sinofsky-onstage

The Windows 8 Beta was rebranded as the Consumer Preview and delivered on the very last day of February 2012 at a special event in Barcelona that occurred concurrently with Mobile World Congress. This event was marked by a more mature product as well as a more mature Windows team: There was a lot less nervous energy as both Windows 8 and the team that made it seemed to find their respective grooves.

I didn’t attend the Consumer Preview launch event. For starters, it was in Barcelona. (And, oddly enough, I had traveled there on vacation just a week earlier.) But I had been briefed in Redmond right before the event, so there was no reason to be there in person.

If you’d like to watch this event now, the Consumer Preview launch event video is available online.

As with all major communications from the Windows team these days, the Consumer Preview event was orchestrated and hosted by Steven Sinofsky, who’s evolved into an interesting blend of engineer (aka Steve Wozniak) and visionary (Steve Jobs). And make no mistake: Windows 8 is the ultimate expression of both Sinofsky and the team he’s assembled over the past several years, the defining moment of his tenure to date, and the product that will make or break his ambitions going forward.

Something tells me he’s got nothing to worry about.

In watching the Consumer Preview presentation, a few things stand out. First, as noted before, the nervous energy from the previous September is gone: Now, Windows 8 is a known quantity and with this milestone, Microsoft is finally delivering a version of the OS that matches the demos it provided earlier at BUILD. Second, the repetitive language really drives home the themes that Sinofsky, and Microsoft, are pushing for Windows 8: A bold reimagining. No compromises. Fast and fluid. And so on.

For all of the complaining about Microsoft’s apparent inability to communicate effectively, Sinofsky and the others from this event in fact do a fine job of explaining what’s happening. There is, perhaps, too much information, which may contribute to the misunderstandings people have about this product. It’s almost like the small attention spans out there have triggered a mass delusion, but this is something Microsoft should keep in mind when it gets frustrated with those who report its events. The Consumer Preview launch event is an astonishing 90 minutes long, and this comes after the two hours and twenty minutes it spent at the Developer Preview. That’s a lot of time to explain a single OS release.

Early on, Mr. Sinofsky says something that mirrors my contention that Windows 8 is “nothing less than a new mobile platform that also happens to run legacy Windows applications” though of course his description is less extreme. He says that Windows 8 combines “the best of mobility and the best of PCs … in an experience where you don’t have to compromise.” He then explicitly explains the divide between today’s mobile devices like the iPad (“consumption,” “more battery life,” “touch interface”) and PCs (“productivity,” “more functionality,” “keyboard and mouse”) and that Windows 8 will provide both experiences on a single system.

Folks, this is actually pretty compelling. And it’s not just the obvious bit here—yes, a single device is ostensibly “simpler” to manage than two or more devices—but also involves a pet peeve of mine about technology, which is that technology is supposed to free us to get things done, not force us to do more. In other words, confronted by a bag full of devices on a plane, we must think, “hm, I want to get something done. I better pull out the laptop.” Or, “I want to watch a movie. I’ll use the tablet.” With Windows 8/RT, assuming the devices live up to the battery life challenges, we could simply have a single computing device in that bag that does it all.

“The goal should really be that the operating system scales with you,” Sinofsky explains, noting that you as the user should only need to choose the device form factor you prefer, not choose a specific form factor for certain tasks. “That’s what we mean by a no compromise experience.” Windows 8, then, is about removing the “seams” in the interfaces we see in today’s hybrid devices, like those tablets with pin-on keyboards, or the goony Apple dock for the iPad.

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To achieve this nerdvana, Microsoft looked at three key parts of the PC ecosystem, all of which, as it turns out, it has a hand in now: The operating system (Windows 8), the apps and developer platform (Metro), and PCs and peripherals (Surface devices and Microsoft’s keyboards, mice, and other hardware devices). Of course, back in February, we had no idea that Microsoft would be making its own PCs and devices.

Of course, Apple already achieves this same level of integration across its Macs and iOS devices. But what Microsoft can claim as its trump card, as always, is the far broader diversity that’s present in the PC market, both for the variety of PCs and devices that will be available—literally several hundred new designs in the next year alone, according to Intel), but also a variety of device types (desktops, notebooks, Ultrabooks, tablets, and much more) and, as important, a variety of price points. If Microsoft can achieve an Apple-like level of software and services consistency across this diversity, it’s game over.

Anyway. Back in February, Microsoft was delivering what it described to me as a “nearly feature complete” version of its next OS. That is, the platform itself was pretty much locked in stone, but the apps and other services that live on top were still evolving. According to Sinofsky, Microsoft made over 100,000 code changes to Windows 8 between the Developer Preview and the Consumer Preview. “It’s much more polished, much more refined,” he said. “We think of it as complete, all the way through from the low levels to the user experience.”

Apps + OS: A harmonious, seamless experience

As at the Developer Preview event, Mr. Sinofsky then brought out the easily-flustered Julie Larson-Green to show off the Windows 8 OS and apps experiences. This time around, Sinofsky didn’t stand over her shoulder, interrupting her excitedly and regularly, which probably helped. And she sat in a chair using a Samsung tablet to demonstrate the more relaxed computing model that Microsoft had frankly pioneered a decade earlier.

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A lot of the demonstration was a rehash of the Developer Preview introduction to Windows 8. The personalized lock screen, Picture password, and Start screen, the latter with pinned contacts and web sites in addition to (Metro) apps and (desktop) applications. No need to reiterate most of that here, but it’s important to remember that Windows 8 was still new to most people at the Consumer Preview launch.

New stuff? There were some new apps that flashed by on the screen during the demo, which must have raised titters with the eagerly-tweeting blogger audience. Amazon Kindle and Kobo e-readers. FujiFilm Photobook and Photobucket. Dictionary.com. Several games including Cut the Rope and Wordament. Evernote.

She showed off the Xbox Games app, which she accurately named even though it was still called Xbox LIVE Games for that release. She noted that it was similar to the Xbox experiences on Windows Phone and the 360 console (true) and that it was “the place to go to buy games and buy Xbox games on Windows,” which is also true but a bit odd. Segueing into casual games, Larson-Green showed off Cut the Rope, which was ported from HTML 5 to Metro.

She also showed off the built-in music and video stores, now called Xbox Music and Xbox Video, respectively. This was new to everyone at the time.

She described ALT + TAB as “fast but not all that fluid,” which I find to be a strange description. Apparently swiping with your finger on a touch-screen is both fast and fluid, which is what Larson-Green prefers. But enabling Switcher with touch—an awkward and difficult back and forth gesture on the edge of the screen is neither fast nor fluid. Just saying.

The People app demo talked up its social networking prowess on Facebook and Twitter but she suggested that it would connect with Google’s network, too, which it won’t. (Not yet. What People will do is connect to your contacts list at Google.)

Messaging, the instant messaging app for Metro was demonstrated, and since it’s not something you do full-screen all the time, she docked it using the Metro Snap feature. (And then moved it from side to side.)

Share was shown off, this time with actual apps, including Mail.

Windows 8 on traditional PC hardware

Antoine Leblond—the “leader of the Windows Store group”—came out next to show off Windows 8 running on a standard laptop. This speaks to a point I made earlier where there seems to be some general consensus that Microsoft hasn’t done a good job of explaining the value of Windows 8 on traditional PCs and that all it does is focus on tablets and touch interfaces.

Not so.

As with the Larson-Green demo, there’s no huge need to walk through every single demo LeBlond provided. It is fair to recall that the Consumer Preview did come with a wide array of new mouse- and keyboard-based interactions that complete that Windows 8 user experience, so some of this wasn’t in the Developer Preview. But I still hear complaints today that Windows 8 is “touch-centric” or “touch-first” and that mouse and keyboard seems like an afterthought. Since I’ve been using Windows 8 for 9 months straight on a traditional tower PC and laptops, I can tell you that’s not the case at all.

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Demoed? Sign-in with a PIN. Navigating around the Start screen with a mouse and keyboard. The new hot corner UIs that debuted in the Consumer Preview. App launching and switching. The basics.

Moving into the “better Windows than Windows 7” theme, Leblond then demonstrated the improvements Microsoft made to the desktop environment. Frankly, there are many, and this is yet another area where a group amnesia seems to be taking hold of Microsoft’s critics.

Julie Larson-Green returned for what I feel will be Windows 8’s biggest strength in the market against the Android and iOS pretenders: Its support for hybrid devices that offer a variety of input types, including multi-touch, keyboard, and mouse, all in the same machine. And while I don’t have a heck of lot of experience with this with Windows 8, I did notice during the writing of “Windows 7 Secrets” that I started touching all my displays after using a touch-based all-in-one PC for a few weeks. It really does become natural.

Windows Store

Then, it was back to Leblond for a Windows Store demo. Since the store was opening to the public for the first time with the Consumer Preview, albeit with only free apps, this was of course a big deal. Since the Store is well understood now, however, no reason to belabor things.

So by this point, you’re probably thinking: This has got to be most of it. But as Leblond wraps up his Windows Store demo, the event is just hitting the 45 minute mark. It’s literally at the halfway point.

Whew.

There’s a video about the winners of the first Windows 8 apps contest winners. Sinofsky comes back on stage to recap what we heard earlier. He discusses how the built-in apps are a milestone behind the platform and are thus “app previews.” He speaks to the opportunities to developers.

Hardware advances

But the next big reveal, so to speak, is about hardware advances. (Mr. Sinofsky apparently measured the success of a Building Windows 8 Blog post about Windows on ARM—WOA, since renamed to Windows RT—by the number of tweets it received; over 650. This of course triggered an appearance by Michael Angiulo, who started off showing what appeared to be a 10-inch Windows RT-based tablet. A lot of this demo revolved around the notion of, hey, look, (almost) all of the features are the same between Windows 8 and RT.

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Mr. Sinofsky interrupted to point out a representative prototype from each of the three ARM chipset makers that Windows RT will support, as well as an SoC- (System On a Chip-) based Intel Atom prototype, just in case Microsoft’s biggest partner felt left out. “These are the chips we’re going to go to market with,” Angiulo agreed, adding “these are the chips we’re going to support.” In addition to sharing code with Windows 8, all of the ARM and Intel-based SoC systems will support a new power management technology called Connected Standby that allows them to maintain a tiny network “heartbeat” so that they can pull down updates while the PC or device is “off,” while not materially impacting battery life. And when you “start” the device, it comes on instantly. In this ways, the ARM/SoC systems will mimic how smart phones work today.

A discussion of class drivers followed. This sounds boring, but it’s a major part of Windows 8’s “it just works” mantra since entire classes of devices, like printers, mobile broadband, external storage, and so on, will simply work, without any specific drivers. Of course, getting the full drivers for many devices will result in a better/more customized experience.

Angiulo showed off some (then) upcoming Ultrabooks, as well as an interesting Intel Ultrabook reference design that PC makers were shown earlier to help them understand the differentiators that mark the devices in this market segment. Since this show, we’ve learned about hundreds of new Ultrabook designs coming to market over the next year. These new machines are marked by Ivy Bridge processors, touch screens, and integrated mobile broadband.

Skipping the discussion of individual Ultrabooks, there was a broader discussion around how the addition of touch, and different form factor capabilities, changes pedestrian device types like laptops and desktop PCs into entirely new types of machines. I do think that a coming generation of what I call hybrid PCs will be a big part of Windows 8’s success.

They also showed off an 80-inch slate PC, basically a touch-based HDTV, made by PixelSense, which Microsoft later purchased. This was good demo but given the pricing on these machines, I’ll reserve judgment for a decade or so. A tiny, tiny PC was also demoed, as were a pair of NFC-based Bluetooth speakers, high resolution camera, and the Storage Spaces and Windows To Go features in Windows 8.

(There was a promise that more Windows 8 enterprise features would be shown off at CeBIT.)

8 minutes of recap commences at this point. You get the idea.

Next up: Release Preview