, they usually take up the whole screen, they have only restricted access to your system, they have limited rights to run in the background, and they can only be obtained from Microsoft’s new Windows Store.
Does this sound familiar? That’s right: Microsoft’s new app development process is just like Apple’s and Google’s mobile app stores. But until this week, it wasn’t clear how committed Microsoft was to this new way of creating apps. The company remained mum on a key issue: Would you be able to run yesterday’s apps on tomorrow’s mobile hardware? Sometime this year, we’ll see several Windows 8 tablet computers make it to market. Would these machines be gummed up by the same desktop programs we see on Windows today, including malware and crapware?
This week, Sinofsky answered the question: Nope. Windows 8 tablets will come pre-installed with a few old-style apps, including a new version of Office and Internet Explorer, but that’s it. Third-party developers looking to create apps for modern Windows hardware will have to use the Metro user interface and will have to distribute their programs through the Windows Store. In other words, Microsoft is making a sharp break with the past. There will be no room for crapware on Windows tablets.
Sure, Sinofsky stressed that your old programs will run on Windows 8 for x86 chips—that is, standard desktop Windows—so Microsoft isn’t dropping backwards compatibility entirely. But I suspect that new Metro apps will quickly become the main focus of Windows developers. That’s because Metro apps have a key advantage—they’ll work on all versions of Windows, both desktops and tablets.
This could be a bonanza for start-ups. With a single Windows Metro app, you’ll able to target hundreds of millions of Windows machines of all form factors. And you’ll be able to charge for it. The Windows Store’s compatibility between desktop and tablet machines will make it a significant draw for developers, potentially rivaling even Apple’s app ecosystem.
It’s still a bit early for Microsoft partisans to break out the party hats. The Windows Store will only take off if there are great Windows tablet PCs at reasonable prices that customers start buying. Considering all the wannabe iPads we’ve seen so far, that looks like a tall order. Sinofsky’s blog post prompted some Windows fanboys (yes, they exist!) to start writing the iPad’s obituary. That’s laughable.
But Microsoft doesn’t have to kill the iPad to do really well in the tablet business. If you believe that mobile devices are the future of computing, and that the market for tablets will eventually surpass the market for desktops and laptops by a wide margin, it seems likely that we’ll see several firms grabbing a large slice of the pie. What’s most appealing about Sinofsky’s blog post is its suggestion that Microsoft is thinking carefully about the best ways to approach that market.
In particular, the company has broken free from the need to please existing Windows developers, and it’s setting down several rules that will make sure Windows tablets don’t feel like compromised devices. For example, tablets won’t be able to run any emulated code—if you’ve spent years creating the perfect Windows program, you’ll have to completely redesign it for Windows tablets, because that’s better for users. And Internet Explorer on Windows tablets won’t support plug-ins, including Flash. Why not? Take it away, Steve.
I’m in the record as being bullish about Microsoft in 2012. Sinofsky’s dense, technical post only adds to my optimism. There’s only one thing I wish Microsoft would do now. Please, guys, can you hire a branding expert to fix all your products’ names? What’s with “Metro style apps”? Do you think anyone understands what you mean by that (and why you don’t use a hyphen after Metro)? And here’s another one: “Windows On ARM,” which refers to the tablet version of Windows, and which is distinct from the desktop version, called “Windows 8 on x86/64.” Seriously, that’s what you’re going with?
Here’s a suggestion, for free. Let’s refer to Windows on ARM as Windows Mobile, and Windows 8 on x86/64 as Windows Desktop. And let’s call Metro style apps what they really are: Windows Apps. Or, perhaps, the future of Microsoft.