Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

Blog archive

A Tale of Two Windows

As I write this post, Microsoft’s Windows 8-focused //build/ conference has just ended. The apprehension so many developers had around the show is now dissipated, the developer platform and tools have been detailed, and we have all been able to work with the operating system, and develop apps for it, on a touch device, for about 72 hours now. Most people, myself included, like what they saw. The OS is touch-friendly without being an iOS copycat; our developer skill set investments are nicely protected; a new generation of developers trained on the HTML/CSS/JavaScript stack of Web technologies can join the party, and Windows will continue to run on a greatly diverse set of machines.

In working with Windows 8, I have felt an odd combination of excitement and concern. Each time I feel anticipation for something in Windows 8 that looks really neat, I keep feeling a counterweight, an amorphous tug of caution, pulling me back. For about 2 days, I couldn’t put my finger on what was causing this Newton’s Third Law of Windows within me. And then I figured it out. Microsoft itself faces mutual, opposing market forces. And Windows 8 reflects the company’s admirable efforts at, and daunting task of, addressing them.

There’s touch, and there’s the keyboard and mouse; there are tablets, and there are laptops and desktops; there’s ARM and Intel; there’s Metro and the desktop, there’s WinRT and the .NET CLR. And of course, there’s the consumer and the Enterprise. Microsoft’s challenge is that it must appeal to new market segments and new trends, but it must also serve – and leverage – the Enterprise, and consumers who prefer classic Windows.

Booting Windows is almost an allegory for this attempt at mutual coexistence. Windows 8 takes users right to the new Metro-style Start screen but enables them to call up desktop mode applications directly. The Metro version of Internet Explorer can take you right to “desktop view.” The Metro version of Control Panel has a “More settings” option that takes you to the standard desktop version of that same applet. The operating system seems well at home on a tablet, but you can absolutely install it on a conventional laptop or desktop and use it as an upgrade. Or perhaps that would be better deemed a retrofit.

No other software company has to do this. Oracle, IBM and SAP focus on the Enterprise. Apple focuses on the consumer. Even hardware companies tend to divide into camps: Samsung and Sony and Acer look to the consumer and, I would argue, Dell looks mostly to the Enterprise. HP tried to serve both demographics, but it seems close to focusing on businesses more exclusively.

But Microsoft is in a special place. It can neither abandon the old nor deny the new. It must serve both masters. It must mediate, it must reconcile, it must negotiate coexistence. It must cross a chasm, and that is hard. But it then must bridge that divide, and that is harder still. To do so seems foolhardy, and yet it is necessary. It seems almost irrational, and yet it is oddly logical.

Enmeshing such different worlds might appear doomed to failure. And yet the sleeping giant that so many think Microsoft is, this company that started out making BASIC compilers for microcomputers in the 1970s, is taking on the challenge anyway. Because it knows it must.

This week at //build/, many started to believe that it can.

Posted by Andrew J. Brust on 09/19/2011 at 1:15 PM

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