Is the Desktop Dying Out?

Mike Halsey MVP
Sep 14, 2011
Updated • Jan 4, 2018
Apple, Companies

When Microsoft unveiled Windows 8 yesterday they said what most people were expecting them to, that a new tablet-friendly interface would be the default way to interact with the new version of the OS.  This new Metro UI would load when you start Windows and that Microsoft expected most people to interact with Windows 8 by using it.

If you couple this with the recent launch of Apple's OS X Lion desktop operating system, which includes an iPad-style application launcher and full screen apps, much in the way both the iPad and Windows 8 have it's reasonable to now ask the question, is the desktop operating system dying out?

Clearly there is a push by the two main operating system companies towards mobile computing in a big way.  The focus is on tablets and other touch devices.  In itself this isn't such a bad thing as keyboards and mice had their death predicted many years ago, but the fact remains they are still the most effective way to get things done on a computer.  So what does Microsoft's move mean for the desktop and is the traditional computer now a dying breed?

Clearly then there's still going to be a need for a desktop operating environment for many years to come.  That is unless Microsoft, Apple and Google find new ways to build more intuitive and functional interfaces, containing more commands, into tablet-focused apps.

In itself this wouldn't be a bad thing, as innovation in the world of software interfaces has been needed for nearly twenty years now.  For too long we've been stuck with a way of doing things that Xerox created in a lab in the 1970's, it's way past time things changed.

So is Windows 8's Metro interface the way forward.  Probably not as it stands right now in fairness, but it will help to act as an catalyst, and so will Apple's iOS operating system and Google's stripped-down Chrome OS.  All three are pushing the boundaries of modern interface design and now its up to the software houses to come up with new interface designs that take advantage of these new UIs.  For now it's just been Apple and Microsoft doing the innovating, with the major software houses including Adobe, content to carry on with the way they've been doing things for years.

The ribbon that Microsoft introduced with Office 2007, and that can now be found throughout Windows 8 when you drop down to the traditional desktop, is a good stab at creating an interface that's both mouse and finger-friendly.  Whether this was by design or purely by chance we may never know, but it's clear to see how the ribbon would translate to a Metro interface if scaled up a bit.  It would still be recognisable as the ribbon, woulds still work in the same way, and would offer a way forward for software developers to move to a new UI paradigm.

How all of this will sit with the world's accountants, engineers, publishers, videographers and administrators remains to be seen, they probably won't like it.  The simple fact remains though that we've had the WIMP (Windows, Mice and Pull-down Menus) UIs for thirty years now and the time has come to move on, whether we might like to do so or not.

Is the Desktop Dying Out?
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Is the Desktop Dying Out?
Recent development in computing make it reasonable to now ask the question, is the desktop operating system dying out?

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  1. Andy R said on December 21, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    “The simple fact remains though that we’ve had the WIMP (Windows, Mice and Pull-down Menus) UIs for thirty years now and the time has come to move on, whether we might like to do so or not.”

    In other words, change for changes sake, as opposed to change to make a known problem better.

    This to me sums up all of the incredibly poor arguments I have seen in favour of new UIs that are all style over content. The dumb user loves them because they’re simpler, the advanced user hates them because they’re far less versatile.

  2. Leslie said on September 15, 2011 at 3:15 am

    I do not own a smartphone (or tablet) – I own a mobile phone which I use to (gasp) make phone calls and that’s all. I like it that way, there are no distractions. An in all the mobile phone improves my productivity.

    I also have a desktop computer with a computer monitor screen that is nice and clean without any finger marks bothering me. It also has a full sized keyboard which allows me to type fast. I use applications that actually do something other than tell people I am currently on a bus going somewhere my “friends” really cares about. To use those applications effectively I need a proper Desktop environment and I have one, Windows XP. Now it is not all bells and whistles I agree, but again it helps with my productivity which is one of the original ideas behind the GUI – ease of use. (I should add that I have Vista and Windows 7 installation discs here but they were uninstalled because they made my computer experience harder rather than easier).

    The problem today is that Microsoft are getting caught up with trends. These are being generated mostly by Gen-Y and I am sorry to say that IMO given their education standards and standard of living (in the western world) they are pretty stupid and lazy and oh yes, have the attention span of a knat. The smartphone and its interface is for DUMB people who cannot be bothered putting much effort into anything. It does its job well. The Metro UI is simply an extension of that concept. It looks cheezy and is pretty much useless for me. Unless there is a method to eliminate the Metro UI then I will not install Windows 8 – its that simple. I will not be dictated to by a bunch of people for whom Facebook is the most important thing in their life (and I have no doubt many of those work for Microsoft).

    IMO Windows 8 will fail because it already appears that it will fail to meet the needs of its core base. Those who want something else probably already use a Mac and/or iPad. They are lost to Microsoft for many reasons and the dumbing down Windows will not rescue them but rather alienate users like myself.

    If this is the end of the Desktop then it will be caused my Microsoft’s inability to understand their place in the market rather than users drifting away.

  3. Roman ShaRP said on September 15, 2011 at 12:05 am

    @ Dan

    You know, when Vista came out, it was never popular. It had new demands (more memory, more HDD, special drivers) and new restrictions on how drivers and programs should behave, but what benefits? No benefits at all (Aero? I don’t need it at all.). I have pretty stable XP SP2 distributive, which is capable to work up to 1040-1070 hours uptime. Errr… more stability means up to 4096 hours uptime? By cost of using more CPU resources and more memory? I simply don’t need it.

    My team lead changed his job because of Vista. He didn’t want to rewrite his product to it’s new demands. And I think he was right – now he is a mobile development team lead, and mobile development is hot, while Vista was never hot.

    The Gartner conclusion was about the same: upgrading to Vista from XP you won’t get any benefits worth it. All new functionality and much more you can have in XP with 3d party apps, so – why upgrade, better wait.

  4. Jim said on September 14, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Looks like I’ll skip this release. Either that or I’ll be switching to Linux full time. I really only use Windows at work anyway. I’m still frustrated with the ribbon in Office 2007, so I’m not terribly excited about seeing it spread across the OS. It figures…I’m actually rather fond of Win7. Anytime I find a product I like some idiot comes along wanting to “improve” it.

  5. Roman ShaRP said on September 14, 2011 at 5:12 pm


    Man, who you are talking too? Gartner? :) Gartner-whiner! He-he.

    Man, I started my computer hobbies and works and gaming since DOS 3.30 age, I had no big problems adopting to various versions of DOS, Windows 3.11, Win 95, Win 98, Win XP, Win 7. I fixed people’s problems with OSs for vodka :) (we have this funny custom to give a bottle of vodka for helping or fixing problems) . I used even Linux rescue disks (a variety of) to solve problems with Windows or hardware.

    I worked on Win 2000 workstations for 2 weeks, but since then I didn’t met any man who want use it in everyday work.

    I work with Mac OS X too, and I get from it what I needed to do, though I don’t like it, it is too restrictive by nature.

    I was involved (as software tester) in development of a number of products for Win Mobile 5-6.53, Symbian/JME, WinPhone 7, iOS, BlackBerry, Android 2.2-3.0, Web.

    Not to mention various emulators and virtual solutions.

    And many times people asked me how to do one or other thing they had no idea about, and I helped them.

    As for Vista. When I saw it’s announce, I said, as Arnold “Hasta la Vista”. I even didn’t try it, and what I lost? Nothing!

    But some guys from our development office tried it, – and they had issues and pains, until they went back to XP.

    In our subway trains you can still see the illegal homemade ads (“Removing Vista, Installing XP”) . It seems that people are ready to pay money to get rid of Vista, otherwise I shouldn’t see these ads since 2008.

    1. Dan said on September 14, 2011 at 11:21 pm

      We have similar backgrounds, since I also started with DOS and have used all versions of Windows since v3. But I never became a software developer, just a power user and tinkerer. And again, I am savvy enough never to get bitten by Vista’s early problems. I used it in my desktop and laptop and deployed it in our office machines. As I’ve said, it takes incompetence and whining to make Vista, which is rock-solid compared to XP, look bad. Yes, people can be so incompetent that they will pay money to downgrade to XP.

      Surely your alleged background in using earlier versions of Windows should have made you knowledgeable enough in fixing the minor problems of Vista when it was launched? I don’t need market research/Gartner to prove my case, my background and experience speak for itself. It seems odd that you did.

  6. kalmly said on September 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    “The simple fact remains though that we’ve had the WIMP (Windows, Mice and Pull-down Menus) UIs for thirty years now and the time has come to move on, whether we might like to do so or not.”

    Why do people keep saying that? Move on – whether we like it or not? WHY? Improvement is one thing. Moving on for no good reason – when we DON’T like it is imbecilic. Oh wait! Microsoft says so! Got it!

    The Gods have spoken.

  7. Dan said on September 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    No pains adopting Vista for me, but then I’m not an incompetent whiner. :-)

    As for Win8, I am cautiously optimistic. The eye candy is nice and the desktop “app” guarantees some kind of legacy support. The fact that MetroUI is baked-in is a bit troubling, but since Win8 has been optimised for limited hardware (like ARM devices), then most people wouldn’t even notice the performance penalty.

  8. Roman ShaRP said on September 14, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Many Windows versions is experiment on users for their money, and then next version comes when Microsoft learns from it’s mistakes.

    Remember Windows Me? Windows 2000, which wasn’t popular with ordinary people?

    Then came XP. It was a big success. But then they decided to go for Vista, and I saw Gartner report “Don’t use it, wait for update”). And it was reasonable piece of advice. People who tried to adopt Vista got many pains.

    Then Windows 7 came – and it is a success again, because it allows to work as in XP (and even has an XP mode), and Vista pains are fixed.

    So… now we have another experiment. I think that Metro-style will just fail, so MS will be forced to give users ability to get rid of it.

  9. Mike Halsey (MVP) said on September 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    @Martin I’m now using Windows 8 and there is no way so boot directly to the desktop. The desktop now exists solely as an environment in which non-Metro apps run. Pressing the Windows key (Start button) always takes you straight back to the new Start screen.

  10. Paul(us) said on September 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Its absolutely not thru that there inventive this because I already sold in 1982 the HP-150 with touch screen, next to that i think all this gear will be much more costly. And is a 24 inch screen not much easier working? And is three 24 inch screens not much easy working, and better for your ayes, then all those screens in one? And concerning the ribbon i do not like it.

  11. Roman ShaRP said on September 14, 2011 at 11:11 am

    As for me, Metro interface is one of ugliest things I ever seen. Sorry for rudeness, but I said “It was designed by people with square heads”

    I disliked it from start, and it’s no wonder that recently a number of articles was published, citing that only ~1.7m of Windows Phone device have been sold, while Android boasted 400k activation per day.

    I don’t see Metro as a way forward – and you now, number of ideas about tablet already crashed – Playbook, WebOS…. only iOS and Android still thrive.

  12. Martin Brinkmann said on September 14, 2011 at 9:27 am

    I think it is fine that Microsoft is pushing out a bold new vision. If it works I’m all for it but I have my doubts, even after the presentation. I for one would like to know if there is a way to skip the Metro layout altogether and boot right into the good old desktop instead.

    1. ilev said on September 14, 2011 at 10:21 am

      No, there is none and won’t be. Worse than that, there will be no way NOT to install all those millions of Metro UI lines of code that run tens of services in the background and take GBs of disk space. And as Steven Sinofsky has said : You just live with it.

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