Windows 8 desktop to be 'just another app,' says Microsoft exec

Conventional desktop UI won't load unless users want it

The Microsoft executive who heads the company's Windows division said Wednesday that the next edition of the operating system will let users treat the traditional desktop as "just another app" that loads only on command.

In a lengthy blog post, Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live division, provided more detail on Windows 8's user interface (UI).

In June, when it unveiled parts of the Windows 8 UI, Microsoft said the new OS would feature a "touch-first" interface to help it compete in the fast-growing tablet market. Underneath that, however, would be a traditional Windows-style desktop. In demonstrations, Microsoft showed the touch-style start screen for Windows 8, and how users could switch to a more familiar icon-based design.

Wednesday, Sinofsky reiterated the dual nature of Windows 8, calling the design work a "balancing act."

"Having both of [the] user interfaces [work] together harmoniously is an important part of Windows 8," said Sinofsky.

The "Metro"-style UI -- the one inspired by Windows Phone 7's tile-based design -- will be the first to show up when a user boots a device. At that point, users reach a crossroads.

"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," said Sinofsky. "If you don't want to do ... 'PC' things, then you don't have to and you're not paying for them in memory, battery life or hardware requirements."

Users working on conventional PCs, where keyboard and mouse are the primary input devices, will run an "app" to load the desktop, according to Sinofsky.

"Essentially, you can think of the Windows desktop as just another app," he said.

The majority of the blog's 225 comments as of early Thursday gave Windows 8's split personality a thumbs up, although many advised Microsoft to create design continuity between the two to make switching less jarring.

Others wanted to know if it would be also possible to completely ignore the Metro UI and only see the traditional desktop.

"Will it also work the other way? Will users be able to permanently stay in the Desktop and never see Metro?" asked a user identified as "TechFan" yesterday.

A few commenters were unhappy with the direction Microsoft was moving.

"I'm all for Microsoft to develop a rich tablet-centric UI for Windows but tablets aren't going to replace PCs any time soon," said "Fulgan" Wednesday. "Basing the whole Windows experience on that and treating the traditional UI as a second-class citizen is a serious mistake."

While analysts have acknowledged the need by Microsoft to bring Windows to tablets, many have been skeptical of enterprise adoption because the upgrade appears to be aimed at consumers, not business users.

Sinofsky did not directly address the negative reaction to another recent post to the "Building Windows 8" blog that illustrated a "ribbonized" file manager for the desktop UI.

But he took a sideways swipe at critics.

"For the foreseeable future, the desktop is going to continue to play a key role in many people's lives. So we are going to improve it," Sinofsky said. "We're having a good dialog about what folks might think about our design choices but also wanted to put these choices in a broader context of the unmatched utility of the desktop."

Microsoft has been mum about a release schedule for Windows 8, although it's expected to launch next year. The company plans to reveal more about the new OS and its UI, and perhaps issue a preview, at its Build conference, which begins Sept. 13 in Anaheim, Calif.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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