More reason for optimism about Windows 9

Unexpected signs of intelligence in new Windows development effort could point toward a long-overdue renovation

On the surface, Microsoft's newly stated rededication to having a single, solitary Windows Store -- one that includes both Windows Phone apps and Metro/WinRT apps -- sounds like a lot of verbal handwaving. But the undertone this time has interesting implications. Inscrutable as ever, Windows OS chief Terry Myerson may be hinting at a significant bottom-up rewiring of the Windows app ecosystem, which could bode very well for the next version of Windows, both on x86 and on ARM platforms, from phones to desktops.

I wrote last Thursday that there's reason to hope Windows 9 will be better and offered the Windows App Store/Windows Phone App Store bifurcation as a prime example of how Microsoft's strategy of growing the Metro/WinRT environment "down" from the desktop wasn't working. The tablet-centric Windows Store and the phone-centric Windows Phone Store "are as different as night and day -- and that's a big part of the problem for Windows developers looking for mobile markets."

Later that same day, Myerson took to the stage at the annual company meeting in Seattle -- one attended by thousands of Microsoft employees and barred to the press -- and announced that the two stores would be merged at some undefined point next year. Two independent sources have confirmed his comments.

Tom Warren, citing unidentified "sources familiar with the company's plans" said in the Verge:

Microsoft is planning to combine its Windows Phone Store and Windows Store into a single app store. ... Myerson committed to the "next releases" of Windows and Windows Phone, which we understand to be Windows Phone 8.1 and a special update planned for Windows 8.1. Both are due to be ready in spring 2014.

Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet talked to two (apparently different) sources, who said:

The new unified store is supposedly going to be part of the next version of Windows, which I believe could be Windows 8.1 with the Spring 2014 GDR update, according to one of my contacts. (Another contact said no timing was shared as to when this will happen.) I'm not clear if Microsoft also demonstrated or outlined a plan to make that store the same one that is featured on Xbox One, some time post launch of that console this November.

I'm also hearing Windows Azure is likely playing a role in this scenario. I'm thinking that this might have to do with cloud compilation of applications. This would involve Microsoft compiling developers' applications for them, like it did with Windows Phone during the move from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8 to help with portability and performance.

Physically combining the stores is, on a superficial level, entirely trivial: Apple's App Store, for example, has long had separate categories for iPhone and iPad apps, and a dwindling number of apps have different versions for each platform. Microsoft's multiple app stores isn't a problem so much as a symptom of the much greater underlying issue: The WinRT API for Metro apps on desktop/laptop/tablets doesn't work like the Windows Phone Runtime API for phones.

Given the context of the disclosure, I'm convinced Myerson is signalling a melding of the two APIs -- or at least some sort of detente, possibly with cloud compilation described by Foley. (She proposes another scenario, where the apps run in the cloud with the output streamed to all kinds of devices, but that seems far-fetched considering the current iffy state of universal streaming.)

If so, that's a huge first leap away from the three-headed Windows desktop/Metro WinRT/Windows Phone monster.

There's a next big step Myerson could take, particularly to mollify the 1.4 billion of us who turned Windows into a money-making bovine: Microsoft should buy Stardock and roll both the Start8 Windows 7-style Start menu replacement and the Metro-app-on-the-desktop ModernMix into the next version of Windows.

Friends of mine insist that Windows 8.1 is "what Microsoft should've shipped as Windows 8." I disagree. To me, Windows 8.1 is a small step in the right direction, primarily giving experienced Windows users a chance to disable some of the most intrusive elements of Windows 8. What Microsoft should've shipped as Windows 8 looks more like Windows 8.1 with Start8 (or a similar Start menu replacement) and ModernMix, minus a few of the more ridiculous parts of Windows 8.1, which I've covered.

It'd certainly be helpful if I could put a small window on my desktop that's running a Metro app or a Windows Phone app. That's even better than a deprecated Windows 7 gadget. If Microsoft keeps going in this direction, such a superimposition of Metro on the desktop or Windows Phone on the desktop may not only be possible, it could be quite simple.

Building all of that into Windows 9 could, in fact, give us "what Microsoft should've shipped as Windows 8" -- and demonstrate, once again, that Microsoft knows how to ship a good version of Windows -- every other time.

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