Microsoft's week was all about Windows 8.
Windows and Windows Live Division President Steven Sinofsky used his Sept. 13 keynote at Microsoft's BUILD conference to drill down into Windows 8's user interface and features. Microsoft is counting on the next-generation platform to not only reaffirm its hold on the desktop operating system market, but also make inroads into the tablet market currently dominated by Apple's iPad.
Windows 8 offers two modes: a touch-centric user interface for tablets, based on a set of colorful tiles, paired to a more traditional desktop. Microsoft claims switching between these modes will be seamless.
During his keynote, Sinofsky insisted that technology had evolved enough in the three years since Windows 7's release to justify the creation of a whole new operating system. He argued that the rise of mobility, particularly in the consumer space, made it essential to build a platform capable of running on tablets.
Windows 8's tablet interface embraces the "Metro" aesthetic pioneered by Microsoft's Zune and Windows Phone software, drawing away from the "Aero" design used in Windows Vista and Windows 7. And when it flips to desktop mode, Windows 8 does offer a "look" that, at least at this early stage, seems chunkier and more blockish than Aero.
Microsoft also plans on making Internet Explorer 10 available as a "Metro"-style app for tablets, as well as a desktop app.
The desktop version will fully support plug-ins and extensions, according to a new post on the official "Building Windows 8" blog. However, the Metro-style browser will be "plug-in free."
The reasoning behind this decision seems fairly straightforward. "Running Metro style IE plug-in free improves battery life as well as security, reliability, and privacy for consumers," Dean Hachamovitch, head of Microsoft's Internet Explorer team, wrote in that Sept. 14 posting. "Plug-ins were important early on in the web's history. But the web has come a long way since then with HTML5."
This is a potentially worrisome development for Adobe Flash Player, even if the plug-in isn't explicitly mentioned in the blog posting. In a Sept. 15 posting on Adobe's corporate blog, an executive for that company said: "We expect Windows desktop to be extremely popular for years to come (including Windows 8 desktop) and that it will support Flash just fine." In addition, "we expect Flash based apps will come to Metro via Adobe AIR, much the same way they are on Android, iOS and BlackBerry Tablet OS today."
Other Windows 8 capabilities include ultra-fast boot, picture password (which involves tapping parts of an image to access the system) and an app store, which will list win32 apps in addition to "Metro" apps. IT administrators and developers will have the ability to run multiple virtualized operating systems on the same physical machine.
Even as Microsoft offered an in-depth look into its future, the company pivoted to offer investors and analysts a view of its current state as a company. Executives used the Financial Analyst Meeting 2011 to show off what they termed "momentum" over the past year, citing everything from Xbox Kinect to Office 365 as signifiers of that momentum.
Microsoft also made it clear it intends to make some clean breaks with the past, particularly with Windows XP. That warhorse of a decade-old operating system still powers any number of computers, and Microsoft would dearly prefer for all of those to upgrade to Windows 7. "XP has been a wonderful product," Kevin Turner, Microsoft's COO, said during his part of the presentation. "It is now time for it to go."
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took a few moments to outline his company's struggles with Windows Phone.
"It was under a year ago that we launched the first Windows Phone," he told the assembled media and analysts. "We haven't sold quite as many probably as I would have hoped we would have sold in the first year."
Nonetheless, he displayed expected enthusiasm for the smartphone platform, which faces determined competition from the likes of Apple's iPhone and Google Android. "I think with a little bit more effort, a little bit more energy, the level of enthusiasm from the customer base is high enough we've just got to kick this thing to the next level," he said. "And I think we're in absolute good shape in order to be a very strong third ecosystem in the smartphone world."
Microsoft hopes that its upcoming Windows Phone "Mango" update, which includes some 500 tweaks and added features, will help attract additional customers to the platform. Ballmer cited Microsoft's partnership with Nokia, in which the latter will port Windows Phone onto its upcoming devices, as another cause for hope.
As demonstrated at BUILD, though, Microsoft's biggest hope for its future is that consumers will embrace Windows 8.