Windows 10: Touch ado about apps

The past year has been a tough one for Microsoft in terms of scaling back and reversals. There have been layoffs and the shutting down of its Silicon Valley research center. There was the winding down of a couple of Nokia product lines — one just recently launched — weeks after the acquisition. Reports alleged that Microsoft had cancelled its entrance into the small tablet market shortly before introduction. And there was the debundling of the Kinect from Xbox One after the less expensive PS4 got off to an early lead. Even as it enters wearables with the Microsoft Band, the company must accept the limits of its mobile efforts by supporting its competitors.

But, sometimes, what seems like retreat can lead to retrenchment, and the fruits of that may be seen with Windows 10. Its predecessor, Windows 8, tried melding a proven and popular desktop environment and a competitive touch experience, only it felt like two different operating systems on the same screen. The strategy was to jumpstart the development of a Windows touch app library to make it a stronger competitor to iOS and Android by leveraging Windows’ sales volume. Forcing users to boot into the touch environment and returning them there whenever they clicked the Start button would translate into more opportunities for touch app developers.

But that approach didn’t work. As become immediately evident to anyone who used Windows 8 for more than ten minutes, the “no compromise” operating system experience was jarring and disorienting. Microsoft showed its hand by blurring the desktop and touch lines with Windows 8.1 and Intel showed another piece of the puzzle at its IDF developer conference in showing how apps running on 2-in-1 computers could dynamically adapt their control schemes depending on whether a keyboard was attached or not. Intel has described such detachable PCs as being tablets when you want them to be and notebooks when you need them to be.

In Windows 10, Microsoft has given up on trying to force users into a full-screen touch experience, but it has not given up on touch. Rather, it seems to be favoring a hybrid app approach. The default is be for apps to function more like today’s desktop apps, but to be able to adjust to full-screen touch optimization when placed into that mode. Indeed, future touch apps on Windows may be a more direct descendant of today’s “touch-aware” desktop versions of Office or Photoshop than any “modern” app on Windows 8.

If executed well, it could finally provide Microsoft with “best of both worlds” apps, However, for those apps to become truly competitive as touch experiences, their interfaces will need significant reworking. The most recent Office for Windows showed that making changes to things like menu spacing just isn’t enough. Apps like Photoshop and Office would have to be carefully reworked to reduce their interface complexity while enabling touch. But that’s still more appealing to developers than having to create a separate watered-down touch version.

Google is also trying to bridge the world of desktop and mobile app design with Material Design, the flat user interface guidelines that it is pushing for both Android and Web apps. However, both of these classes of apps tend to be relatively simple and lack the legacy of GUI elements such as pull-down menus and extensive toolbars.

Microsoft’s challenge has been clear since the advent of Windows 8: find a way to blend the productivity and power of desktop apps with the more approachable user interfaces of tablet ones. Windows 8’s segregation was simply the wrong path. Windows 10, on the other hand, may represent the first step in a long but navigable road ahead.