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Windows 9: How Microsoft might overhaul the interface in its next OS

Jared Newman | Feb. 8, 2013
Every graying movie franchise needs a great sequel to give it a boost. Think Star Trek and James Bond. Operating systems are no different--especially Microsoft's. After receiving a critical beatdown for Windows 8, what does the company have up its sleeve for Windows 9?

Put apps at center stage

There's a problem with all this talk of slaying the Windows 9 desktop and committing 100 percent to the Modern-style interface: Third-party app developers haven't exactly flocked to Windows 8, and there's no guarantee that the death of the desktop would change their minds.

Microsoft can do only so much to spur app development; but according to Michael Cherry, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft, the company hasn't done enough.

The biggest problem is that Microsoft hasn't led by example with great Modern-style apps of its own. Cherry noted that Office served as a role model for desktop application developers, illustrating the usefulness of concepts such as the icon bar and the ribbon interface.

No similar inspiration exists in Microsoft's Modern-style apps--some of which lack basic functionality when matched against their desktop counterparts. The Mail app, for instance, doesn't support POP email accounts. The Reader app doesn't support PDF editing, and Calendar doesn't support event invitations or task management. Even the ballyhooed Skype for Windows 8 lacks some features that the desktop version offers, such as screen sharing, file transfer, and group video calling. And of course, Microsoft hasn't yet released a Modern-style version of Office, choosing instead to try to shoehorn some touch-friendly features into Office 2013.

"I have to conclude that developing apps for Windows 8 is hard," Cherry said, "and the reason I get to that conclusion is...can you name one app from Microsoft that's good, or full-featured? So if they can't do it, how does an independent developer stand a chance of doing it well?"

Windows 9 will also have to combine the Windows Phone and Windows ecosystems. Doing so would mean less work for developers (though porting from one platform to the other is fairly easy, says Microsoft), and it would signal to consumers that Microsoft was offering a greater ecosystem worth investing in.

If I knew that I could play a Windows Phone game on a Windows PC and even on an Xbox 360 at no extra charge, I would be a lot more likely to buy the game. Apple and Google combined their phone and tablet platforms from the start. While Microsoft has done a lot to unify its phone and PC software with features such as SkyDrive integration and Xbox Music, those efforts only touch the surface of what is possible.

Postscript: The ugly truth for PC veterans

Much of our discussion of Windows 9 has accepted the twin premises of marginalizing the desktop and pushing the new Modern interface. We're just being realistic. Microsoft clearly sees its future in the new interface, where it has greater control over the apps and Web services that people use. Though longtime PC users might find comfort in imagining a future where desktops get their own version of Windows, untainted by the Modern-style interface, in real life that ship has most likely sailed.


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