Tag Archives: metro

Thoughts on the future of the Win32 platform

Overheard last week at a non-techy social event: “I have just got an iPad. It is gorgeous. It is amazing how much it can do” … conversation continues … “Trevor is always swearing at his computer. He always blames Microsoft. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, he blames Microsoft.”

This is the kind of conversation which is annoying to hear if you are remotely technical. I have and enjoy using an iPad, but it has many limitations and its own share of annoyances. Recently the iOS WordPress app crashed whenever I tried to moderate comments on this blog. On Windows I could have done some troubleshooting, but on the iPad there was little to do other than blindly try removal and reinstall, or wait for a fix. As for Windows, I find it generally reliable and the majority of issues I have with it are not the direct fault of Microsoft.

In other words, reality is not so clear cut; but there is a powerful myth out there that goes along the lines of the conversation I overheard; and it is a myth that is not entirely unfounded given the quality of Apple’s design work and the problems that surround what we might call the Windows ecosystem: foistware, hardware built down to a price, the peculiarities of Outlook, and so on.

I do not think conversations like that quoted above are exceptional and it illustrates the pressure Microsoft is under. For years Windows has been in an almost unassailable position because the alternatives were insufficiently compelling to most people: Linux too awkward and fractured, Mac/OSX too expensive. Now change has come about because of the rise of new kinds of devices, smartphones and tablets, for which Windows was unsuitable. The result is that Apple iOS and Google Android are widely used and growing fast.

That said, we still need PCs, and although the Mac is gaining ground the large majority of these still run Windows. The smartphone or tablet model does not fit all kinds of computing. In fact, if we are thinking of the iPad in particular, it is only a good fit for a minority of uses. I am not thinking of what you just about do with an iPad if you have to, I am thinking of the scenarios where it is your tool of choice. Take word processing for example: the iPad has a version of Pages and you can get an external keyboard but even so I would rather type on a PC or a Mac, or even a netbook, and will get my work done quicker that way.


Leaving aside the software that is available, a full PC or Mac gives you keyboard, mouse, and easily supports one or more large high-resolution screens. Whether it is Microsoft Excel, Adobe Photoshop, the latest graphics-intensive game like Bethseda’s Skyrim, CAD software, or development tools like Visual Studio or Eclipse, there are many activities for which a tablet is a poor PC substitute.

Even for things for which a tablet is generally considered good, such as web browsing, a full PC or notebook is better. When browsing the web on an iPad there are little annoyances like slower typing of search queries (and the often daft auto-correct in iOS), awkwardness of looking up a password for a login and pasting it into the browser, small screen size making you scroll around, difficulty of hitting small hyperlinks on sites like discussion forums, and so on.

All of this means that the traditional PC, Mac or notebook seems still to have a strong future, which seems further to imply that Windows also is secure.

I would argue though that this is a rose-tinted view of the future of the Win32/Win64 platform – by which I mean full desktop Windows rather than the “Metro” tablet platform which Microsoft has previewed for the dual-personality Windows 8. Here are three reasons why it is under threat:

1. Tablets will get better and will gradually encroach on the PC market as they become more capable. This process will be complemented by web sites adapting to work better for the growing number of tablet users.

2. Hybrid devices like the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, which runs Android but also docks into a laptop-like keyboard and clamshell case, will cause users to question whether they really need to replace their Windows laptop when it wears out.

3. The drive towards cloud computing will reduce our dependence on desktop applications. Although Google’s Chromebook has not yet caught on, the fact that it exists shows the progress cloud computing is making: a notebook that only has a web browser is a viable proposition.

My assumption is that many of us would like to use tablets for a greater proportion of our computing activities if we could easily do so, because we like their mobility, convenience, low power demands, and relatively low cost. This is especially true for consumers, and less applicable to more regimented offices where there is a computer on every desk.

Another factor for Win32 is that Microsoft itself will slow down its future development, concentrating instead on Metro and its Windows Runtime, as well as cloud services. There are good business reasons for this. Microsoft is not under pressure to improve Win32; users would like it to run faster and with greater reliability, but their main demand is that it continues to run their critical applications successfully.

The conclusion: although Win32 will remain an important and stable platform for many years to come, it is now in slow decline. This will be the case whether or not Microsoft manages to bring Windows itself back on track with a success for Windows 8 on tablets, and overturns the assumption reflected in my initial quote: that an Apple iPad is delightful and Windows nothing but problems.

The closest I got to Windows on ARM at Microsoft BUILD 2011

A couple of the stands in the exhibition at Microsoft’s BUILD conference last week were showing Windows on ARM. This one was on the NVIDIA stand and was most likely running its Tegra 2 SoC (System on a Chip) though Tegra 3 (code-name Kal-El) is apparently now in production. The tablet was displayed under a plastic shroud which could only be lifted when someone from Microsoft was present, though I was able to get this snap of the machine sans shroud. I was not permitted to handle the machine.


I have blanked out part of the background because it was black on black.

My main observation: it looks just like the Intel version. This screen shows a Metro app running side by side with the Windows desktop, and showing the “charms” on the right.

Gartner reports that Apple will have the tablet market almost to itself in 2011 (73.4% market share). I believe Windows on ARM is critical to Microsoft’s strategy to compete. In principle, it should be cheaper and more efficient than an Intel device, and one that is more locked-down in the style to which Apple has made us accustomed.

If Microsoft and its hardware partners can get the size, weight and design details right, I suspect I would rather have a Windows 8 tablet than an iPad. One advantage is the ability to have two apps side by side. Microsoft’s new user interface works really well with touch. I will expect to find a Windows remote desktop client there by default, and better support for Microsoft Office and SharePoint than I find in the iPad.

By the time Windows 8 comes out though, we will likely have iPad 3 with who-knows-what improvements; Apple has all the apps; and breaking into this market will not be easy.

Adobe to ship Flash 11 and AIR 3, repositions Flash vs HTML 5

Adobe has announced that Flash 11 and AIR 3 will ship in early October.

There are significant changes in this release.

  • Flash gets Stage 3D (previously codenamed Molehill), a set of low-level 3D APIs, GPU accelerated where hardware allows, which will make console-like 3D graphics and games possible in Flash. Stage 3D wraps DirectX on Windows and OpenGL on desktop and mobile platforms.
  • 64-bit Flash is here at last, supporting 64-bit Internet Explorer and other browses on Windows, Mac and Linux.
  • AIR, which uses Flash as a runtime for desktop and mobile applications, now supports native extensions for better device support, operating system integration, and the ability to speed performance-critical code or use open source libraries.
  • In addition, the AIR packager for iOS, which lets you wrap your application as a native executable, is now a feature called Captive Runtime which is available for Windows, Mac and Android as well as iOS. Users who install a packaged application will not know it uses AIR, and will not need to install or update the AIR runtime as it is packaged with the application, though it is not actually a single file (on Windows at least).

These new options make the Flash and AIR combination an interesting comparison with other cross-platform development tools, such as Embarcadero’s new Delphi XE2, which targets Windows, Mac and iOS with a new framework called FireMonkey; or Appcelerator’s Titanium tool for cross-platform desktop and mobile development. Note though that Adobe is not promising any performance improvement. This is just another way to package the same runtime.

Adobe’s advantage is its high quality design and development tools and the maturity of the Flash runtime. For application size and performance, it will likely fall short of true native development tools. The ActionScript language could do with updating, and I would not be surprised if Adobe addresses this in the next major Flash release.

But do we still need Flash? Flash in the browser is in decline, thanks to the influence of Apple and the rise of HTML 5. Adobe’s MAX conference is coming up soon, and I noticed in the schedule [Flash needed] a defensive note in some of the sessions; there is even one called “The Death of Flash” which talks about “the misinformation that’s percolated through the web over the past year”.

That may be so; but even Adobe is re-positioning Flash and recognizing the rise of HTML 5. “Customers see significant advantages for Flash in a few focused areas,” said Adobe’s Danny Winokur, VP and General Manager of Platform , in a press briefing. He identified these areas as gaming, media apps, and “sophisticated data-driven applications” – think data visualisation rather than just forms over data. “For everything else it is very clear that … HTML 5 is a mature enough technology that it is a really good solution.”

Adobe is therefore investing in HTML 5 tools as well as Flash tools, and Winokur mentioned the Edge motion design tool as well as the venerable Dreamweaver.

I asked Winokur, given that HTML 5 is maturing fast, how Adobe sees the picture vs Flash in say two years time. He replied that Adobe is actively working to advance HTML 5, but that “there will continue to be opportunities for innovation in Flash, where we can … enable new possibilities that did not previously exist on the Web.” He makes the case for Flash as a kind of leading edge for HTML, with features that eventually become part of the HTML standard.

It is a fair point, but it is obvious that the niche for Flash is getting smaller rather than larger.

Adobe has never charged for the Flash runtime, and while the Flash vs HTML path is tricky to navigate, Adobe mainly makes its money from design tools, server applications and web analytics, and while Flash plays some client role in many of these products, Adobe can tune them over time to make less use of the runtime. I believe we can see this happening.

More positively, Adobe is benefiting from the demand for rich content across both web and applications, and has just reported decent financial results, showing the company’s resilience.

Finally, everyone is asking what Adobe will do about Microsoft’s WIndows 8 Metro platform for tablets, given that browser plug-ins are not supported. Here is the answer:

… we expect Flash based apps will come to Metro via Adobe AIR, much the way they are on Android, iOS and BlackBerry Tablet OS today

though I hope this will be delivered more quickly than the promised Flash runtime for Windows Phone 7, which is not a subject either Adobe or Microsoft seems willing to talk about.

Update: Adobe has also announced the Flex 4.6 SDK and Flash Builder 4.6, which supports these new capabilities including Captive Runtime and Native Extensions, and has new controls specifically aimed at tablet apps.

No plugins in Metro-style IE, and here is why

This evening was Ask the Experts time at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim, California, so I took the opportunity to ask the Internet Explorer (IE) team why the Metro-style IE does not support plugins such as Adobe Flash and even Microsoft’s own Silverlight.

I find it puzzling since the desktop IE in Windows 8 does support plugins, and when a page is open in Metro-style IE there is an option to open it in desktop Windows, in which case all the ActiveX controls start working.

The reason I was given is that Microsoft cannot control or predict the user experience if these plugins are running. For example, a Silverlight applet might have a user interface designed for mouse and keyboard. Microsoft has built in touch gestures that work for HTML in IE but cannot do so for plugins.

Once a user takes the decision to open in desktop Windows, these considerations change since desktop Windows is a mouse and keyboard environment.

I expect performance was also a consideration.

I was also told that Apple has made the no-plugins option viable by taking the same line in the iPad. Sites have been forced to offer iPad-friendly versions of their sites, which will also work in Windows 8 Metro.