The Last Version of Windows 8

Windows 8.1 Update 1 (with a capital U) has arrived to close off the catastrophic Windows 8 era at Microsoft. If the overhyped Windows 8.1 did little but bring the new Metro environment finally up to release quality, U1 is at least more honest about its fairly minor changes – and comes with the promise of fully backtracking on the original Sinofsky concept in the next major Windows release.

The Update

First, some notes on Update 1 itself. Windows had a batch of critical updates preselected for installation before U1, so that’s what I did. You should also re-check for available updates immediately after installing U1 – in my case there were both critical and optional compatibility patches for U1 already available. And as always after major updates, you’ll want to run Windows Disk Cleanup with the System Files option to get rid of many megabytes (possibly gigabytes) of update debris.

What’s actually in Update 1? Michael Hildebrand and his colleagues at Microsoft have put together a detailed catalogue of all user-visible changes. Additionally, there are “some heavy-lifting internal changes to Windows boot structures and memory/resource awareness and management,” enhancements to IE11 and OneDrive (née SkyDrive), plus a roll-up of all previously released Windows 8.1 updates. I don’t know what exactly these internal changes are but Windows 8 did advance the operating system architecture beneath the ill-conceived Metro experiment, so it’s good to see this process continuing.

The most important visible changes are that non-tablet PCs now boot directly to the desktop, return to the desktop when all apps are closed, and open media files with desktop applications. Microsoft changed these defaults when telemetry showed that Windows 8 was mostly used in desktop mode. (That’s also a good argument for letting MS collect usage metrics, by the way.) And… that’s it, for desktop users. Literally every other change only affects Metro/Modern apps. These now have right-click menus and title bars on mouse systems, they can show the taskbar and also appear there. Metro’s PC Settings have some more options, and the Start screen’s app list has been slightly tweaked.

The eagerly anticipated return of the Start menu and the ability to run Modern apps in desktop windows are not part of this update, but of the next major Windows release. So if you’re using Modern apps with mouse & keyboard, Windows 8.1 Update 1 should make you happy. Desktop users should continue to stick with third-party solutions like Classic Shell and ModernMix while waiting for Windows 9.

The Future

With Update 1 and the upcoming Windows 9, Microsoft has mostly abandoned the original Windows 8 concept where the desktop and its Win32 applications were a legacy environment, included only for backward compatibility. By now this is no surprise. As Paul Thurrott wrote:

While some Windows backers took a wait-and-see approach and openly criticized me for being honest about this, I had found out from internal sources immediately that the product [Windows 8] was doomed from the get-go, feared and ignored by customers, partners and other groups in Microsoft alike.

Microsoft does continue to support and expand the new WinRT API powering Metro apps. As announced at Build 2014, WinRT is finally coming to Windows Phone and Xbox One. Technically, this means you could write WinRT apps that run on everything from phones to desktop windows. But in practice, with an enormous base of popular Win32 products and libraries, desktop users and developers are highly likely to just stick with Win32 (or WF/WPF or even Java) rather than trying to make another proprietary, relatively limited, touch-centric API work on the desktop.

Putting Metro apps in desktop windows is a neat trick that might well gain some traction as a successor to Windows Vista’s desktop gadgets, or as an alternative for porting mobile games to Windows. (Think of Microsoft’s ostentatious friendship with Xamarin in that light – Microsoft needs to convince Xamarin’s many customers to add Windows Store to their list of supported platforms.)

However, this does not change the fact that the market share of Windows Store is tiny. Windows Phone is not huge and won’t support WinRT for some time. Windows RT tablets are a joke, and Windows 8 users are numerous but avoid Metro apps like the plague – see for example Mozilla’s recent decision to abandon Metro Firefox due to total lack of interest among testers. Tellingly, Microsoft itself has already released a well-received Office for iPad while a touch-native Office for WinRT is still in the works – the existing Windows RT version requires its own mini-desktop environment. Even Windows Phone running Android is a perfectly valid option for a “devices & services” company.

In the best case, WinRT apps might become popular on phones and possibly sell some gadgets and cross-platform games on desktops, but I don’t see any system-selling software switching away from Win32. Very few products outside of enterprises switched from Win32 even to equivalent .NET APIs – why would anyone feel compelled to make the much more difficult jump to WinRT?

Win32 Invictus

Microsoft’s backtracking on the original Windows 8 concept is an implicit acknowledgement that Apple was right to keep Mac and iOS strictly separate, one chiefly aimed at content producers and the other at consumers. But once that separation is (re-) established, it’s also implicit that both APIs will go on to live their separate lives practically indefinitely. Since there is now no perspective that Win32 will ever go away, there is no incentive to support anything else for content creation on Windows.

That’s too bad, in a way. There are good reasons why Win32 should be replaced, and Windows 8 did not invalidate them. Thanks to the absence of a curated app store, users are exposed to crapware-infested downloads from fraudulent websites. The average Win32 application’s extremely poor DPI scaling is only becoming more obvious as screen resolutions increase – I need not bother linking to examples, practically every new Windows laptop review features this complaint. Managing a Windows system with its many and constantly increasing sediments of compatibility cruft is challenging even for IT professionals. And as powerful computer hardware begins fitting into tablet form factors, it certainly would be nice if applications worked just as well with touch screens as with mouse & keyboard.

Sadly, WinRT in Windows 8 was not the answer. The Metro environment was too limited and too poorly handled by Microsoft to offer an acceptable desktop replacement, either from a user or a developer perspective. Now that it is shrinking back to a conventional consumer-only, touch-only API the question of moving Win32 forward is once again open.

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