So much for the veil of secrecy: While other tech products are kept assiduously under wraps until the moment of their official release-and others are revealed only in beta-Microsoft seems determined to show off the upcoming Windows 8 early and often.
This willingness to offer a trickle of details about Windows 8, expected to release sometime in 2012, gives Microsoft some advantages. First and foremost, it builds buzz for the next-generation operating system. Second, it opens the feedback floodgates for Microsoft well ahead of the release, allowing the company to correct any issues before they become late-stage critical.
The latter is a reflection of Microsoft’s usual ramping-up strategy when it comes to major product releases: Release multiple versions of the software over time, hoping an army of early users can pick out the bugs before the final release.
Considering the challenges ahead for Windows 8, Microsoft needs the buzz. Windows 7 proved a significant hit, selling hundreds of millions of licenses since its October 2009 debut. Persuading businesses and consumers to upgrade so soon could prove a significant challenge, particularly with regard to traditional desktops and laptops.
Microsoft is also pledging that Windows 8 will work equally well with tablets and traditional PCs, thanks to a pair of user interfaces operating in “no compromises” harmony. In tablet mode, Windows 8 will offer the user a set of colorful tiles reminiscent of Windows Phone, but it can switch easily to an old-school desktop mode.
This dual system will give Microsoft a potential inroad to the tablet market, but it will also set it up for bruising competition against Apple’s well-entrenched iPad and a host of Google Android devices.
Through its official “Building Windows 8” blog, Microsoft has offered select glimpses into the operating system’s nuts and bolts, including USB 3.0 support, fast boot times and the ability to run multiple virtualized operating systems on the same physical machine.
In terms of overall aesthetic, Windows 8 embraces the “Metro” interface established by Microsoft’s Zune and Windows Phone software. It replaces the “Aero” look that informed Windows Vista and Windows 7.
The blog also defends some of Microsoft’s decisions about the user interface, in particular the inclusion of the “ribbon” mechanism into the updated Windows Explorer. The ribbon, which offers tabs and icons in a horizontal or vertical panel, has made enemies of some users.
“We chose the ribbon mechanism, and to those that find that a flawed choice, there isn’t much we can do other than disagree,” Windows and Windows Live President Steven Sinofsky wrote in a Sept. 2 posting on the blog. “We were certain, and this proved out, that the dislike of the ribbon is most intense in the audience of this blog.”
Microsoft offered another layer of insight into Windows 8 at its BUILD conference, which kicked off Sept. 13 in Anaheim, Calif. Sinofsky used his opening keynote to offer a value proposition to the scores of developers gathered for the event: Build applications for the Windows platform and open up a marketplace of hundreds of millions of users.
Windows 8 embraces a new tech world with a “whole new set of scenarios,” he added, pacing a stage lined with screens running the next-generation operating system. Computing is done on the move, on an increasing number of small-and-light form factors, in a world where consumers are increasingly interested in things like touch capability and apps.
Windows 8’s mission, Sinofsky explained, is to “build on all of that success of Windows 7,” while offering features and tools to meet the demands of this new paradigm. Programs supported by Windows 7 will run on Windows 8. The next-generation operating system will be “equally at home on ARM and x86,” he said.
During that two-hour keynote, a number of Microsoft executives tromped on stage to demonstrate some of Windows 8’s until-then-unseen capabilities. These included picture password, which involves tapping parts of an image to access the system, and the Windows 8 app store, which will list win32 apps in addition to the “Metro” apps that are designed to play well with the operating system’s touch-centric mode. The storefront looks altogether different from the app store for Windows Phone, although it likewise emphasizes games and other categories designed to appeal to consumers.
Sinofsky and company offered BUILD attendees high-end swag, in the form of a Samsung-built tablet running a developer preview of Windows 8. The 11.6-inch device features SDK (software development kit) apps, a “recovery environment,” a dock to connect with a keyboard or dual monitor, a 64GB SSD hard drive, 4GB of RAM and one year’s worth of AT&T 3G connectivity. It’s powered by an Intel chipset and includes a microSD port.
Despite the BUILD focus on tablets, Sinofsky devoted a substantial chunk of his keynote to showing how Windows 8 will appeal to the IT pros and consumers paranoid about security. Windows 8 will feature a number of robust technologies, notably Windows Defender, with additional capabilities.
At one point, an executive plugged a USB with a rootkit virus into the port of a tablet running Windows 8, and the device failed to boot up and compromise the system. That’s just one aspect of the digital armor Microsoft is building for the platform.
Sinofsky also made a point to flip between the desktop and tablet modes. At this relatively early stage, the desktop environment’s windows and taskbar look blockier than Windows 7’s Aero aesthetic, but whether this is anything close to the final Windows 8 “look” remains to be seen. Microsoft has revamped the task manager with a heads-up display and a control panel with granular controls for power users.
Windows 8 also continues the lessons learned from Windows Vista, whose aggressive alerts and pop-ups sparked a firestorm of user complaints. With the upcoming operating system, the alerts (at least, the alerts shown at BUILD) are subtle, with small text positioned near the bottom of a particular screen.
There obviously remains a lot to be revealed. Over the coming weeks and months, trust that Microsoft will continue to push the value proposition of Windows 8, arguing to the world that technology has evolved enough to require a new operating system with an expanded list of capabilities.