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Switched On: An Office outside the Metro


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

The two worlds of Windows 8 -- one: a traditional desktop UI and the other: the touch-optimized Metro UI -- can, at first, seem so different that they contrast like the multiple personalities of Batman's enemy Two-Face. Yet, despite the different appearances, the forthcoming version of Microsoft's venerable operating system is not about absolutes, but optimizations.

Like the yin-yang symbol, each half of the circle embraces some of its opposite. The company has breathlessly reassured the installed base of this with respect to Metro-style apps, in which one can navigate by keyboard and mouse, but its recent detailing of the new version of Office highlights the fact that the overlap goes both ways; desktop apps can at least partially embrace touch input even if they are not Metro-style apps.

Throughout Office's history, it's been the most important set of Windows applications for Microsoft. It helped push programs like Microsoft Word and Excel past once-seemingly invincible competitors such as WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. Today, Office is the only full-featured traditional desktop application that Microsoft is keeping around for Windows RT. And so, Microsoft's decision to keep the next version of Office on the desktop side of Windows says much about how it views the state of desktop versus Metro-style apps.

We should, of course, take care in what we wish for. Microsoft undoubtedly evaluated creating a Metro-style version of Office for Windows 8 just as it has created a Metro-style version of Internet Explorer. The company surely had good reasons for maintaining desktop-style devotion in Windows 8 for this revision. There is, of course, a Metro version of Office, at least in name, and it ships with every Windows Phone. Scaling nominal, on-the-go productivity from the small screen to the big one is a daunting task.

On the other hand, Microsoft's approach with Office begs a question. If touch-optimizing a desktop app is good enough for Office, why isn't it good enough for other Windows 8 apps? Why create not only such a radical change, but also the discord that results from supporting two different user interface modes, even for a prolonged transition? There are at least three possible answers.

First, unlike the transition from character-line to graphical user interfaces, touch user interfaces do not provide a better environment for productivity applications. While many could debate that point at length, it's clear that Microsoft's competitors aren't letting it stand in their way. Much like Microsoft Word had a model for GUI-based word processing in MacWrite, touch-optimized office suites have been developed by or snapped up by Microsoft's competitors, including Apple (iWork), Google (QuickOffice) and RIM (Docs To Go).

Second, the touch UI is changing the kind of apps we use PCs and tablets for. It's less about spreadsheets and word processing and more about the applications that dominate the iPad's app store -- casual games, recipe collections, social networking clients, etc. Most would agree that we are doing more of these things on PCs as well as on tablets and smartphones. The other tasks are not going away, though, as per the point about competitive tablet office suites. If Metro isn't for office suites, or at least not Microsoft's, what is the real value of this desktop-class, non-watered-down operating system that Microsoft sees as providing an advantage in a Metro context versus iOS and Android beyond driver support?

Third, touch-optimizing a desktop app ultimately is not good enough. Microsoft has not publicly said that it believes Windows' desktop mode to be a legacy interface. Further clues will become apparent with the next version of Windows, which may continue to largely ignore the desktop environment, enhance it further, or even constrain it further by taking steps such as guiding users back to the Metro Start screen instead of the old Start menu. However, via moves as varied as killing off the Zune and Windows Live brands to the demise of Windows Home Server to the launch of the Surface tablet, it seems clear that this present Microsoft is less concerned about preserving legacy products, particularly when they lack momentum. (Note to MSN TV service: keep hiding.)

They say the proof of a company's belief in its own products lies in its willingness to "eat its own dog food." Over time, though, the company's belief in the strength of the Metro UI will be tested as it continues to reserve the desktop for certain app exceptions (much like some users continue to use Windows' CLI today for certain utilities). If Metro is to define Windows' user interface, it must be robust enough to service mainstream Windows apps, and Office is the archetype.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is principal analyst at Reticle Research, an advisory firm focused on consumer technology. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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