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Where do Windows 8 Metro apps fit in your business?

I’ve been working with Windows 8 Metro apps for a while now, like many in our industry. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time talking about it with people from many different walks of life. I’ve helped build some line-of-business apps, and demos given at keynotes to demonstrate various new features and metaphors now available in the Microsoft stack. Through all of this, the main theme of inquiry continues to be: “Where do Metro apps fit in our business?”

Windows 8 Metro

Windows 8 Metro

 

Commonly, responses to these questions either follow a line of:

a. “They don’t. It’s a passing fad, like Vista gadgets.”

or

b. “The end of the traditional desktop application is nigh!”

These two arguments follow the classic pattern of the thesis and antithesis, and will eventually culminate into a synthesis. What do I mean by this?

 

Desktop apps will live on

Desktop apps are not dead. They will be around for a long, long time still. The last time I heard the end of desktop apps being heralded, was The Great Dawn of Web 2.0 when web developers discovered AJAX, which has been around since Internet Explorer 5. They were wrong.

Desktop apps are sticking around because an enormous chunk of the world’s enterprise apps have been written using various technologies, inside and outside of the Microsoft stack, relying on the incredibly rich Win32 API. Web and Metro apps do not offer the same amount of capability in the Windows stack. Today, 10 years later, most users can still tell the difference between a web-based word processor, and a native one. While the web provides a compelling platform to deliver content to users, it remains limited in richness without the benefit of very new JavaScript, canvas, and SVG, which can mean a much higher price tag for the code authoring when taking into account the fragmented implementation of standards by the major browser vendors.

As an alternative to both Win32 and web, Windows 8 offers an API called WinRT (Windows runtime), on which Metro-style apps are built. This new runtime allows developers to leverage existing web and desktop development skills for coding their user experiences. It offers handy components to make integration easier with web-based data sources. The Windows Store exposes a good infrastructure for deploying and managing our apps. It also attempts to guarantee that apps obtained using the official channels will not interfere with other apps or impede the expected experience on your device. And that’s the sticker.

The new runtime has completely removed some features needed for particular kinds of apps, and changed the implementations of others, to make a number of scenarios completely impractical. It requires you to obtain your app through the Windows Store, posing a challenge for enterprise deployment (though an enterprise store is in the works to alleviate this). It also has a peculiar way of running full-screen, which you notice as soon as you need to run two apps side-by-side for some good old-fashioned copy-paste integration.

 

It’s about the consumer

So why would Microsoft invest in this runtime so heavily then, given these limitations? The answer can be found in their renewed focus on the consumer. WinRT was created as a way to consumerise Windows 8 for the tablet market. To better understand this, consider the success of the iPad.

The iPad offers users a simplified environment, where the underlying operating system disappears behind apps. People no longer worry about configuring or updating the operating system. They don’t worry about compatibility between apps. They don’t worry whether apps are running or not, or how that impacts the battery life. And battery life is important, because they expect everything to be available all the time, when they need it. In this paradigm, the operating system merely supports the apps, and fades away into the background. The iPad does this by running a modified version of the same operating system as the iPhone and the iPod touch. It imposes heavy restrictions on the ability of apps to interact with the hardware, to prevent developers from fouling a carefully manicured garden.

WinRT, then, can be thought of as a runtime built to target tablets. This is even more evident when you consider that the upcoming ARM-based tablets will run a particular version of Windows 8, named Windows RT. This version will not be able to run your desktop apps, only Metro-style apps obtained from a store. It has been positioned as an alternative to the iPad and current Android-powered tablets. Clearly Microsoft believes that tablet scenarios are more attractive than the desktop scenarios for the moment, which I think most of us would agree with.  

 

A whole new approach to content

Why is this? Put quite simply, tablets are opening a new world of possibility for interacting with content. Some new perspectives for us to embrace in this world include new interfaces like touch, capabilities like locational awareness, and paradigms like social connectivity. This world is refreshingly new, and transcends the traditional battleship-grey experience of conventional desktop apps.

Metro-style apps share more characteristics with what we’ve been doing in the mobile space over the last few years than the desktop or web space, and should therefore be approached from that perspective. Therefore the question we should be asking is: What do we need to offer the user who is on the move, focused on one app at a time, on a low power device, with ubiquitous internet connectivity?

For our own business users, we can offer to replace the clipboard. Where they may previously have had to write things down on paper or capture them on a smart phone, they can now use new Metro-style apps for conveniently updating the info in real time, on location. We can offer to replace phone calls. Users can use their app to pull information that they may otherwise have had to phone someone for or take with in hard copy, to support decision-making on the move. Compelling Business Intelligence dashboard apps becomes a great showcase for making use of the richness available in Metro-style apps. These offer a means by which people can perform specific, targeted activities.

For obvious reasons, we should not replace traditional desktop applications (e.g. built for inputting data), with applications that were only designed to run full-screen rather than alongside other applications. This is impractical because Metro apps can only run full-screen, snapped (occupying a narrow “window” at the side of the screen, the size of which is defined by Windows), and filled (the space available next to a snapped app). Also, there is no access to the desktop when the desktop window is snapped; it only shows a list of running applications. Applications with significant processing requirements or the need to run background tasks on the client may also not be suitable as a Metro app. If we’re going to release a video editing application that transcodes media on the client, we may run into severe difficulty running it on an ARM-based tablet until hardware and runtime performance improve. Sadly this rules out a large number of use cases in the enterprise. For the time being, a mixture of web and desktop application scenarios will still be the mainstream solution. This is supported by Microsoft’s differentiation between ARM- and Intel-based tablets, with their accompanying Windows SKUs.

 

Who stands to gain the most?

The prime benefactor for our Metro-style apps will not be the enterprise user, but the customers they serve. Similar to apps for phones and the current crop of tablets, Metro-style apps offer us an opportunity to have a richer engagement with our customers by offering them an experience that will be better integrated socially, and will leverage new user experience patterns like touch more effectively. Windows 8 contracts allow apps to participate in the Windows ecosystem more reliably, reducing the need for continually reinventing non-core functionality. It gives us a way to deliver content to them that may be impractical to run in a browser. Think about something that uses the camera to scan QR codes or upload photos of our products, for example. The Windows Store ensures that they will be confident installing and running our app, and the sandboxed environment provided by the WinRT runtime gives us confidence that other apps won’t interfere with the expected experience of our app. Whilst being great at enabling consumption of our content, the extra richness offered to us through participation in the app ecosystem, the more natural interaction using touch and voice input, and increased social connectivity, all empower our users to have a much greater impact on the creation of content. All in a safe, predictable setting.

 

Leveraging each platform to best effect.

When all is said and done, and we’ve adjusted to this new paradigm Metro apps offers us, we will still have desktop apps. We will still have websites. We will still have phone apps. But we will also have Metro apps. Each platform and paradigm has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Each serves a purpose. The challenge for today’s business is investing in the optimum combinations of platform and function, so we may leverage the strengths of each to maximum effect.

Posted by: Hannes Nel, Developer, Enterprise Applications | 30 July 2012

Tags: Microsoft, Metro, Windows 8


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