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The Next Twenty Years: What Windows 8's Closed Distribution Means for Developers
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The Next Twenty Years: What Windows 8's Closed Distribution Means for Developers

October 16, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

In this highly detailed article which originally appeared on his site, programmer and game industry veteran Casey Muratori takes a long, hard look at what Windows 8's changes will mean for developers not just immediately, but down the road. 

For the first time in the history of the PC, Microsoft is rolling out a new Windows ecosystem for which they will be the sole software distributor. If you buy Windows 8, the only place you will be able to download software that integrates with its new user interface will be the official Windows Store. Microsoft will have complete control over what software will be allowed there.

Microsoft has stated that applications for the older desktop interface will remain unaffected by these policies. As long as they only use applications that run on the old desktop, users will still be able to buy, sell, develop, and distribute software without interference from Microsoft. Many Windows users have taken this as an assurance that the open distribution model that they enjoy today will still be available in future versions of Windows, and as a result, there has been far less public concern about Windows 8 than there might have otherwise been.

But how realistic is the assumption that the Windows desktop will still be a usable computing platform in the future? And what would be the consequences were it to disappear, leaving Windows users with only the closed software ecosystem introduced in Windows 8?

To answer these questions, this volume of Critical Detail examines the immediate and future effects of Microsoft's current certification requirements, explores in depth what history predicts for the lifespan of the classic Windows desktop, and takes a pragmatic look at whether an open or closed ecosystem would be better for Microsoft as a company.

Game of the Year 2032

According to PC Gamer Magazine, and many sources which agree, PC Game of the Year 2011 was Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In a move that surprised absolutely no one, Skyrim for the PC shipped on Windows, not MS-DOS. Even if the developers had wanted to, they couldn't have shipped a modern PC game like Skyrim on DOS because none of the past 15 years of graphics hardware innovation is available there. It's absurd to even consider shipping commercial consumer software on MS-DOS today.

Hypothetically, let's assume it becomes equivalently absurd, 20 years from now, to ship consumer software on Windows desktop. There are no desktop games in 2032, much like there are no DOS games in 2012. Everything runs in some much more refined version of the Windows 8 modern user interface.

Because no software can ship on this future platform without it going through the Windows Store, the team that built Skyrim would have to send it to Microsoft for certification. Then Microsoft would tell them if they could ship it.

Do you know what Microsoft's answer would be?

I do. It would be "no".

This is not speculative; it is certain. Skyrim is a game for adults. It has a PEGI rating of 18. If you read the Windows 8 app certification requirements you will find, in section 5.1:

Your app must not contain adult content, and metadata must be appropriate for everyone. Apps with a rating over PEGI 16, ESRB MATURE, or that contain content that would warrant such a rating, are not allowed.

And that's the end of it. No Skyrim for the Windows Store, unless of course the developers go back and remove all the PEGI 18-rated content.

That's 2011's Game of the Year, banned from the Windows Store. How about 2012? With several highly anticipated games yet to be released, it's anybody's guess which game will be selected. But a random sampling of internet predictions suggests some of the leading contenders are Max Payne 3, The Witcher 2, Mass Effect 3, Assassins Creed 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and Borderlands 2. Of the four of those that have already shipped and been rated by PEGI, how many could be shipped on Windows Store?


Now, there are certainly many people out there, perhaps even the majority, who believe that games aren't culturally relevant. They are not great art, they might say, and therefore it is irrelevant if a major platform prevented their dissemination.

In the interest of illustrating the importance of an open platform more broadly, let's give our games a cultural facelift. Let's pretend we magically have a bunch of games with content equivalent to no less than the Emmy nominees for 2012 outstanding drama series: Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Homeland, and Game of Thrones.

Odds are that Downton Abbey would be the only one to clearly pass the PEGI rating test, but even if somehow the rest of them did, they'd be banned from the store for a variety of other reasons, such as section 5.3:

Your app must not contain content or functionality that encourages, facilitates, or glamorizes illegal activity.

section 5.6:

Your app must not contain content that encourages, facilitates or glamorizes excessive or irresponsible use of alcohol or tobacco products, drugs or weapons.

or section 5.8:

Your app must not contain excessive or gratuitous profanity.

This vision of a future Windows heavily censored by Microsoft is chilling. But how likely is it to actually occur?

For Windows RT, the version of Windows for low-power tablets and phones, this future begins on October 26th. Each and every Windows RT device sold will only be able to run software from the Windows Store, and all Windows Store apps must follow the certification requirements quoted above, as well as dozens more. Windows RT users won't have 10 or 20 years before they can no longer play the world's most highly acclaimed games on their Windows devices. Those games will have been forbidden from day one.

But for Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro, the versions that most desktop users will have, the timeline is not yet certain. Unlike Windows RT, these versions include the classic Windows desktop that still supports open distribution. Is it possible, then, that desktop users will never have to experience this future?

A brief examination of Microsoft's own history suggests quite the opposite.

Anatomy of a Microsoft Platform Shift

In the late 1980s, much of the consumer computing world was already using graphical user interfaces. Machines like the Apple Macintosh, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST had grown dramatically in popularity, and each shipped with a modern graphical operating system pre-installed. PCs, on the other hand, still typically ran MS-DOS, a command-line environment where applications had to individually implement their own rudimentary interfaces.

Despite this drawback, the PC was nonetheless flourishing. Because it was an open hardware platform and had achieved wide adoption in the business space, many of the era's most famous productivity programs -- like Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect -- treated MS-DOS as a flagship business platform.

Then on May 22nd, 1990, Microsoft shipped Windows 3.0. This version of Windows could do something no previous version could: it could run MS-DOS programs alongside native graphical apps. For the first time, people could run standard business applications without leaving a consumer-friendly interface. The Windows GUI itself may not have been as flashy as what was available on other platforms, but it gave people the option of using just one OS for everything, and customers wanted that. Adoption rates soared.

Over the next five years, Microsoft continued adding new APIs to Windows. Although people still developed MS-DOS programs, it became increasingly difficult to ship a business application that didn't integrate with things like the Windows font manager, printing services, standard dialogs, and rich clipboard. Customers came to expect these things, and MS-DOS applications simply couldn't use them.

As most apps either transitioned to native Windows versions or became defunct, games were the one major holdout. They lived and died by performance, and couldn't afford the overhead Windows introduced. But eventually Microsoft found a way to give games the hardware access they needed, and slowly but surely, native Windows games became increasingly common. By the time Windows 2000 was introduced on February 17th, 2000, only 10 years after the release of Windows 3.0, running MS-DOS programs had gone from the key feature that made Windows what it was to a tacked-on compatibility mode only meant to support legacy software. MS-DOS as a platform, and any programs still tied to it, had faded into obscurity.

On July 22nd, 2009, nearly two decades after the release of Windows 3.0, Microsoft introduced the version of Windows most of us use today, Windows 7. If you try to run an MS-DOS application in Windows 7, you get a dialog box that says:

You may still be able to run the program, but you'll have to download and install a special "Windows XP Mode" package from Microsoft's website or use third-party emulation software to even try.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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