Windows 8: Cloud and Windows Come Together

In my last post I talked about the dual user interface and how it helps Microsoft in the tablet market. Thin and light laptops like the Chromebooks and MacBook Air (or Ultrabooks as Intel likes to call them) are becoming popular, these computers don’t come with a lot of storage space. Cloud computing to stream media, store images or work on documents is what makes these lightweight computers more capable. (Google Docs, Office Web Apps, Live Mesh, Dropbox, iCloud, Pandora, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Spotify, Zune etc.)

One of my favorite Google Chrome feature is the account sync. Logging with my Google ID and I can get my Preferences, Bookmarks, Autofill, Apps etc. synced on any PC. Microsoft plans to offer users with similar possibilities. In Windows 8, connecting your Windows Live account, a user can have his Explorer, Mouse, Application settings etc. synced on another Windows 8 machine. The feature is referred to as Roaming profiles, something Windows Server based network users must have heard before. Roaming Profiles was introduced as part of the Server family of Windows. In Windows 7 Microsoft allowed users to connect  their Windows Live accounts and it added no value whatsoever. However, with Windows 8, Windows Live integration actually makes sense.

According to leaked images, Microsoft will be offering roaming profiles for Windows 8 through Windows Live.

Initial leaks also showed Windows Live profile picture next in the start bar next to the clock. The Explorer integration doesn’t stop here. As revealed by Windows enthusiasts Rafael Rivera and Paul Thurrott, sync and Web Sharing showed up as an option in the Explorer Ribbon. Windows Live Mesh is an evolution of Windows Sync, Live Mesh and SkyDrive. In Microsoft Office multi-author editing and saving to SkyDrive were introduced. Sync and Web Sharing in Windows 8 with SkyDrive as the back-end would offer seamless access across a Windows 8 tablet, Windows Phone any PC with a browser.

It is fascinating to see how Windows Live, projects like Live Mesh, Sync and implementations in Office are shaping in Windows 8.

Windows 8: The Best of Both Worlds

In the first post in Windows 8 series I pointed out that Windows 8 is influenced by Zune and the Windows Phone. Let’s take a look at the interface enhancements in Windows 8 before we go into the features.

Like I said, for Windows 7 Netbooks were the in-thing, now it is tablets. Microsoft isn’t new to tablet computing. In fact they’ve been doing Windows for tablets for a really long time. Unfortunately for Microsoft they were ahead of their time. There was no Gorilla Glass, capacitive screens weren’t there and multi-touch simply wasn’t commercial, SoC GPUs weren’t as powerful. Simply put, it wasn’t just Windows that led to Microsoft losing the tablet race. Cut to 2011, all these  peripherals  are in place and it is now on Microsoft to come up with an OS that is for tablets.

A few years ago Microsoft released their iPod competitor, the Zune media player. While the player wasn’t able to garner competitive sales, it gave birth to the design philosophy for Microsoft’s consumer products. Christened Metro, crisp typography, clean icons and sharp corners are quite different to iPhone’s bevels, gradient overlays and rounded corners. The Zune desktop interface was quite a stunner compared to Microsoft’s other products. Media Center came close but wasn’t remotely as gorgeous as Zune. We saw the sharp corners and tiles in Zune and many loved it.

The next iteration for Microsoft’s Windows Phone was expected when Zune HD was launched. Initial leaks showed an evolution of the ugly Windows Mobile. Microsoft did what nobody expected them to do. Engineers from the Zune team worked on the interface for Microsoft’s mobile platform and everybody was stunned at what they announced. A beautiful fluid UI with well thought-out social, communication and entertainment capabilities. In many circles, Windows Phone is also known as the next Zune.

One feedback for Zune and Windows Phone’s UX/UI was for Microsoft to bring the interface to the tablet, like Apple. Microsoft is well aware of the tablet market and their PC stronghold. For Microsoft, they could either bring the mobile OS to tablets (Android/iOS) or use the collective genius of the engineers to offer users the best of both worlds (PC and tablet). They went with the latter and we have a new start menu or shell for Windows on tablets. The new shell is based on Metro and uses the same principles. The interface brings some innovative features for tablet use, like a split keyboard for landscape mode that makes holding the tablet and typing with two hands quite easy.

(Image credit CNet)

The idea that Microsoft’s beautiful Metro UI will be masking the regular Windows UI, has been met with strong criticism. Unfortunately those who make that argument have sort of ignored the millions of Windows users. There are more desktops than tablets and Microsoft needs to cater to the market while they find footing in the tablet market (Netbooks : Windows 7 :: Tablets : Windows 8). I have written considerably on the topic and how enterprise is a huge factor in Microsoft’s decision.

The Metro UI from Zune to Windows Phone and now on Windows (for touch) along with Windows’ Explorer UI (for mouse) lets users switch seamlessly between intensive work and leisure activities. It is not scaling the phone OS to a tablet like iOS but bringing the phone’s interface elements to the desktop (like OS X Lion). The approach offers the best of both worlds.

Windows 8: Microsoft’s Next

Windows 7 succeeded where Windows Vista failed. The Windows team under Sinofsky was able to deliver a competitive product. Sinofsky came to the Windows division after delivering a controversial yet popular Office version—Office 2007.

Windows 8 will be released to manufacturing around August 2012. When Windows 7 was around launch, Netbooks were the fad. Vista’s footprint, system requirments and the Netbook fad was enough fodder for bloggers to announce Microsoft’s end, Windows’ death and soon-to-come Ballmer’s resignation. Nothing happened. Windows 7 delivered, sold several licenses ensuring Windows’ relevance in consumer and enterprise computing. Windows 7 was accompanied by Office 2010, the duo tag-teamed their dominance on Microsoft’s balance sheets.

For what it’s worth, Windows XP is now well on its way out. The transition from XP to Vista presented a challenge that made Microsoft and Windows look bad. Microsoft on their part was clear, changes in Vista were needed for better security and upcoming hardware transitions. They were right, Windows 7 runs on Vista’s hardware specs and offers robust security. Sinofsky has assured Windows 8 will support Windows 7 specs and go beyond by supporting the ARM architecture. For Microsoft and their OEM ecosystem, support for ARM architecture is a huge step forward. The Windows-everywhere dream lives on.

Windows 8 is an amalgamation of four successful* Microsoft products—Zune, Windows Phone, Office 2007 and Windows Vista/7. The design theme—Metro was introduced with Zune. Polished and refined, the typography differentiates Windows Phone from iPhone and Android. The Metro interface is Microsoft’s strategy against the iPad. The evolution of the interface from a media player to a phone and now to the desktop is also the company’s transition from desktops to mobile devices. The desktop OS has been around for a long time, with each iteration Microsoft has been able to introduce new features to keep it relevant, dominant and competitive; Windows 8 is no different. Starting today we will be writing a-post-a-day about what’s new in Windows 8 and in many cases how these features came to be.