Good news for PC users: Windows desktop software isn’t going anywhere. In fact, every operating system wants to run it.
A decade ago, the tech media was full of pronouncements that “PCs are dying” at the hands of the iPad. But in 2023, the hot new commodity is Windows desktop software. More and more operating systems are now running Windows desktop apps it once seemed everyone — including Microsoft itself — wanted to leave behind.
At a glance, it’s easy to say this is just about Windows business applications, or it’s just about PC gaming, or it’s just about people wanting to offer access to decades’ worth of software on their devices. Itss definitely about all of those things — and more.
Love the latest on Windows? My free Windows Intelligence newsletter delivers all the best Windows news and tips straight to your inbox. Plus, you’ll get free copies of Paul Thurrott’s Windows 11 and Windows 10 Field Guides (a $10 value) just for subscribing!
Windows apps are increasingly running in the cloud
Increasingly, Windows desktop applications run in the cloud so you can access them from any device. If your iPad or Chromebook or smart TV can’t run Windows software, just run Windows software remotely on a server and access it there. These classic desktop applications are often called “Win32” software, though they can be 64-bit applications as well.
Microsoft is betting big on this with Windows 365. Currently available only for businesses, Windows 365 is a Windows desktop-as-a-service hosted by Microsoft. Businesses can set up their employees with remotely accessed Windows desktops. Those employees can access them through nearly any device: a Chromebook, Mac, iPad, Android tablet, smart TV, smartphone, or whatever — even from a PC. Microsoft is building better support for accessing Windows 365 desktops into Windows 11, letting you flip between your cloud PC and local PC from the “Task View” button on your taskbar or even boot straight to a Windows 365 cloud PC desktop on a physical Windows 11 PC.
While this is only for businesses at the moment, internal documents show Microsoft is working on Windows 365 cloud PC plans for home users.
It’s not just about Microsoft, either. Even Google now has a new solution for running Windows apps natively in ChromeOS called “ChromeOS Virtual App Delivery.” It turns those Windows desktop apps running remotely into apps that integrate with ChromeOS. It’s like Windows 365, but Google is offering just individual apps and not a full Windows desktop.
Even consumer services are finding more success running Windows software remotely. Just take a quick glance at the cloud gaming space: Google’s shuttered Stadia cloud gaming service relied on game developers porting their games to run on Stadia’s Linux-based system. Meanwhile, Nvidia’s GeForce Now cloud gaming service is running on Windows, using Windows games. Betting on Windows software (rather than requiring developers to port their games to Linux) looks like it was a winning bet for Nvidia.
Windows desktop apps are now ready for ARM PCs
Let’s step back from the cloud and look at Windows itself running on PCs. A decade ago, Microsoft seemed to agree with all the chatter that desktop software was toast, launching a Windows 8 for traditional PCs that banished desktop software to a legacy interface and a Windows RT for ARM PCs that didn’t run classic Windows desktop apps at all.
Obviously, Windows has changed a lot since then — Microsoft started undoing its work with Windows 8.1 just a year later, and Windows RT was axed pretty quickly.
But Windows still runs on ARM. Windows ARM PCs still aren’t very common because the hardware just isn’t there yet — there’s nothing quite as good in the ARM PC space as Apple’s M1 or M2 chips, although competitive ARM chips always seem to be “coming next year” according to the industry’s promises.
Still, assuming the hardware ever does become competitive, those Windows ARM PCs are ready to run classic Windows desktop software. Not only can you run traditional desktop apps that have been built to work on ARM PCs, but those Windows ARM PCs also have a whole emulation layer that runs traditional desktop apps made for Intel and AMD CPUs in typical PCs.
Microsoft has spent a lot of time on this, which is why a modern MacBook can run Windows desktop software through a virtual machine like Parallels: the virtual machine runs the ARM version of Windows 11, and that version of Windows uses Microsoft’s emulation layer to run traditional Windows software on ARM.
A few more ways Microsoft has embraced desktop software
Microsoft has become a big believer in traditional Windows desktop applications over the last few years:
- On Windows 11, the Microsoft Store now distributes traditional Windows desktop apps. (In Windows 8 and Windows 10, Microsoft required developers to create Metro/Modern/Universal Windows Platform apps, not desktop apps, if they wanted to be in the Store.)
- Microsoft has officially “deprecated” that new-style “Universal Windows Application” application framework. New technologies don’t require developers to abandon their traditional desktop apps anymore; they can now integrate new features into their existing Windows applications.
- Even Microsoft’s big browser switch — abandoning the old Microsoft Edge with its “EdgeHTML” browser engine and creating a new version of Edge based on the Chromium code that underlies Google Chrome — was a move back toward traditional Windows desktop apps. The original version of Edge had been built with that new “Universal Windows Platform” framework, and the switch involved going back to a more traditional Windows desktop app experience.
The Steam Deck’s Linux system owes a lot to Windows
Valve’s Steam Deck is a runaway PC gaming success. It runs SteamOS, which is based on Linux. SteamOS has had a rocky road — Valve did a big push for “Steam Machines” that ran Linux years ago, but they never took off.
What’s different this time? Well, the portable form factor clearly won a lot of hearts and minds, but none of that would have mattered if the system didn’t have enough gaming software available. The reason it did? Valve put a lot of time and effort into Proton, a compatibility layer that lets Windows games run on Linux. With just Linux-native games, Steam Deck wouldn’t have taken off.
Proton is actually based on Wine, an open-source Windows compatibility layer that Linux PCs and Macs have had available for many years. But Valve put a lot of work into providing an easy experience — and making sure Windows software runs well on their Linux system.
Apple’s big Mac gaming bet? Windows desktop software
It’s not just Valve: Apple announced it’s making a big investment in macOS gaming at WWDC 2023. That investment? The “Game Porting Toolkit,” which is a Proton-like system that lets developers easily port their Windows games to run on macOS. It’s based on CrossOver, which also uses code from Wine.
Whether you’re gaming in the cloud, on a Linux-based system, or on a Mac, it seems as if the entire industry is standardizing on games built on Windows desktop software.
Remember, gaming isn’t just about gaming. Powerful, high-end software is being written for Windows first and foremost. The Windows software platform isn’t some old system we’re about to get rid of — it’s still powerful and used for bleeding-edge software where web technologies just won’t cut it.
Backwards compatibility is back
A decade ago, the head of Xbox at Microsoft said: “If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards.” He was talking about console gaming at the time, trying to sell the original vision of the Xbox One.
But it was hard not to see that statement and think of everything else going on at Microsoft, including Microsoft’s apparent eagerness to toss Windows desktop software aside with Windows 8. The future of desktop PC software looked grim if Microsoft now thought backwards compatibility was backward. That was always the big strength of Windows.
Now, so many years later, it’s great to see backwards compatibility is back with a vengeance.
Backward compatibility with Windows software is so important that everyone wants it, even on non-Windows platforms. That’s huge, and it positions both Microsoft and Windows well going forward. And if you like powerful PC software? It looks good for you, too.
Get even more Windows analysis and advice with my Windows Intelligence newsletter — three things to try every Friday. Plus, get free copies of Paul Thurrott’s Windows 11 and Windows 10 Field Guides (a $10 value) for signing up.
Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.