When Microsoft began filling out its schedule for completing and releasing Windows 8 at its annual partner conference this week, I had a weird sense of déjà vu: In anticipation of my Windows 8 Preview, I’d been going back and looking at all of the information I’ve collected about this OS over the past few years. So with Windows 8 barreling towards completion, let’s take a step back and see how we got here.

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While Microsoft’s schedule includes a few odd and private milestones from earlier in 2011, I prefer to start a bit later, with the Developer Preview. That’s because, of all the material I have about Windows 8, the one that really stands out is the video of the BUILD 2011 keynote. This is where Microsoft kicked off the Windows 8 Developer Preview and the public unveiling of this new OS. And it’s just an amazing thing to watch in retrospect, both for what’s changed and what hasn’t.

The video is available online if you want to watch it, but from a high level what we see here is a very excited Steven Sinofsky finally unveiling his baby to the very developers who may eventually make or break this this bold and innovative product. It’s an amazing moment for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its length: This keynote goes on … and on and on … for a full two hours and twenty minutes.

Folks, virtually none of it is boring, even now.

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“We are super excited to here today,” Microsoft president Steven Sinofsky says as the keynote kicks off, queuing up a favorite Microsoft phrase. “I’d like to welcome everyone to Windows 8.”

It’s important to remember that, at this point in time, few understood what it was that Microsoft was doing with this OS. Windows 7, as you may recall, was a simple affair with a simple mission—clean up Vista—and the notion that Sinofsky’s team would follow that up with a technology shot heard ‘round the world was unfathomable.

But I’ll make the case in my coming Windows 8 review that this OS is nothing less than a new mobile platform that also happens to run legacy Windows applications, a technological tour de force whose import is being ignored because of understandable but ultimately pointless arguments over the dichotomy between the new Metro environment and the desktop. That is, rather than complain that we are “forced” to use Metro even on a desktop computer, we should be amazed that we can run the Windows desktops—and its many, many legacy applications—on crazy new mobile devices that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Windows 8 doesn’t just bridge the gap between the new and the old. It paves over the gap with a 12-lane superhighway and invites 1.3 billion Windows users to join the revolution.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

With regards to the BUILD keynote, we must put ourselves into the frame of reference of September 2011. We didn’t really know much about Microsoft’s plans then, weren’t drowning in its constant rehashing of phrases like “fast and fluid,” not yet. This stuff was all new. And again, it’s amazing, in a Monday morning quarterback sense, to look back at this and reflect on what’s changed. And what hasn’t.

Since this happened at a developer event, Microsoft presented Windows 8 primarily as a developer opportunity and it certainly provided an interesting first peek at the new developer environment, which is bringing C#/Visual Basic/XAML, C/C++/DirectX, and HTML/CSS/JavaScript development under a single roof, so to speak, courtesy of a new Windows Runtime engine and its APIs. But the majority of this talk actually regarded new Windows 8 capabilities, experiences, and apps, and even though much of what was discussed wouldn’t find its way into users’ hands until the Consumer Preview in very late February 2012, Mr. Sinofsky and others at Microsoft did an amazing job of communicating exactly what we’d be getting in Windows 8 fully a year later.

I’ve heard from sources at Microsoft that Sinofsky traveled to CES in January 2010 and, spying the smudges on even non-touch-capable monitors all over the show, phoned back to Redmond and told his corporate lieutenants, “there are fingerprints everywhere!” This story, perhaps apocryphal, nonetheless dramatically changed the direction of Windows 8, which had until that point been a lot less far reaching. Sinofsky’s hunch was correct, however, and with Apple announcing the first iPad just weeks later, Microsoft had already set itself on a course that others would later describe, incorrectly, as the software giant copying Apple yet again.

“Things really are different than they were three years ago,” Sinofsky notes in his keynote introduction, highlighting the “changing world of computing.” “And they’re very, very different from 1995, the last time Windows underwent a significant and bold overhaul.”

This boils down to an evolution of the computing form factor, from the desktops and laptops of the past to the all-in-ones, Ultrabooks, touch-based slates and tablets, and other devices that will be far more common during Windows 8’s lifetime.

Sinofsky also brings up a phenomenon I’ve personally experienced, and it’s a good warning for the doubters who are complaining that no one wants touch interfaces on their traditional computing devices.

“What we’re going to see is something that I don’t think a lot of people are expecting,” he said. “And that’s that as soon as you’ve used touch on a PC, you want touch on all your PCs. People [think] touch is only for small devices, or its only for lightweight things … I promise you, the minute you use a touch device with Windows 8, by the time you go back to your laptop or desktop, you’re going to be hitting that screen.”

He’s right. In 2009, when I was writing “Windows 7 Secrets,” I borrowed a touch-screen HP all-in-one PC to write about that OS’s touch interfaces. And for months after I had sent it back to HP, I found myself reaching out to tap my normal monitor, which had no touch capabilities at all. It was interesting to experience, and while everyone has their opinions, I’d just toss out the notion that most people complaining about this haven’t actually tried touch on a “real” PC. Don’t trust me, or Mr. Sinofsky. Just try it for yourself.

So Windows 8 is a response to multi-touch, by imbuing multi-touch deep into the DNA of the system, in its core design. It’s a response to the needs of ever more mobile computing, where we’re not just bringing a device from place to place, as with a laptop, but rather also computing while on the go, as with a slate or tablet. And it’s about giving developers the tools they need to build safe but connected apps that provide the capabilities users expect.

In the past, these types of capabilities would have been added on top of what we already had, as they were in Windows 7 with multi-touch, or by creating tablet PCs, running whatever Windows version, that no one wants. Or by adding yet another set of .NET APIs that answer a specific need but make things more confusing because they’re additive, and not a replacement for other ways of doing things. Again, this is a revolutionary change for Microsoft. It’s not doing those things.

Sinofsky defined Windows 8 as a superset of Windows 7, a version of Windows that expands on what was available in the past, builds on it, and offers more. But Windows 8 is also “a bold reimagining of Windows … from the chipset to the [user] experience,” Mr. Sinofsky noted, the first mention of this now oft-used phrase for you people playing Microsoft Marketing Bingo at home.

As I write this, I’m barely 9 minutes into the video, which is, again, 2 hours and 20 minutes long. So rather than beat to death every second of this video, let me give you some highlights culled from the show, aimed at distilling the key themes including some, interestingly, that never really made it past BUILD. I was told, for example, that one of the early words Microsoft keyed in on for Windows 8 was “modern,” and that these new experiences and apps were “modern” where old, desktop experiences were not. This of course made the desktop look bad and, more generally, it’s always true that whatever is modern today is old-fashioned tomorrow. So the word “modern,” which was already out of favor at Microsoft by BUILD, is actually uttered a few times during the keynote, inadvertently.

(Tech historians may recall that the Windows Reader app was originally called Modern Reader. That’s why.)

Some words and phrases, of course, have carried on. In place of “modern,” for example, Microsoft opted for “immersive,” which really just describes the full screen nature of Metro experiences, but sounds expansive and personal, even though windowed legacy applications running together onscreen obviously offer certain advantages. Immersive is a perfect marketing word: It differentiates Metro and the desktop nicely, makes Metro sound like something great and desirable, and doesn’t offer an implicit criticism of the desktop. So modern was out, and immersive was in.

“Touch-centric” is another one. Correctly noting that critics would hone in on this term and declare that Windows 8 didn’t offer a good experience for all of the users “stuck” with non-touch-capable PCs—i.e. those with just mice and keyboards or, as I’d say it, “every single PC on the planet currently,” Microsoft dropped the term “touch-centric” and adopted “touch-first.” It’s a subtle difference, but the latter phrase suggests that, yes, Microsoft did design Metro for touch first, but it was also designed for mice and keyboard users too, and offers all users different ways to interact with the system. We didn’t really see those changes until the Consumer Preview, however, and it’s interesting to see how Microsoft nuanced this message over time.

Anyway, here are some key takeaway from this amazing talk, using Microsoft’s structure of the talk as a guide, but delivered in a non-narrative, point-by-point style.

Windows 8 experience

BUILD was of course the coming out party for the Windows 8 user experience, the now-familiar melding of this new, full-screen and immersive environment with the legacy Windows desktop.

Mr. Sinofsky addressed performance concerns of this “thing on a thing” by showing off the same tired old netbook he had previously used with Windows 7, noting that the Atom-based machine not only ran Windows 8 but did so with less software overhead than with Windows 7. (This is the sort of thing developers applaud, and they did.) Of course, netbooks offer a severely constrained Windows 8 experience, as I discussed in Windows 8 Consumer Preview: The Netbook Experience. This isn’t something you’d wish on your worst enemy.

Microsoft corporate vice president Julie Larson-Green provided the first Windows 8 Developer Preview demos, often awkwardly interrupted by Mr. Sinofsy, playing the role of nervous helicopter parent. Their interactions were often humorous. But a bewildering array of Window 8 features were demonstrated…

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Green showed off the new lock screen with notifications, picture password “log in” screen (which Microsoft has renamed to “sign in,” by the way), and the new Start screen with dynamic live tiles, user tile and previews of apps—Mail, Calendar, People, Xbox Music, Photos, Windows Store, Messaging, Weather, and more, that users wouldn’t actually get until months later. It’s interesting how little has since changed in most of these apps from a high level, though of course there’s been a lot of tinkering. Green referred to the apps as “samples,” and not indicative of what Microsoft would ship in Windows 8.

Green said that each tile represents an application, which is not strictly true. She also used the word “application” a lot, instead of the term “apps,” which Microsoft now prefers. (It uses app and application interchangeably, which is annoying.)

The Start screen is not just a task launcher: It also integrates notifications, gadgets, and task switching. It’s highly customizable, and the demo included Start screen groups and semantic zoom, a feature users wouldn’t get until the Consumer Preview.

The Metro style PC Settings is still called Control Panel during the Developer Preview.

Many of the apps shown off in the preview, like the Headlines news reader and Socialite social networking app, were developed by college interns and are no longer available.

The Charms have continued to RTM with little change beyond some iconography updates, including of course the new Windows flag logo. Ditto for the global part of the Settings pane, which offers network, volume, brightness, notifications, power, and language options.

Aero Snap was referred to as “docking” an app, so you can do two things at one time. This is more formally called “snapping” the app now.

“Internet Explorer for Metro style” is completely chrome-less, leading to a “Chrome-free browsing experience” (ha-ha). Again, a few UI tweaks, of course, and a few functional additions like Flip Ahead, but it marches into RTM largely the same. Nice demo of touch-based text selection and the Share contract.

Windows 8 includes integrated spell checking throughout the entire system.

Search works across apps, settings, and files, and you can retarget a search against particular apps. This is almost completely unchanged today as we near RTM.

The Bing app was shown off. This app won’t appear publicly until the RTM version of Windows 8, making it perhaps the furthest-off demo in the keynote.

Sinofsky and Larsen-Green showed off PC to PC settings sync using an ARM-based tablet. End of demo.

Metro style platform and tools

Mr. Sinofsky introduced the Windows 8 platform and developer tools with the now-infamously incorrect slide in which IE is magically built on top of the Windows kernel and not the Win32 APIs. Bloggers had fun for several days trying to build a better version of this graphic, but the real point here was that Windows 8 is built on top of a “reimagined” Windows runtime, WinRT, that provides fundamental (“native”) capabilities to various development languages.

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After a brief discussion about this new software stack, Mr. Sinofsky then brought out Antoine Leblond, more recently of Windows Store fame, to discuss the Windows 8 developer story.

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The high level view is that developers interested in Windows 8 development get multiple languages—VB, C#, C++, or JavaScript—in the coming version of Visual Studio (now known as Visual Studio 2012), a variety of pre-built templates (now much improved), and a number of good samples too. Developers are also getting a new version of Blend, Microsoft’s user experience design tool. All of these tools can be used to create apps for x86, x64, and ARM-based Windows 8/RT versions. (Some has since misunderstood this point to mean that all Windows 8 would run on all of these platforms; that’s up to the developer.)

For a developer show, there wasn’t much actual writing of code, but rather pasting in pre-build code blocks. This was arguably the right choice from a time standpoint, and Leblond was clearly comfortable with coding and the environment regardless.

Most of the developer talk was very high level, but they showed off some “native” Windows 8 capabilities, like the file picker and the Share contract.

In a preview of Leblonde’s future role, he showed off Microsoft’s transparent new app submission process for Windows Store, a response to Apple’s horrible, non-transparent process. He also showed off Windows Store, which users of Windows 8 wouldn’t gain access to until months later.

The opportunity for developers is huge, of course. Sinofsky said that the target audience was the “400 million people” [who would be buying Windows PCs between that day and the release of Windows 8, though that wasn’t clear], the biggest technology audience on earth. Microsoft has since revised this statement to “the biggest non-phone” audience.

Hardware platform

As always, Microsoft corporate vice president Michael Angiulo came on stage to discuss hardware. This was our first chance to see UEFI-based Fast Boot, where a PC boots Windows 8 in single digit seconds. I’ve since seen this with my new desktop PC, which boots from a dead stop to the Windows 8 lock screen in just 6 seconds.

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UEFI also provides a security feature called Secure Boot, which helps prevent Windows 8 from being infected from boot- and root-kit malware.

Windows 8 includes Windows Defender, which now includes the anti-virus functionality from Microsoft Security Essentials. “Security is everywhere,” Angiulo noted.

Angiulo and Sinofsky talked up System On a Chip (SOC) hardware, which isn’t well understood. It’s basically a way to combine ARM or Intel-type processors with a supporting chipset in a very small package, providing the basis for a new generation of super-small and thin devices. Intel, for example, was showing off a 32 nm Atom-based SOC system at BUILD.

Windows 8 supports Connected Standby, which provides a really lower power alternative to powering off that lets apps update in the background without impacting battery life in any measurable fashion.

USB 3.0 compatibility was used to show off the new file copy experience in Windows 8.

Windows 8 is optimized for displays that have both multi-touch and a widescreen aspect ratio. But in a bit that would confuse people for months, Microsoft explains Windows 8’s support for display resolutions. The minimum for running the desktop and its applications is “the same as Windows 7,” so if it works with Windows 7, it works with Windows 8 … “all the way down to 1024 x 600.” If you go to 1024 x 768, Angiulo, explained, you get Metro-style apps. And if you have at least 1366 pixels across horizontally, you can use the Snap side-by-side app experience. 1366 x 768 and up gives you the “no compromises,” full Windows 8 experience.

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Sensors were discussed. A three-axis accelerometer, gyro, and magnetometer can be used together in a “sensor fusion” API to make motion-sensing apps and games simpler for developers. NFC, or near field communications introduces tap to share capabilities.

Printers are accessed through the Devices charm, which still confuses people today, and can be extended by hardware makers for an integrated experience.

Windows 8 includes full support for mobile broadband and lets carriers integrate that with their own Metro style apps.

Ultrabooks, which were still new in September 2011, were shown off to the Macbook Air envying crowd at BUILD to cheers.

And then Microsoft talked up the BUILD give-away, a Samsung tablet PC which was also initially greeted with cheers. Based on my own experiences and what I’ve seen online, that excitement didn’t last. But let’s be fair: It’s a great dev machine, particularly when you consider that absolutely no developers at the show had a touch-based device before this giveaway.

Windows 8 experience, part two

About an hour and a half into the keynote, Sinofsky switched back to Windows 8 demos. What he did was a bit too exhaustive to have been off the cuff, but it was sort of a weird segue that pushed the next schedule part of the talk, about cloud services, back a bit. Here, he talked up Windows 8’s “professional” features. He talked up the desktop.

He showed the PIN sign-in type, the new Task Manager, Hyper-V, and the new multi-monitor features.

Mr. Sinofsky discussed how Windows 8 will work fully with mouse and keyboard and showed off Start Search, and how to run an elevated command prompt. He mentioned some of the many new keyboard shortcuts in Windows 8 (and mischaracterized Charms as “the Charms menu” in the process).

More IE Metro demos ensued, as did the “desktop frame” of IE, as he described the desktop version of Internet Explorer.

Sinofsky even showed off the improved accessibility features in Windows 8, including Magnifier, the “Make everything bigger” option in PC Settings (then still called Control Panel), different languages, the new Ink input panel, and how pen/stylus interacts with the multi-touch display to prevent hand presses from registering as touch.

The Sync PC Settings feature (essentially “roaming”) was demonstrated.

Cloud services

At BUILD, Windows Live was described as “an integral part of your Windows 8 experience.” Since then, of course, the Windows Live brand has been killed off, but that doesn’t make this statement any less true: The productivity apps that came out of the Windows Live group—Mail, People, Calendar, and Messaging—and the PC sync capabilities that work with (Windows Live) SkyDrive, are of course integral to the Windows 8 experience. They are arguably among the key features for end users.

Microsoft senior vice president Chris Jones came out for the Windows Live demos. None of these apps were available publicly until the Consumer Preview and the versions he showed off, which was live code based on HTML and JavaScript, were clearly very early versions.

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He stepped first through Mail, a PC version of the Mail app from Windows Phone. It supports cloud-based accounts (EAS, Hotmail, and, now, IMAP).

Calendar provides a big screen version of the Windows Phone Calendar app and the version he demonstrated had kind of a neat day-to-day scrolling mode that doesn’t exist today.

The People app is a “connected address book” that includes contacts from social networks, and personal and work email in one place. (Like the People hub on Windows Phone.)

Photos was perhaps the most interesting demo since it’s changed the least, while the demo showed off a connected PC feature (that requires SkyDrive) that we didn’t see in the product until the Release Preview.

In late 2011, few people actually used SkyDrive, but by announcing that it would be integrated into Windows 8, Jones was previewing the fact that this service would soon get a lot more useful for users. He showed off Remote Fetch in SkyDrive, which we wouldn’t see until the SkyDrive application beta in spring 2012. He didn’t call it that, but said he was “fetching” files from remote PCs.

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An explosion of new

Final thoughts

In the same way that Windows 8 is an explosion of new, BUILD, our first public peek at Windows 8, was also an explosion of new. Looking back at it now, almost a year later, and having written an entire book about Windows 8, it’s still impressive to me how much information that Microsoft revealed at this show and how much of what they planned for Windows 8 was simply implemented and refined in the intervening months.

Next up: Consumer Preview