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Here's the $4.99 utility that might just have saved Windows 8

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Vid Veteran software outfit Stardock has offered Microsoft an elegant way to escape its Windows 8 Metro Notro dilemma.

With Windows 8, Redmond foisted a new and radical touchscreen-driven user interface on a desktop PC market that was already in a once-in-a-generation slump - and both consumer sales and enterprise interest have been dire.

The new operating system is a step too far for enterprises with limited training budgets – and only 17 per cent of business PCs shipped in the UK in December ran Windows 8. “Most consumers will be put off by the thought of having to learn a new OS,” Canalys' Tom Evans said at the time - and most analysts agree.

As for Stardock's solution, the utility simply allows "Modern Style" Metro apps to be run in a traditional Windows window, resized and pinned to the Windows 8 task bar. All the Metro apps run as before, but are easier to manage – they don’t require the user to be catapulted into a strange, differently scaled environment when they (for example) open a photo.

It’s a bleedin' obvious idea – so obvious you wonder why Microsoft didn’t think of it before. The answer was Microsoft’s determination to bludgeon a new "ecosystem" (or "marketplace" to you and me) of compatible, portable new-style apps that ran across Microsoft tablets, PCs and smartphones.

Microsoft was well aware that simply adding a widget layer to Windows doesn’t guarantee anyone will write widgets. After all, widgets were added to Vista and after the usual brief flurry of interest from developers, were never heard of again. Metro on Windows 8 was always just a widget layer – only a widget layer promoted way beyond its maturity or capabilities.

If you build it, they have to come, dammit

So in the grand scheme of things, Windows 8 for the PC became a kind of battering ram: you would be forced to confront MetroNotro whether you wanted to or not. It would become unavoidable. App vendors would have to suck it up and write a "third" app (alongside iOS and Android) for Windows.

When you think about it, it’s not a bad strategy. It just causes an immense amount of pain for users – particularly desktop users with large monitors, who must do a step change between two environments with vastly different scales.

Alas, the development side of Microsoft didn’t get the memo. While Notro Metro apps look alike, they’re not source-compatible. You must write different code for Windows Phone, RT and Win8 desktop. Maybe the memo wasn’t sent – we just don’t know. The mastermind behind this car crash strategic masterstroke, Steve Sinofsky, departed late last year.

Microsoft does permit a Windows 8 without compulsory Metro - but only for Embedded.

As for Stardock, it looks like the utility does offer a face-saving retreat for Microsoft by allowing users to run Metro widgets in a window. If they’re any good, desktop users will use them. On tablets, and particularly RT, users won’t have a choice in any case. Hopefully, it will allow the Windows team to focus on getting compatibility between RT and Windows Phone APIs (something that’s part of "Blue")

A Metro app Notro can be windowed, and pinned to the Task Bar

Primarily a games company, Stardock has been fixing other people's OS disasters for a long time. In 1995 it hired ex-IBMers to provide a bunch of shell improvements for OS/2 Warp. It later pioneered theming and widgets on Windows – long before they became part of the Mac. Along the way it gained an insider knowledge of how Windows graphics work – knowledge that Microsoft apparently forgot around the time of Vista.

Stardock does the best traditional Start Menu add-in for Windows 8, called Start8, for $4.99, with a free trial. It's also flogging ModernMix at $4.99, also available with a free trial.

Take away the context-switching torture feature, and Windows 8 is probably the best version of Windows that Microsoft has produced. The performance and storage improvements alone are worth the upgrade. But the UI is keeping punters away.

Can this rescue Microsoft from the pickle it finds itself in? With Sinofsky gone, I don't see why not.

If you dabble, let us know. ®

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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