Windows desktop destined for long slide to oblivion, says Gartner

Microsoft's biggest technology shift in two decades means traditional Windows will account for just 10% of users' time by 2020

Microsoft will de-emphasize the Windows desktop in future releases of its operating system as usage of traditional Windows applications falls to just 10% of users' time by 2020, analysts said this week.

A quartet of Gartner analysts, led by Michael Silver, released a report Tuesday that spelled out the market research firm's prediction for what it described as a Microsoft-initiated "technology shift," the first in nearly two decades.

"Sometimes a new version of Windows represents more than a major upgrade," said Silver in the report Windows 8 Changes Windows as We Know It. "We call these 'technology shifts.' We don't see technology shifts too often."

In fact, for Gartner's money, the only other example in Microsoft's 37-year history was the shift from DOS to Windows NT technology that kicked off in 1993 and wrapped up with the 2001 launch of Windows XP.

"Windows XP was the first Windows version based on NT technology to be targeted at businesses and consumers, and signaled the end of the DOS technology era," Gartner said.

Likewise, the emergence of WinRT -- the name for the new runtime and programming model linked to the Metro user interface (UI) and its touch-first apps -- is a technology shift. Namely, it's a shift away from Windows NT (the core of every edition prior to Windows 8) to WinRT and Metro.

That shift will probably run much like the one from DOS to Windows NT: A long process (eight years for the first shift to run its course) that for some time features both technologies (the DOS prompt remained key to Windows for years) and a gradual diminishing of the older technology's importance.

"Microsoft is not forcing anyone to eliminate Win32 applications or preventing developers from writing them, but Gartner believes that Win32 and the Windows Desktop will become less strategic over time," said the firm.

Most enterprises that adopt Windows 8 will continue to use Win32 applications and a traditional desktop browser through 2015, said Silver and his colleagues, but by 2020, users will spend less than 10% of their time on that platform, and thus on the desktop. By then, the browser and most applications, including what Gartner called "OS-neutral" apps, will run in Metro using the WinRT runtime.

That means Microsoft will likely spend little energy from this point forward improving the Windows desktop.

"Gartner expects Microsoft to include the Windows Desktop in future releases, but improvements will be relatively minor," the research firm said, comparing future support for the desktop to the longtime inclusion of the DOS command line in Windows.

Microsoft's bet on WinRT and Metro is, of course, huge, but it was necessary.

"Gartner believes Microsoft needs to make such a change, an idea we first suggested in 2006," said Silver's report. "Our hypothesis [then] was that having to support legacy products was becoming a drag on Microsoft, slowing innovation, and that Windows had become too large for any systems designer to implement radical changes."

In 2008, Silver and Gartner analyst Neil McDonald, who also contributed to this week's report, called Microsoft's then-current position "untenable," and said Windows was "collapsing" under its own weight of legacy code and the need to support old software, both its own and that from third parties.

Microsoft, Gartner said then, had to address the problem by building a Windows system able to run on low-powered and low-priced hardware -- this was years before Apple introduced its iPad -- by crafting an operating system that was "thinner, smaller and more modular."

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