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7 Ways Modern Windows 8 Apps Are Different From Windows Desktop Apps

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Windows 8 apps – originally known as Metro-style apps and now known as Windows 8 style, Modern UI style, or Windows Store style apps, depending on which Microsoft employee you ask — are very different from traditional desktop apps.

The Modern interface isn’t just a fresh coat of paint. The new Windows Runtime, or WinRT, application architecture (not to be confused with Windows RT) is very different from the Windows desktop we’re used to.

Only Available From the Windows Store

Unlike standard Windows desktop applications, you can only install Modern-style applications from the Windows Store. Any applications you want to install must be submitted to the Windows Store and approved by Microsoft. If Microsoft removes an app or won’t approve it, you won’t be allowed to install it on your system.

Of course, this has some benefits – users can’t install malware from outside the Windows Store, particularly on Windows RT where users can’t install any desktop applications.

It’s only possible to “sideload” and install unapproved applications if you’re using Windows on a domain (for example, a corporate network), or if you use a developer key to sideload the application.

windows-8-store

Sandboxed

Traditionally, standard Windows desktop applications have access to everything on the system. While this has changed with the introduction of User Account Control, which prevents applications from doing things that require administrator access, desktop applications still have a lot of room to wreak havoc. They could read your personal files and upload them to the internet, delete files from your computer to cause havoc, or key-log you to record your credit card numbers and online passwords. While installing (with administrator access), they could even do malicious things to the rest of your system without UAC stepping in.

Modern apps are sandboxed. They have a permissions system similar to Android’s. When you install an app, you’ll see the permissions it requires. While this increases security and allows users to download apps with less fear – similar to how playing a Flash game on a  web page is less risky than downloading an .exe file and running it – it can also be annoying. For example, you can’t use the included Photos app to view image files located outside your Pictures library.

windows-8-onenote-permissions

No Running Multiple Apps At the Same Time

Traditional desktop apps all run at the same time. You can have multiple application windows open and on-screen at the same time. Many applications can be running in the background.

Modern apps function more like mobile apps. When you open a Modern app, it takes up your entire screen — you can’t view the full interface of two Modern apps on-screen at the same time. (Even if you have multiple monitors.) When you switch away from a Modern app, it goes into a suspended background mode, like a mobile app on a smartphone.

However, the new interface does include some multitasking abilities. You can use the Snap feature to view two apps on-screen at the same time. However, one app will always take up 1/4 of your screen with a simplified interface, while the main app will take up 3/4 of your screen. There’s no Aero snap-like, split-screen, 50/50 multitasking in the Modern interface.

windows-8-messaging-app-snapped

Always-On, No Closing

Because Modern apps function like mobile apps, there’s no reason to close them when you’re done with them. Just switch away from an app and it will stay in the background without using up a lot of your system’s resources. While you can close Modern apps, Microsoft made the method non-obvious for a reason – they don’t want users closing apps whenever they’re done with them. That’s why there’s no X button at the top-right corner of a Modern application.

windows-8-task-manager

Design Style

Whether you love Modern apps or hate them, there’s no denying that the new Windows 8 interface has a more consistent, cohesive design style than Windows desktop applications have had.

The interface was originally named “Metro” because of its focus on typography, like signs on public transit systems. Apps have a cohesive look that hides “chrome” – toolbars, buttons, window borders, and other elements that get in the way of the content you’re interested in. Apps generally hide their options by default – for example, the modern version of Internet Explorer 10 is a full-screen browser that hides browser tabs and the navigation bar until you call them up.

Most Modern apps use left-to-right scrolling, along with a semantic zoom feature that allows you to zoom out, get a bird’s eye view, and zoom in on the content you’re interested in.

windows-8-travel-app

Interface Integration

Instead of providing their own menus and ways of doing things, Modern apps integrate more with options built into the system. For example, if you want to change an app’s settings, you don’t have to hunt through an app’s menus (was it at Tools –> Options, or maybe Edit –> Preferences?). From within the app, open the charms bar, click Settings, and you’ll see the app’s options. (You can also press Ctrl+I to open the Settings charm.)

windows-8-ie-settings

To search an app, pull up the charms bar, select Search, and enter your search. You can search any app from one consistent interface – just start typing at the Start screen and you’ll see an option to search every app on your system.

searching-windows-8-apps

Printing and sharing data between apps works similarly – use the Devices or Share charms.

Programming Languages

While Modern apps can still be written in C/C++ or .NET languages, JavaScript and HTML5 are now first-class citizens. As on mobile platforms, Microsoft is reaching out to web developers and inviting them to create Windows 8 versions of their apps in the programming languages they know.

WinRT apps also support both the x86 and ARM architectures, allowing them to run on both Windows 8 and Windows RT systems.


It’s impossible to look at Windows 8 and not conclude that Microsoft was inspired by mobile platforms and the web – not surprising, considering that Windows 8 is the first version of Windows that’s actually designed for tablets.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 11/19/12

Comments (20)

  1. Cory

    (You can also press Ctrl+I to open the Settings charm.)

    Should read:

    (You can also press WIN+I to open the Settings charm.)

  2. kelltic

    Thanks for the informative article about the horrors of Windows 8. Well, I’m a desktop user and everything about Win8 makes me cringe. Your last paragraph sums up Microsoft’s latest offering perfectly. It was designed for tablets and that’s where it should stay. It should also be given a new name, since “windows” are not allowed.

  3. Scott

    Not running two apps at the same time means you can’t run a large report and simultaneously do something else while that happens in the background. Tell me how this will make anyone more efficient.

  4. Ramandeep

    Windows 8 is designed for tablets. Let it remain there. PCs are happy with 7. I hope next time MS releases its OS in the original style.

  5. Frank Kaplan

    I’m just starting to use Windows 8, but the desktop is still available and can run regular applications. The one thing missing is the START button and I downloaded one of those on the first day. Haven’t used it as much as I thought I would because the Windows 8 method works – it just takes some getting used to. I was forced to get a W8 computer when my office computer was flooded in Sandy. I think I will adapt and like it.

  6. Dai-kun

    No multitasking on “modern app”? Well, welcome back the old day of DOS. /s

    I’ll not be surprised if Microsoft removed “Desktop” app in the next (or maybe next two or three) instance of Windows release.

    Honestly, I like Windows 8, but I just don’t like the way future Microsoft OS is heading. I don’t hate changes, per say, I only hate it when it affects my productivity. I’m a multitasker, so great multitasking ability is a must for me. Sure, Windows 8 is bearable (it still have its classic “Desktop”), but new “modern” app is clearly unbearable for modern PC usage.

  7. Abhijit Parida

    just wanted to get some facts right…

    ->Metro apps can be closed by pressing Alt+F4, or by dragging from the top of the screen, or by middle clicking on them after pressing Win+Tab.

    -> You can multitask as usual by using Alt+Tab, or Win+Tab, or by swiping from the left corners.

  8. Doug Isherwood

    I am horrified at what MSC has done with Win-8. I use two monitors and always have at least 4 applications running all the time – DataBase, SpreadSheet, EMail and Word Processor. I continously transfer data between the applications and this is the most efficient way for me to do my work. How on earth can you do this when you cannot run more than one application at a time.
    I also have a tablet and find that I have to close Apps otherwise the thing becomes slow and eventually grinds to a halt with all the unclosed Apps taking up rescources. The X is the most important key on the page but it doesn’t exist anymore. Do any of the MS Developers do anything other than surf the web on their desktops.
    A DeskTop is not a mobile phone and it is also not a tablet, I really question the logic behind the basic design of Windows 8. It is essentially useless for a “work” DeskTop.
    I will certainly not be buying Windows 8.

  9. TB

    Ubuntu it’s time to step up and take the top spot from Windoze.

  10. JoshO

    I must say, initially I hated the idea of Windows 8. I have used the RTM version for a while just to test and learn (not for actual work), and have found I actually like where it is going. Granted, the graphics of the start screen are actually scary they are so antiquated (and not being able to set your own background?? come on…)
    Overall, however, I think Windows 8 is looking ahead and is ready for where the future is going. Just yesterday I was playing with a 20-inch touchscreen desktop replacement – it could not be simpler to set up, and is very clean looking on a desk. It also seems like it will be very functional. Don’t forget, you can still use the desktop and desktop apps. You can even start desktop apps from the start screen. They need to have both types of apps – ones that suspend for the sake of tablets and ones that don’t for the sake of desktops.
    Of course, being a entirely new concept for windows, 8 will take a lot of getting used to, and it will need a lot of features added over the next year or two. But so did XP when it revolutionized Windows as we know it. I guess only time will tell whether MS will choose to improve 8 by adding features (perhaps one day we’ll be able to choose which modern apps can continue to run in the background?) or destroy Windows as we know it by locking everything down too much.

  11. Shasta

    does anyone else besides me think that Microsoft will be transitioning the desktop out of existance?

  12. Dan

    Color me confused on Windows 8. I mean, I get where Microsoft is going, but the problem is that it will leave a huge vacuum for desktop computers (which I guess will be filled by Linux?). If I wanted a system that was sandboxed, I would just get an Apple product. I use Windows as an operating system because I want to utilize my computer as a catch-all device. For example, currently from my computer I am running XBMC on my TV, three browsers of Firefox, Pandora music player, Steam chat, and a word document on my 2nd monitor. Metro seems a steer away from this. Which I guess is fine if the beancounters at Microsoft see more profit in a system like the iPad… but if we wanted that, we would be using iPads…. I don’t understand businesses sometimes.

  13. Dan

    Hit submit too early:

    Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a place for competition for Apple tablets, and I don’t see why Microsoft couldn’t offer that competition. But why try to get one Operating System to work for all styles of computers when styles of computers are popular for significantly different uses?

  14. ron

    Win8 apps only from the windows store. That sucks all on it’s own.

    Today I heard about a Win8 app I wanted. So I went into the store … and couldn’t find it. That was when I realized the stupid Windows 8 store doesn’t have a search feature. So how in the H e double hockey sticks am I supposed to find a single app among thousands? (even if it is only 2000 right now, eventually that number will increase)

    I googled it on the web, and surprise surprise I found a page for it. Great! It even has a link to view it in the Win8 Store. Great again. Except NOTHING HAPPENS! AHHH ! I feel like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away …

    The Windows store is a bad idea done poorly!

  15. mike

    And now why is it we would want to buy this “bargain?” Remind me again.

  16. John

    After reading the article and the posts from other viewers I WILL NOT be going to Windows 8! I hope MS wakes up and smells the coffee because having only one app on the screen at any one time is ridiculous for laptop and desktop users. The operating system looks like it operates like a smart phone. They can only display one app at a time and the others are put into stasis. That’s nuts for a work or home computer. If MS continues on this path I will be switching to Linux once Windows 7 gets outdated which won’t be for a long time yet….I hope. Heck there are millions of computer users still using WindowsXP and are very happy and not willing to switch to Windows 7 never mind Windows 8!

  17. bassman22

    Wow, the ignorance around here, it BURNS.
    “Doug Isherwood
    I am horrified at what MSC has done with Win-8. I use two monitors and always have at least 4 applications running all the time – DataBase, SpreadSheet, EMail and Word Processor. I continously transfer data between the applications and this is the most efficient way for me to do my work. How on earth can you do this when you cannot run more than one application at a time.”

    Really? Do you SERIOUSLY think you can’t have more than one application open in Windows 8? Jesus.

    What’s with everyone going “Windows 8 is for tablets omg imma go to linux hurr durr”. I love Linux, but you’re NOT getting what Windows 8 is. I’ve been using it since its official release, and it’s basically Windows 7 overhauled. It’s a BETTER Windows 7 than Windows 7.

    Yes, it does have the new interface, and yes, it’s optimized (but not exclusive) for tablets, but you can skip that ENTIRELY. 99% of the time I spend on Windows 8 is on the traditional desktop. I even hardly remember I’m on something that’s not Windows 7. When I do search for files, or decide to shut my PC down, I get to see some of the most noticeable interface changes. Other than that, Windows 8 is a faster Windows 7.

    It runs smoother on less system resources, and it’s got a lot of changes under the hood that make it a worthy upgrade. I would REALLY want to see these bunch of whiners actually USE Windows 8 before they post crap about it. I bet they’re judging the whole OS on a couple of screenshots, which is a shame, really, I expected more from How to Geek readers.

  18. Nicholas Sterling

    @bassman22: Thanks for this; I had been considering a Windows 8 purchase (although I will still mainly live in Linux), but this article had me wondering what was going on — I just couldn’t believe that multitasking would be jettisoned; I flip between dozens of windows all day long. OK, so it sounds like there is some configuration page somewhere that tells Windows 8 to behave the way a desktop user would expect; thanks for clearing that up!

  19. Bassman

    @Nicholas Sterling
    No problem! Maybe I sounded mad or something, but it’s just that a lot of people are giving Windows 8 a bad name without even knowing it. I was skeptical at first, but it behaves much like the Windows 7 most PC users know and love. It does have some differences here and there, but none of them are experience-breaking, and to be honest, most of them are pretty nifty. Give it a try without a ‘I’m gonna hate this’ mentality and you’ll see what I’m talking about. :)

  20. DaFoo

    It’s amazing how many people on here are pretending that the desktop doesn’t exist on Windows 8. You can run as many programs as you want on the desktop, just like you do in Windows 7. This article is purely about Windows 8 apps. Windows 8 is excellent on a desktop computer; I use it both on my laptop and my HTPC. It’s better than Windows 7.

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