Why Microsoft can't bury the Windows 8 UI

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Microsoft is reportedly considering bringing back the Windows Start button and allowing users to boot to the traditional Windows desktop in the next update to Windows 8, according to Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet and Tom Warren at The Verge.

That would certainly please longstanding Windows users -- like me -- who find the modern UI introduced with Windows 8 to be harder to use on a regular (non-touch) PC than the traditional desktop. 

Apparently I'm not alone: Stardock has released a couple of applications, ModernMix and Start8, which send Windows 8 back to a slightly earlier state -- ModernMix turns the modern environment into just-another-app on the traditional desktop, and Start8 restores the Start button. More than 3 million people have downloaded Start8, even including one Microsoft executive whose computer we saw at a recent event. 

The steep fall in PC sales last quarter also points to a problem with Windows 8. It's certainly not the only reason for the slowdown in traditional form-factor PCs, which has been going on for a couple of years now -- the broader economy and a shift to simpler devices like the iPad for consumers are also to blame. But overall, Windows 8 has not spurred the kind of growth in PC sales that previous versions of Windows did, and has not yet helped Microsoft capture enough growth from the tablet market to make up the difference.

So it must be tempting for Microsoft to consider allowing customers -- particularly corporate customers who are considering new PCs -- to revert to this earlier state. 

But the risk for Microsoft is that if the company makes it easier for users to spend all their time in old-fashioned desktop mode, that's exactly what they'll do.

As I've argued before, Windows 8 is not only about this year, or capturing a particular market. It's the first step in Microsoft's attempt to keep Windows relevant for the next 20 years. As computing moves to new form factors and new input methods -- highly mobile and even wearable devices with touch screens, voice recognition, gesture recognition, and so on -- the old desktop, which was created for keyboards and mice, will become less useful. The new Windows 8 UI was first attempt, however flawed, to plan for that future.

The trouble is, the new UI needs apps designed for touch. Microsoft has tried to evangelize developers to build these apps by pointing out that Windows ships in the hundreds of millions of units every year. (Microsoft has repeatedly said 400 million, but looking at last quarter's sales, that may be optimistic.) 

But the only way developers will feel compelled to build those apps is if end-users actually spend time in the new interface. 

If Microsoft makes it easier to boot into the old desktop, then users will spend even more time there than they do today. There's a very real risk that the new Windows 8 UI will be relegated to sideshow status, with a lack of users and lack of third-party apps reinforcing one another. 

The move could also be fatal to Windows RT. Right now, Windows RT tablets aren't selling, but it's fairly easy to develop an app for the Windows 8 modern UI and Windows RT at the same time. But if the Windows 8 modern UI becomes less prominent, then there's even less reason for developers to bother with Windows RT apps at all.

This has happened before. Remember the Desktop Gadgets in Windows Vista? They were lightweight desktop apps that showed a continuous stream of information, like weather or stock quotes. Or how about Windows SideShow, which allowed a Windows Vista PC to display relevant information, like new email headers, on a tiny second screen (for instance, on the back panel of a laptop) even when the computer was off? These features were rarely used, and were deemphasized or eliminated in Windows 7.

Microsoft experiments with new features all the time. Some succeed, some fail. But the new Windows 8 UI is too important to the future of Microsoft to relegate it to the back seat.

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