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Windows 8 UI Revolution Triggers Fear and Loathing

Ah, yes, the sweet smell of revolution. Thanks to even the smallest bit of Windows 8 news, those of us on the Windows side of the fence now face a sunny future. In fact, we haven't been this excited since 2003, when Microsoft unleashed its vision for "Longhorn" on the world. The end to that story, of course, wasn't so positive--in fact, I think it triggered or was at least emblematic of a decade-long funk at the software giant--but there's a new sheriff in town now. And if I know anything about Steven Sinofsky, the man most directly responsible for Windows today, it's that this is a guy who keeps his promises. And when Mr. Sinofsky says that the changes coming in Windows 8 represent the biggest change to Windows since Windows 95, I don't just believe him. I think he's under-selling it.

But don't take my word for it. You can tell that Windows 8 already has the competition and its vocal supporters rattled. You can see it in the online commentary, the knee-jerk reactions that a single UI, that Windows 8 Start screen, couldn't possibly serve markets and needs as diverse as smart phones, tablets, notebook and desktop computers, and servers. I've already explained why these people aren't just wrong, but comically wrong, and why, yes, this single UI is going to work just fine for everyone, thank you very much. But there are questions.

My, are there questions.

Part of it is manufactured controversy from people who don't understand--or simply refuse to believe--that one UI can in fact work across many usage scenarios, device types, and operating systems. To which I'll point you to recent comments made by General Motors Daniel Akerson during a Bryant University commencement address.

"Don't be afraid of new ideas," he said. "Be afraid of old ones."


Microsoft could have evolved the Windows desktop, again. It could have painted lipstick on a pig and kept trying to fit new ideas into an aging UI that hasn't changed dramatically, in Windows at least, since 1995. It could have done the safe thing. But instead, Microsoft is doing the same thing to Windows 8 that it did previously to Office 2007 with the innovative Ribbon UI: It is taking something that we thought was mature and unchangeable and going in a useful, more productive, and revolutionary new direction. To that I say, simply, "bravo." The Windows 8 Start screen is so scary it's exciting, so exciting it's scary. And it's exactly the kind of sea change that--admit it--you never thought Microsoft could or would make.

But part of the concern over Windows 8 in this tiny little window of time isn't manufactured. Indeed, part of it is quite real, the result of a communications mistake that Microsoft could easily fix. And that is this: At the Windows 8 unveiling two weeks ago, Microsoft--in three separate but related venues, including a pre-recorded video, a Steve Sinofsky appearance at a trade show, and a separate Michael Angiulo appearance before partners at Computex--said, quite clearly, that the Windows 8 Start screen would run applications written in HTML 5, JavaScript, and CSS.

The rationale for this is simple enough: The developer audience that can write such solutions is an order of magnitude bigger than that that can write native code in languages like C# or C++ in environments like Silverlight or Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). And such development is so easy, the argument goes, that virtually anyone can do it.

Win-win, right? No, not exactly. In the days since the Windows 8 unveiling, Microsoft has undone a lot of good will by remaining silent on whether Windows 8 will also support a new programming model for native coders, one that is perhaps based on C# and Silverlight, two very modern technologies that the company uses on the web, on Windows Phone, and in other Microsoft platforms.

To be clear, my own sources told me months ago such a change was coming. In fact, I exclusively revealed in January that the software giant was working on a tiles based UI and a new apps model (and a Windows Store) for Windows 8. So news that this new UI--the Start screen--would utilize web-based programming technologies was, to say the least, confusing to me as well.

As I wrote back in January, this new apps model is codenamed Jupiter, while the tiles-based UI is codenamed Mosh. Apps would be packaged much like they are in Windows Phone 7 today, but using an evolved version of this packaging called AppX. Apps would be written in C#, Visual Basic, or C++ and based on Silverlight technologies.

I still believe that Microsoft will offer such an option to developers in Windows 8, though I should point out that plans evolve and it's always possible that these Mosh/Jupiter plans--which would have consolidated Windows and Windows Phone into a single codebase--are no longer active. Does Microsoft really intend for developers to write Start screen apps only in HTML/JavaScript/CSS?

We don't know.  And while I understand Microsoft's desire for a big reveal at the BUILD conference in September, even the tiniest word--"yes, or no, we do, or do not, intend to support native coding for the Windows 8 Start screen"--would mean a ton to understandably concerned developers.

Come on guys, do the right thing. You own the tech news cycle right now. Don't ruin it over a misunderstanding, a miscommunication. You don't have to give up the whole story. But give us a peek.

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