Windows 8: It's the Applications, Stupid!

In the end, operating systems are merely a means to an end. Nobody runs Windows to run Windows, or OS X to run OS X, or Linux to run Linux. They run them to get stuff done, and they get most of that stuff done in applications.

I've been pondering that fact as I've been processing the news about Windows 8, which Microsoft showed in public for the first time this week at the D9 conference. It's got both a radically new touch-centric interface and the one I already am thinking of as "Windows Classic"-a duality that brings to mind the days when most people ran both DOS apps and Windows 3.x ones.

Windows 8 is a giant-sized, risky, fascinating bet -- but in the end, it's the apps that are going to matter.

See our full Windows 8 coverage
During the D9 demo, both Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher brought up Office. Would it be reimagined for Windows' new look? Windows interface kingpin Julie Larson-Green, as you'd expect, didn't confirm or deny anything. She said "They may do some things in the future." and "I'm sure the Office team will look at what we're doing."

It's a huge question. While Larson-Green said that the current version of Office would behave in touch-friendly fashion in Windows 8, it's obvious that it's not going to feel like it was written for the new interface. (You could tell that when she fumbled with Excel as she tried to drag it off-screen with her fingertip.)

Here's AllThingD's video of the demo:

I imagine that the real answer to Walt and Kara's queries is that yes, of course, Microsoft is going to reimagine Office for Windows 8. But even then, it's not obvious whether the company is going to give Office a truly touch-centric interface as the default. (Sounds hugely risky and probably impossible to do well-all the Office apps are rife with features that will never work well without a mouse and keyboard.) Or mirror what it's doing with Windows 8 and give Office two different interfaces. (That also sounds extremely tricky.) Or do something akin to what Apple did with its iWork suite, and build a separate version of Office with fewer features and a wholly new interface. (That sounds like it could make sense.)

Every other significant software developer is going to have to deal with similar questions. It's not yet clear what the right answers are -- it's possible that Windows' new look will be a bust and it'll be silly to invest energy in supporting it. And the right answers will be different for different companies. But ignoring Windows 8 won't be an option.

I promise I'll stop comparing Windows 8 to Windows 3.0 momentarily, but I'm reminded once again of the DOS-to-Windows scenario. Back in the early 1990s, there were a bunch of hugely successful DOS developers: Lotus, SPC (Harvard Graphics), WordPerfect, and others. They all botched it. Some of them thought that IBM's OS/2 would be DOS's successor, and didn't realize that Windows was where it was at until it was too late. Others released Windows versions that were crude and/or starved for features, or built good Windows apps far too slowly.

Only one big company took what turned out to be the smartest approach by far, which was to put lots of resources into building ambitious apps that were built for Windows from the ground up. That company would be Microsoft, and it's a huge reason why its Office apps managed to knock all the major DOS productivity programs off their pedestals.

The DOS-to-Windows transition took around a decade. The tech world moves far more quickly nowadays, so we won't have to wait until 2022 or thereabouts to judge Windows 8's full impact. But all we know for sure right now is that Internet Explorer 10 will be a touch-first app. We don't even know whether Microsoft or anyone else will have other true Windows 8 programs ready when the operating system ships in (I'm guessing) mid- to late 2012.

A few killer apps for Windows 8 could have a hugely positive impact; a lack of them would drag it down. (One of the contributing factors to Tablet PC's failure was the lack of software that really took advantage of its new features.)

Got any predictions about what'll happen at this early date?

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