A Better Windows 8
Microsoft has always been a patient company. Whether it was the long road Windows took from a graphical operating environment to a business-capable OS, or the years-long campaign to evolve SQL Server into an enterprise database, or the extended effort it took to mature Visual Studio and the .NET Framework, Microsoft has shown a willingness to invest in the technologies it believes are at the core of the company—even in the face of early struggles.
Which is why the Windows 8.1 Preview release at the Build 2013 conference in San Francisco in June was so important. Windows 8 has, to a large extent, labored under the weight of its own vision. Users puzzled at the innovative new UI even as developers scrambled to come to terms with the native programming model posed by the Windows Runtime. The combination provoked questions about the future of Microsoft’s flagship OS and its prospects in an increasingly diverse computing landscape.
But Microsoft has courted this kind of sea change before. The move to 32-bit development, first with the launch of Windows 95 and later Windows NT and its successor OSes, demanded wholesale changes to the underpinnings of the Windows environment and its development infrastructure. The launch of the .NET Framework in 2001 was no less of a high-stakes transition, as Microsoft ushered its developer ecosystem into a managed code framework.
Neither of these transitions happened overnight. Windows 95 suffered from a dearth of optimized 32-bit applications in the months after its release, while efforts to evangelize the .NET Framework were hampered by immature tooling, confused messaging and a rough language transition (Visual Basic, anyone?).
With Windows 8 and the modern UI, Microsoft is taking on an even steeper challenge, presenting both a new programming framework—the Windows Runtime—and a radically changed UI. And while Windows 8 presented a case for modern apps designed around the new Microsoft design language, the OS itself was, frankly, incomplete.
Windows 8.1 doesn’t address every question and criticism. Enterprise developers and IT pros may still be waiting on a viable, side-loading deployment model, for example. But the latest version of the OS, which will be available as a free update to all Windows 8 users, significantly improves on the initial release. The preview I’ve been running on my Dell XPS 12 convertible laptop since Build has been more stable, more responsive and more impressive than the shipping OS in virtually all aspects.
Just as important, Microsoft is filling in the gaps. There’s a host of new business-oriented features in Windows 8.1 that improve security and management for IT operators. And IT managers and end users alike will welcome the option to desktop-ify Windows 8, restoring the Start button and booting directly to the traditional Windows 7-style desktop. Microsoft has also worked to fix things that were, admittedly, broken in Windows 8—like the Windows Store experience, which is suddenly much more enjoyable and informative under Windows 8.1.
For developers, Windows 8.1 marches under the familiar banner of code compatibility. Win32- and .NET Framework-based applications will run (and are fully supported) in Windows 8.1, with a new version of the .NET Framework (4.5.1) previewed at the Build conference. Developers who are content with or must align to the traditional desktop presented by Windows 7 are fully empowered to do so.
No question, hard choices remain. Moving applications to the Windows Runtime and the new modern UI will impose costs. But the reality is that traditional desktop applications risk limited reach and effectiveness as users increasingly rely on tablets and other devices rather than traditional client PCs.
What do you think of Windows 8.1? E-mail me at email@example.com.
Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.