Jan 092013

There have been a lot of game developers coming out recently to complain about Windows 8, most notably Gabe Newell.  In the comments sections of news stories you get a lot of people dismissing their concerns and accusing them of overreacting.  I believe that some of these are justified so I’m going to explain why, but also how the problem could be averted.  There is an excellent article here which brings up many points that I agree with, but it’s quite long so I’ll summarise.

1. Closed development environment for Metro apps

This really just sounds like an inconvenience until I get to the real issues, but you can only develop Metro apps if you are a licenced developer (which requires paying an annual fee), in a closed development environment.  No longer can Average Joe whip out a text editor and download a compiler and start writing programs for free.

Closed development environments are a pain – if the Apple experience is anything to go by you’ll waste many hours trying to sort out development profiles and permissions on all of your devices, and delays when a new person joins the team or a new external person wants to test the app.  You’ll long for the days of being able to build an executable and just run it anywhere.

2. Windows Store for Metro apps

This is the main issue with the closed development model – only approved apps can be put on the store.  Although Microsoft has recently relaxed its stance on 18-rated games, anything you publish will still need to be approved by an arbitrary approval committee within Microsoft.

Now, people whose job it is to approve software apps generally aren’t the same people who know what bizarre and innovative app will kick off a revolution in the computer industry.  I guarantee that if every piece of software already written had been subject to approval by some committee before it could be released, the world of computing today would look very different.  How many innovations wouldn’t have seen the light of day because the approver didn’t understand what it was or what the possibilities could be?

This is a real problem if app stores are the only way to get software in future.

3. The Windows Desktop mode will eventually go away

So this is the crux of the issue.  Most accusations of overreacting and scaremongering go something along the lines of: “but you can still run apps on the Desktop mode and you can ignore Metro”.  That is a flawed argument.

While you can currently still run all programs in the Desktop mode, these programs don’t, and will likely never have, access to all the shiny new features and APIs of Windows 8.  Again, at the moment, this isn’t a problem as there isn’t that much new stuff yet.  However, think back to DOS…

20+ years ago everything was a DOS application, and then Windows came along.  But all your old DOS programs still worked as you could run them in DOS mode.  But, none of the new shiny features and APIs of Windows were accessible.  Sounds familiar?  How many new DOS products are written today?

Here is a concrete example – DirectX 11.1 is only supported on Windows 8.  There is no deep architectural reason why it can’t be supported on Windows 7, it just isn’t.  Come Windows 9 or Windows 10, who knows what new APIs will be Metro-only?

What this means

Taking these points together, it is really not inconceivable that in ten years time the only way to get a modern app on Windows is through the Windows Store, and publishing one would require being a registered developed and having your software approved before release.  This is what everyone is getting so worked up about.

How it can be avoided

This can all be easily avoided however – Microsoft just needs to allow open development of Metro apps.  I would say that the main competitive advantage that Windows has enjoyed up to this point is that anyone can write software for it, and so the software library is huge.  Moving to the same model as Apple puts them in direct competition, on equal terms, with MacOS and the iOS mobile devices, and it’s an optimistic person who thinks that’s a favourable matchup.

I think Microsoft have a few years yet to change their mind.  People will still buy new versions of Windows, apps will get developed for the Windows Store, and a lot of people will be happy with that.  But a lot of people will be sad to see a platform that previously offered so many opportunities go to waste.

The rise of Linux?

There is one more possible outcome, and that is the rise of Linux as a viable mainstream OS.  Moves are already afoot with Valve’s upcoming Steam Box.  As I understand it, this may work by having Linux on a bootable pen drive with Steam pre-installed.  There is no reason that this won’t be the way OSes go in future – Windows doesn’t do what you want?  Just swap out the system drive for an OS that has the features you want, just by popping in a different pen drive.  Bootcamp on the Mac is basically doing this already, and I swap between MacOS and Windows on a fairly regular basis on the laptop, depending on what I want to do.

So maybe the future isn’t that bleak after all.  Just don’t expect it to be a Windows-only future.

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