Windows 8: A First Peek

Make no mistake about it: If you were to parse through my email and try and figure out what the single most frequently asked question is these days, it's pretty obvious. "What can you tell me about Windows 8?" And to date, there hasn't been much to say. As a dedicated Windows watcher, I am of course deeply interested in what Microsoft is doing, and if you've been following along with my various other writings, you already know what the Windows 8 release schedule looks like. But ask about the features and technologies that Microsoft planned to include in Windows 8? For the most part, I didn't have a clue.

Until now. Thanks to a mistakenly leaked set of documents Microsoft shared with its PC maker partners--I won't reveal the source like some other unprofessional bloggers did with this year's iPhone 4 leak--we now have our first inside look at what Microsoft is currently thinking about including in Windows 8. These plans, of course, are bound to change and much is still up in the air. But for those tech enthusiasts who have been simply pining away for information, this is the mother lode, especially given how far ahead of the release we are.

Here's what we found out this week.

Schedule

Actually, this bit wasn't included in the leaked documents: Microsoft currently plans to ship Windows 8 by mid-2012. If you do the math, that means a first beta release by mid-2011--just one year from now--and a public beta by the end of 2011.

As with Windows 7, Windows 8 will follow a very regimented and logical schedule. Currently, Microsoft is in the planning stages, where the big picture comes together and broad themes are introduced. These themes will morph into scenarios and then, finally, into individual features. This phase is just about over.

In phase two, development, Microsoft will design and build those features. It will refine the SKU (product edition) lineup. And it will begin sharing code with other development groups within Microsoft so that they can build their own integration pieces. This phase will last until Beta, in mid-2011.

Finally, in the third phase, readiness, the product is now feature complete. Microsoft prepares Windows 8 to come to market by fixing bugs.

Note that, as with Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows 8 and Windows Server "8" are being developed simultaneously. This is the plan going forward for all Windows/Windows Server versions.


Product edition differentiation

While we're still many months away from understanding what features will be included in each Windows 8 product edition, Microsoft does already have an idea about some of the features it will use to differentiate each version: App Store (yes, like that for the iPhone; possibly called Windows Store), devices, multimedia, help and support, and UI & theming. The Windows 8 user experience will be even "less complex" than that of Windows 7.

Microsoft will also allow its PC maker partners to customize Windows 8 in ways that were not previously possible. This includes cobranding on the App Store/Microsoft Store, enhancements to Device Stage, integration in Help & Support and Windows Troubleshooting, and so on.

Also, the PC market is changing. By 2013, China will be the number one PC market in the world. Emerging form factors like slates are redefining people's expectations, and low-cost PCs like netbooks will continue to grow.

Co-developed products

Microsoft has confirmed that Internet Explorer 9 will be part of Windows 8, though it will most likely ship well before Windows 8. Interestingly, Windows Live Wave 5 will also ship concurrently with Windows 8, or at least be developed concurrently. This makes sense when you consider the 18 month development time for each Windows Live wave. The current release, Windows Live Wave 4, will ship sometime in late 2010. That time period plus 18 months is mid-2012, exactly when Microsoft plans to ship Windows 8.

(By the way, the leaked documents note that an IE 9 beta is expected in August 2010 and that this release will involve the "first release of full IE functionality." Release Candidate and RTW--release to web--dates are TBD.)

PC form factor targets

Microsoft expects Windows 8 to target three main PC types, the "Lap PC," the "Workhorse PC," and the "Family Hub PC." These names roughly correspond to PC types we're currently familiar with, of course, and one might imagine that the "Lap PC" category includes netbooks, tablets, and notebook computers.

Windows Store (App Store)

Microsoft intends to support Windows 8 with an iPhone-like App Store that could be named Windows Store. It will provide consumers with an obvious and trustworthy way to find new Windows 8 applications, with a delightful end user experience. The company feels that improving the Windows app model (see below) is "critical" for success and that having one catalog and one experience is key to making it happen.

Application platform

Microsoft's recent (Vista+) application development platform technologies haven't exactly taken the world by storm, and as Google is fond of pointing out, most new applications these days are actually web applications, not applications that target traditional desktop OSes like Windows or Mac OS X. With this in mind, Windows 8 will support "tailored web applications" that appear to blend web technologies with native Windows technologies, providing a more seamless experience for users, especially when you consider that discoverability will occur via an App Store, possibly called Windows Store.

According to Microsoft, these "tailored experiences" offer instant gratification (super easy discovery and install), take advantage of web services, integrate with social networks (and such social technologies as ratings and collaboration), are extensible, scale according to device type and capabilities, and have flexible licensing, distribution, and monetization options. These monetization options are similar to what's planned for Windows Phone: Try/buy, in-app purchases, subscriptions, ad-supported, and alternate currencies, among others.

Best of all, this integration with the web will enable a My Applications scenario where applications and application settings follow users from device to device.

The big question is how this will all come together. Native Windows APIs are diverse and inconsistent, and languages like C++ and C# are not approachable for hobbyists. Microsoft is investigating HTML 5 and JavaScript as an alternative, providing tiers of programming models that would be accessible to all kinds of developers.

Microsoft is also looking at other application-level interactions, including stereoscopic 3D, high color displays, and multi-nodal natural input.

Digital media

While the leaked documents don't communicate the fates of Microsoft's myriad of digital media players (Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, and Zune), there is still some very interesting information. Windows 8 will include support for new formats, including AVC HD (with chapter seek), 3D video, and multiple MPEG-4 formats for the web, and will improve MJPEG (webcams and still cameras), MPEG-2 (decoding/encoding), H.264 (encoding), and WMV. Additionally, Microsoft will expand the Windows 8 Play To experiences to include HTML 5-based audio and video in web pages.

One of the big trends involves PC-based TV tuner support. Microsoft has been steadily evolving TV tuner support in Windows since the initial XP Media Center release in 2002, but the thinking now is that future "TV" experiences on the PC will be web-based. If this works out as believed, future media PCs will not need TV tuners or the complicated software required to make them work. To this end, Windows 8 will likely be the start of the move away from traditional TV tuners in Windows.

Backup

Windows 7 built off of the solid backup and restore foundation from Windows Vista but made some more logical differentiations between the various SKUs, or product editions. With Windows 8, Microsoft hopes to further improve backup and continue differentiating between the low-end and premium SKUs. Windows 8 will utilize new location capabilities (see below) to determine how/if Windows Backup can function, and will be more automatic, requiring less user intervention.

Startup time and power management

While Windows 7 included dramatic improvements to resume time (from sleep) and power management in general, Windows 8 will provide fast, nearly instantaneous resumes from various states and should resemble appliance performance. A lot of this work is simply an extension of what happened in Windows 7 and thus doesn't bear much discussion, but it's important to note, I think, that the sudden emphasis on iPad-like slate PCs will require Windows 8 to function more like a device than like a PC when it comes to wakeup times. One thing Microsoft is considering is renaming the power off states; perhaps by eliminating or renaming "Shut down" they can convince users to utilize built-in power management efficiencies.

Restore, reset and recovery

While most PC makers offer some form of PC recovery functionality that is based on lower-level Microsoft tools and technologies, Windows itself doesn't currently offer any integrated functionality along these lines. That may change in Windows 8, where Microsoft is planning to provide a number of features that will help users overcome performance issues both real and imagined. These include a way for users to restore the system to a recommended state with calling for help and a "push button" ("factory") reset option that would (finally) protect users' personal data, settings, and other customizations. After such a reset, the user could launch the Windows Store to reinstall applications.

New device types

Windows 8 will natively support next generation devices based on the USB 3.0 standard. It will also support Bluetooth 3.0 (but not Bluetooth 3.0 + High Speed) for hands free adapters and mono and stereo headsets. Interestingly, Microsoft is considering deprecating Firewire/IEEE1394 support in Windows 8, meaning that support would continue but that improvements and enhancements would cease.

Locations and sensors

While Windows 7 was the first Windows version to provide a sensors platform, including support for all-important location capabilities, Windows 8 will improve on these technologies dramatically. The biggest piece of this is an "in-box" location service, codenamed Orion, which uses Wi-Fi triangulation with accuracy down to 50 to 100 meters, or IP lookup with accuracy down to 25 kilometers. (It supports dedicated GPS hardware as well, of course. This provides accuracy to 3 to 20 meters.)

Windows 8 will also include support for other sensor types, including human presence sensors (read: Kinect) with facial recognition and attention detection functionality, ambient lighting, system orientation, accelerometer, infrared, and so on.

The sensor support in Windows 8 may seem uninteresting, but it enables some fascinating possibilities. In the leaked Microsoft documentation, the software giant explains how a sensor-enabled Windows 8 PC could detect which user just walked in the room, turn on the PC, and log him in, all automatically. When he gets up and leaves, the PC logs off.

Likewise, on portable PCs, you could be playing a game and then stand up and leave; when you do so, the game will pause and, over time, log off. Microsoft expects sensors to be a common feature of most Windows PCs by 2012. Just in time for Windows 8.

Final thoughts

There's a bit more, but that's the big picture stuff and probably the most interesting bits. Certainly, we didn't receive a gift like this so early in the Windows 7 development timeline, so this is quite interesting indeed. I can't wait to find out more.