Sinofsky: Classic Desktop Is a Separate Application in Windows 8

Over the past few days, Microsoft has been talking about improvements made to Windows 8 on its ‘Building Windows 8’ blog at MSDN. Strangely enough, the improvements mentioned were either dealing with the classic desktop, or were demonstrated using the classic desktop – and not the fancy Metro user interface which is supposed to be Windows 8’s big new thing. Today’s post finally gives a little more detail about how the classic and Metro UI work together, but questions still remain.

Steven Sinofsky’s post on the matter is filled with PR speak (obviously), but the general gist mirrors that of what I wrote a few weeks ago: Microsoft doesn’t want a barrier sitting between the tablet and laptops/desktops. In fact, it wants the tablet to be both. Like I said in those articles – why can’t I take my current tablet, connect a mouse, keyboard, and secondary display to it, and use it to edit documents in a useful way (instead of the My First Document Editing we have on tablets today)? This is what Microsoft wants to do.

“In this light, the role of the Windows desktop is clear,” Sinofsky writes, “It powers the hundreds of thousands of existing apps that people rely on today, a vast array of business software, and provides a level of precision and control that is essential for certain tasks. The things that people do today on PCs don’t suddenly go away just because there are new Metro style apps. The mechanisms that people rely on today (mice, physical keyboards, trackpads) don’t suddenly become less useful or ‘bad’ just because touch is also provided as a first-class option. These tools are quite often the most ergonomic, fast, and powerful ways of getting many things done.”

So, that’s why Microsoft opted not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and not provide at least the option of running all your existing Windows software on a familiar desktop, using familiar input devices. So, even though you’re running the fancy new Metro interface, the ‘classic’ interface is still in there.

This, of course, raised some questions back when Windows 8’s new interface was first demonstrated during the D conference earlier this year. Is the classic interface running in the background, soaking up resources and battery life? Is Metro just a shell program, loaded side-by-side? Can I remove this classic interface altogether? Can I stop it from running? And so on. In another article, I predicted the following about this very subject (emphasis added):

There are no technical details at this point, but judging by yesterday’s demo, it’s pretty clear that the new user interface is not dependant on Explorer. The new interface is not a program that is launched after the classic Windows explorer desktop has loaded. I think Microsoft has turned the entire classic Windows Explorer desktop into a program that is launched when (and only when) a classic program is launched. In other words, all the things that classic Windows programs need in order to run are now contained separately from the new userland and interface.

In the comments to that same article, many people were skeptical – and considering Microsoft’s track record, said skepticism certainly wasn’t unwarranted. In his post, though, Sinofsky pretty much confirmed I was right all along – the classic shell is a separate program, and none of it is loaded if you don’t want to. And as far as I’m concerned – this probably means enterprising hackers can remove it, too.

“You get a beautiful, fast and fluid, Metro style interface and a huge variety of new apps to use. These applications have new attributes (a platform) that go well beyond the graphical styling (much to come on this at Build). As we showed, you get an amazing touch experience, and also one that works with mouse, trackpad, and keyboard,” Sinofsky details, “And if you want to stay permanently immersed in that Metro world, you will never see the desktop – we won’t even load it (literally the code will not be loaded) unless you explicitly choose to go there!”

He adds: “Essentially, you can think of the Windows desktop as just another app.”

While this is all very nice, a few questions still remain. I think Metro looks drop-dead gorgeous, but I don’t think I want it on my desktop. So, can this work the other way around, too? Only have the classic interface, while Metro doesn’t load at all? Can we completely remove either of the two? Can we set one or the other as default?

I guess we’ll have to wait for more posts on the Windows 8 blog, or until we hit the Build conference in September. In any case, I’m very excited about how the changing industry is forcing Microsoft to radically overhaul Windows – only time will tell if it’s a positive overhaul.


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