Windows 8: It’s the Applications, Stupid!

By  |  Friday, June 3, 2011 at 10:45 am

Word for Windows 1.0, 1989

In the end, operating systems are merely a means to an end. Nobody runs Windows to run Windows, or OS X to run OS X, or Linux to run Linux. They run them to get stuff done, and they get most of that stuff done in applications.

I’ve been pondering that fact as I’ve been processing the news about Windows 8, which Microsoft showed in public for the first time this week at the D9 conference. It’s got both a radically new touch-centric interface and the one I already am thinking of as “Windows Classic”–a duality that brings to mind the days when most people ran both DOS apps and Windows 3.x ones.

Windows 8 is a giant-sized, risky, fascinating bet–but in the end, it’s the apps that are going to matter.

During the D9 demo, both Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher brought up Office. Would it be reimagined for Windows’ new look?  Windows interface kingpin Julie Larson-Green, as you’d expect, didn’t confirm or deny anything. She said “They may do some things in the future.” and “I’m sure the Office team will look at what we’re doing.”

It’s a huge question. While Larson-Green said that the current version of Office would behave in touch-friendly fashion in Windows 8, it’s obvious that it’s not going to feel like it was written for the new interface. (You could tell that when she fumbled with Excel as she tried to drag it off-screen with her fingertip.)

Here’s AllThingD’s video of the demo:

[vodpod id=ExternalVideo.997169&w=425&h=350&]

I imagine that the real answer to Walt and Kara’s queries is that yes, of course, Microsoft is going to reimagine Office for Windows 8.  But even then, it’s not obvious whether the company is going to give Office a truly touch-centric interface as the default. (Sounds hugely risky and probably impossible to do well–all the Office apps are rife with features that will never work well without a mouse and keyboard.) Or mirror what it’s doing with Windows 8 and give Office two different interfaces. (That also sounds extremely tricky.) Or do something akin to what Apple did with its iWork suite, and build a separate version of Office with fewer features and a wholly new interface. (That sounds like it could make sense.)

Every other significant software developer is going to have to deal with similar questions. It’s not yet clear what the right answers are–it’s possible that Windows’ new look will be a bust and it’ll be silly to invest energy in supporting it. And the right answers will be different for different companies. But ignoring Windows 8 won’t be an option.

I promise I’ll stop comparing Windows 8 to Windows 3.0 momentarily, but I’m reminded once again of the DOS-to-Windows scenario. Back in the early 1990s, there were a bunch of hugely successful DOS developers: Lotus, SPC (Harvard Graphics), WordPerfect, and others. They all botched it. Some of them thought that IBM’s OS/2 would be DOS’s successor, and didn’t realize that Windows was where it was at until it was too late. Others released Windows versions that were crude and/or starved for features, or built good Windows apps far too slowly.

Only one big company took what turned out to be the smartest approach by far, which was to put lots of resources into building ambitious apps that were built for Windows from the ground up. That company would be Microsoft, and it’s a huge reason why its Office apps managed to knock all the major DOS productivity programs off their pedestals.

The DOS-to-Windows transition took around a decade. The tech world moves far more quickly nowadays, so we won’t have to wait until 2022 or thereabouts to judge Windows 8’s full impact. But all we know for sure right now is that Internet Explorer 10 will be a touch-first app. We don’t even know whether Microsoft or anyone else will have other true Windows 8 programs ready when the operating system ships in (I’m guessing) mid-to-late 2012.

A few killer apps for Windows 8 could have a hugely positive impact; a lack of them would drag it down. (One of the contributing factors to Tablet PC’s failure was the lack of software that really took advantage of its new features.)

Got any predictions about what’ll happen at this early date?


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22 Comments For This Post

  1. Iain Says:

    The DOS developers didn't 'botch it', they were sold OS/2 lock, stock, and barrel by IBM and Microsoft. Microsoft told everyone that OS/2 was the future while they took the Windows track. My first introduction was a one week training course on developing for OS/2 1.0 given by "Microsoft University" in 1989. My employer at the time was also 100% sold on OS/2 and they kept using it internally for many years.
    When the DOS developers did figure out that Windows was the way to go they were too late, and they had squandered resources on the development of OS/2 programs that sold poorly, or not at all. It is interesting to note that Microsoft did not develop any graphical applications for OS/2 PM, although they promised them. They developed Word and Excel, and got the jump on Lotus and WordPerfect that the others couldn't recover from. Microsoft also benefitted from having inside information on the Windows APIs, something that they didn't share. The first version of WordPerfect for Windows shipped with its own printer drivers, since WordPerfect Corp, for what ever reason, couldn't work with the Windows printing system.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    Oh, I could write a long post on all this stuff that would explain everything in greater, more revealing detail. (Sounds like fun.) Totally true that developers were led to think that OS/2 is the future, although some of them didn’t seem to figure out that it wasn’t until after it was clear that it would be Windows. And Microsoft’s advantages when it came to Windows are obvious.


  3. @ymala1 Says:

    "I could write a long post on all this stuff that would explain everything in greater, more revealing detail"

    Please do, one of the reasons I love this site is for those throwback articles you guys do once in a while. Definitely something I don't find anywhere else. After all, you can't know where you are going until you know where you've been.

  4. Atle Iversen Says:

    I believe that Windows 8s new look is made to be consistent with the Windows Phone 8; so you'll have the same interface for Phone 8, Windows "Pad 8" *and* Windows (when you dock your pad/phone to a keyboard/mouse). The new interface is designed for "web apps" and casual users.

    For lots of tasks (including Office), you'll want to keep your fingers on your keyboard, and this is where you'll use the "standard" Windows OS, using "standard" applications for power users. Office will offer "light" version for the phone/pad/web, but I think we're a long way from matching the power of native applications in Windows (or Mac/Linux).

    Microsoft want to make sure that all the cool kids that makes web 2.0 and phone apps can make them for Windows as well (and even better, and cooler, and…)

  5. curtis Says:

    This time though I think its easier DJ CE most apps will be browser based

  6. Otto Nordpol Says:

    I'm not sure application software or OSes matter any more. Maybe I have inhaled too much from the cloud, but what were applications running on personal computers are turning into services accessed over the Internet. Thus the browser is the gateway to functionality, not the OS. Microsoft is locked into subjecting users and ISVs to an increasingly vicious planned obsolescence cycle, on a treadmill to produce a bigger and better Windows every couple of years, fixing things that aren't broke in the first place. It's costly, inefficient for all concerned, and chasing after a diminishing revenue pie. New Windows versions keep coders busy and Waggener-Edstrom profitable. Beyond that, it's sound and fury signifying less and less as Time marches on.

  7. Robert Says:

    This has all happened before…and it will all happen again.

    So many people have forgotten what PC stands for, PERSONAL COMPUTER. This generation has forgotten about how the PC liberated us from the mainframe and servers.

    Many moons ago, the Mainframe and Servers ran the world. Computers were dumb terminals. Your data was stored on the Mainframe. You printed to a room where you later collected your documents. You were allowed to use the software that was installed on the Mainframe and approved by the approvers.

    Then….the Personal Computer liberated us. Users could do their work WHEN they wanted, WHERE they wanted, HOW they wanted and with the Applications THEY wanted. They could keep a copy of their data locally. They could own a printer of their very own. They could hide their data in a safe where hackers couldn't reach it. We were FREE!

    As we migrate into the future, I like the way Windows 8 connects us to the cloud but still keeps our roots of liberation firmly in tact with basic Personal Computer principles. We must be careful not to give our freedoms back to the Mainframers….

  8. Charles Forsythe Says:

    Hear, hear. I thought I was the only person who noticed that we were actually going backwards in terms of architecture.

    I once had a crappy little MP3 player that could hold maybe 20 songs. As wretched as this would seem today, I'd much rather have that than a music player that can't play anything without a broadband feed.

    Nice BSG reference, too.

  9. @ymala1 Says:

    BSG ftw! I really hope blood and chrome gets greenlit… and doesn't suck ass 🙂


    And good point btw, I'm ok with the clould mostly as a redundancy, I currently use it as an extra measure of safety. But I would be reluctant to consider it my primary storage solution. Too many things that can go wrong, too many things not in my power.

  10. Gene Mosher Says:

    Has anyone stopped to think about why the restaurant industry jumped all over touchscreens in such a big way so very long ago? It was because the software application existed before the (truly affordable and easy to obtain) touchscreens did, even before the operating systems were ready for the software (lacking things like networking, multitasking, touchscreen drivers), even before the peripheral manufacturers were ready for it. Sometimes the software was out there, waiting for everything else to catch up.

  11. Anil Shah Says:

    Microsoft should call this OS
    Windows TouchPoint 7
    TouchPont – because it supports touch and the Mouse Pointer
    Windows 7 – because the underlying core is still Win 7
    Hence the family:
    Windows 7
    Windows TouchPoint 7
    Windows Phone 7

  12. Jose E. Says:

    I think is a great opportunity in a cool revamped platform with a lot of future.

    In fact I pivoted a old project to make the development of this new Windows 8 Application easy. Check it ou at

    Is still in a very alpha stage

  13. Mark Hernandez Says:

    Very insightful Harry. Loved your article.

    I think one keyword that everyone should also consider here is the word OPTIMIZE.

    Windows 8 optimizes for a set of things that's different from, say, iOS.

    — iOS optimizes it's UX (user experience) for the widest range of users, because there 's a ginormous untapped market out there of people who don't/won't use computers.

    It only has one button that takes you to a known place, it's interface is dead-simple so that infants and grandmas can easily make it go. And its "range" is enhanced by it's ability to "take up" lots and lots of apps from the app store by making it dead-simple to buy them, organize them, and they all work consistently enough that people tend to use MORE apps on iOS than on other platforms. And when you add fun and delight to the equation, it deepens their attachment to the platform and makes for loyal customers.

    — Windows 8 and the Metro UX optimizes for another set of parameters. Microsoft just can't be so radical that it cannot continue to charge $80 – $200 for it's OS alone, upgrades and full licenses.

    A recent article on Bloomberg (I think) points out that Microsoft can make up to $1,000 per seat on it's OS when all is said and done, and their business model must be maintained, and thus baggage from the past must be brought forward. For that reason, its new UX may have a cool front end, and SOME of it may be usable on a Tablet, but it will blend together with legacy apps and it will add to the complexity, and this will affect it's "range" and app takeup potential.

    In addition, the Metro UX has so much style that it's less "dead-simple" to use. Users quickly get used to it, but I wonder about the top end of it's range. Will it be able to go as far as iOS does in getting people to "take up" and purchase a lot of apps and do a lot with their "windows" computers and tablets compared to iOS? There seems to be a ways to go yet to find out the answer to that.

  14. N8nNC Says:

    I lived through the DOS-to-Windows transitions (as well as mini-to-microcomputer -to-PC) but my memory may be fuzzy. A significant difference is that there were multiple DOSes (hence, MS-DOS). Even though Microsoft held a strong lead, DOS wasn't the essence of Microsoft the way that Windows is. IIRC, Microsoft's dominance in Office apps came after (and as a consequence of) their dominant win in PCs with Windows.

    This time, it is a new approach battling the incumbent all within Microsoft. From the stories I've read (and the evidence I can see), the turf battles inside Microsoft are what have derailed earlier efforts to "do something new". It took Gates' overt lead to effect the successful incorporation of the Internet. I'm not sure that can be repeated this time.

  15. Alan Says:

    This touch first business seems fishy to me. That will never work in the enterprise and MS has to know that they need to have solid keyboard / mouse solutions for businesses. My enterprise is just now starting the work to move off of XP. The touch interface looks cool and I think they are trying to get mind share for the new features.

  16. John Says:

    There was one other Apole legacy moment: the jump from OS9 to OSX. In the early versions you could boot as OS9 or run “classic mode” on top of OSX.

  17. John Says:

    Sorry wring article.

  18. subathra Says:

    Metro Dynamis let you program the new Windows 8 Style Applications very easily. Take a look at

  19. Kaushalam Says:

    I am using WindowsXP right now and i'm satisfied using it. Before a month ago, it was windows 7 in my pc and was not able to find the proper.

  20. E-commerce Says:

    If your requirements are not technically high then why you need to use the Windows latest version? I always prefer XP for my PC.

  21. nick Says:

    Windows 8 looks wank.

    I'm staying with 7

  22. Video maker Says:

    Windows 7 is much better i think and i like it soo much. 🙂