For the last two years, desktop software has been Microsoft’s inconvenient truth.
While the company was pushing the new look and modern apps of Windows 8, an awful lot of people remained happy with the classic Windows desktop and its 4 million existing applications. Or to put it less kindly, they were outraged that Microsoft was sweeping these programs aside to emphasize a different kind of operating system with different apps.
Windows 10, announced last week and coming next year, will be Microsoft’s apology, restoring the desktop to the foreground–classic applications and all–on traditional PCs. Still, Windows 10 doesn’t mark the end of modern apps. Instead of killing the Windows Store, Microsoft is moving it to the desktop, where modern apps can run in windowed mode and take up space on the taskbar, just like Windows software that uses the old, familiar interface.
But if peaceful cohabitation is what Microsoft is after, getting to that point isn’t going to be easy.
While modern apps will look and behave more like their desktop counterparts in Windows 10, they’re hardly equals. Without new capabilities for these apps, it’ll be impossible for longtime desktop developers to make a permanent switch.
With desktop software, for instance, users can drag and drop files freely from one program to another, or to the file browser. The fact that modern apps can’t do the same is a major disadvantage for productivity software, says Jacques Lamontagne, vice president of marketing for WinZip.
“If you try and navigate your hard drive or your network from a modern environment, I find it not intuitive,” Lamontagne argues. Although WinZip has created a modern app, the company is increasing its focus on desktop development, while relegating the modern app to “maintenance mode” for tablet users. A more touch-friendly version of the desktop app is on the way to accommodate hybrid devices like Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3.
Jean-Baptiste Kempf, a spokesman for VideoLAN, said in an email that modern app APIs are also too limited for DVD playback, digital television, and proper video format support. Although VideoLAN does make a Windows Store version of its VLC media player, Kempf says the desktop version “will stay for a while.”
The flip side is that modern apps have their own advantages over desktop programs. They can use Live Tiles to display at-a-glance information in the Start menu, and they have advanced sharing features that allow one app to easily pass data to another. They’re also better optimized for touch screens, and they can adjust their layouts automatically when you snap them to the edge of the screen.
And in Windows 10, Microsoft is continuing to push the idea of universal Windows Store apps, allowing developers to write code once and easily bring an app to traditional PCs, tablets, and smartphones. Efrat Barak, a developer for the enterprise chat service Slack, says she’s “super psyched” for this capability.
“Having the ability to simultaneously develop for all three platforms instead of developing for them separately is a major improvement,” Barak says.
The problem with having two sets of apps is that it creates confusion for users–the very kind that Microsoft wants to eliminate in Windows 10.
Take WinZip as an example. The company is building a more touch-friendly desktop program while maintaining its modern app, which can also run on the desktop but with different capabilities. The responsibility then falls on users to decipher the difference between two programs of the same name. The situation is also burdensome for developers, who may not have the resources or incentive to build and update two separate apps.
“These are two environments which require pretty much ground-up development to support, and therefore our number one priority will remain the desktop environment, but a true modernization of it,” Lamontagne says.
Developers without an existing investment in Windows software, such as Sunrise Atelier, may choose to avoid the whole ordeal and serve Windows users with a browser-based version. While the makers of Sunrise Calendar created a Mac app in addition to their mobile and web versions, they did so mainly because they’re Mac users, said lead designer and cofounder Jeremy Le Van.
Microsoft has a lot of work to do before Sunrise might be compelled to build a Windows version. From Microsoft, Le Van wants to see a clearer vision of who the ideal Windows user is, beyond the person shopping for a bargain-basement laptop at Best Buy. “To be honest, no one in my network or around me really uses a PC anymore, so I feel like I’m not building a product for people I relate to immediately,” he says.
For Microsoft, the long-term solution may be to blur the lines between modern and desktop apps, to the point that there’s little practical difference. Windows 10 is already moving in this direction by letting modern apps run on the desktop, but there’s more that could be done.
Rob Sanfilippo, a research vice president for Directions on Microsoft, thinks desktop software could eventually gain some features found in modern apps, such as Live Tile support. It’s not unthinkable that the opposite could happen, with Microsoft allowing things like drag-and-drop between modern apps.
“I think Microsoft’s on this path of convergence between the two so you don’t have to give up features if you’re going modern versus desktop,” he says.
Microsoft may even let developers sell desktop programs in the Windows Store, right alongside modern apps. Shortly after the Windows 10 announcement, a blog post revealing those plans appeared on Microsoft’s website. (Microsoft quickly deleted the post, but not quickly enough.)
So imagine this scenario: Instead of modern apps subsuming desktop ones, or vice versa, they could just blend together. It might make for a messy transition as Windows 10 gets off the ground, but it can’t be any more problematic than Microsoft’s last attempt at a reboot.