Microsoft Finally Accepts the Desktop is NOT Another App

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Tami Reller, the chief marketing officer and chief financial officer of the Windows division, on the Desktop:

“We started talking about the desktop as an app. But in reality, for PC buyers, the desktop is important.”

Microsoft presented the Desktop as "just another app" before Windows 8's release. I was never convinced. But the problem with Windows 8's Desktop wasn't a matter of semantics. After all, it's unquestionably a better Desktop than Windows 7's. That despite being a menu short. And that menu is coming back anyway. Well, sort of. As a button. 

My immediate reaction was that this is less of a solution and more of a (another) compromise. Critics routinely refer to the popularity of start menu replacements to justify re-introducing the Start menu. These third-party extensions' utility effectively allows users to bypass the Start screen. This suggests a convenient shortcut to the Start screen isn't the fundamental need they address. 

Windows 8's Desktop problem isn't the absence of a familiar interface element, but the need to leave the Desktop when launching (unpinned) apps or searching. Even if Windows Blue allows you to boot straight into the Desktop, that would result in only one less Start screen visit. Not exactly a measurable improvement. However the addition is not without merit, albeit for different reasons.

Windows 8 did a lousy job in educating previous Windows users on what the Start screen represents. There's no discernible link between it and the Start menu it was replacing. This causes users' conceptual model of Windows 8 being inconsistent. Some may consider the Start screen as a Start menu replacement. Others may think of it as a Desktop replacement. The re-introduction of the Start button externalises the Start screen's purpose and role and thereby educates users in a manner that a hot corner is inherently incapable of. 

Although I fail to see how adding a shortcut button translates to Microsoft acknowledging the importance of the Desktop, it does show they're willing to let go of the idea that the Desktop is an app. By breaking convention they've conceded the Desktop is different, if not important. 

Perhaps more significantly, it's further evidence that Microsoft is losing confidence in the effectiveness of hot corners to communicate actions. Moves have already been made in first-party Metro app updates that can be interpreted as Microsoft conceding Windows 8 Charm's lack discoverability; changes evident in Windows Blue leaks reinforce this idea. 

However nothing hitherto suggests Blue's Desktop addresses this deficiency. And that's surprising because if Microsoft genuinely considers the Desktop to be an entity of its own as of Blue, then I would expect its Charms to be more discoverable. For the Desktop to be the natural exception to the rule. It once was. Maybe it will be again.