In October of this year, Microsoft released the Music Deals apps for Windows 8.x and Windows Phone 8.1 but not with much fanfare. As it turns out, this app is a treasure trove of free and inexpensive music.
The way this app works is, there is a time-limited set of promotional deals for various types of music. Typically, there is one popular single listed very inexpensively ($0.99) and then there are three sets of themes for free or inexpensive albums. All of these promotions run for a variety of time periods, ranging from a week to fifteen days.
For example, last week there was a sale for fifty boxed sets, each at $2 only. These boxed sets typically sell for anywhere from $15 to sometimes even over $100, so these were fantastic steals. Last week also saw fifty free albums, all by popular artists.
This week the promotions continue and the discounted albums are popular rock albums and popular soundtracks, and the free albums include albums by artists like Ellie Goulding, ABBA, Imagine Dragons, etc.
The way this works is the Music Deals listing opens up the album in the Xbox Music app (or simply, Music app) on Windows or Windows Phone, and the discounted price is shown. Once you click on buy (or “get it free” when the album is free), depending on your settings, the music will start downloading or be marked as owned and available in the cloud for your use anytime in the future.
The beauty of this setup is that the music content is DRM-free and can be played on any device or software. So you don’t have to feel compelled to use Windows and Windows Phone’s music apps, you can use iTunes or pretty much any other software to play these tunes.
I am unclear what is the end game for Microsoft here. I know it will increase usage of the Music app, and maybe create more Microsoft accounts which can then be used to upsell premium services like paid storage or Office 365, but those seem like poor returns for the potential cost of the discounted music.
Regardless, this is a great deal for consumers and you should absolutely take advantage of these deals. Get the Music Deals apps here: Windows and Windows Phone.
At a small press gathering on September 30, Microsoft showed what is an early version of the next edition of Windows, and tricked everyone by calling it Windows 10 instead of the chronologically appropriate Windows 9.
As this event was catering to the enterprises, there was emphasis mostly on the features that will make existing Windows XP and Windows 7 customers not hesitate to move to the next version of Windows. Microsoft officials admitted that Windows 8, and even Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update are too different from Windows XP and Windows 7 and customers are staying away from upgrades because they will need a lot of training hours to train their users.
Along with revealing some of the key updates to Windows, and in a big departure from the past, Microsoft also announced that technically savvy users as well as IT Pros in enterprises can enroll in a Windows Insider program which will allow them to download the Windows 10 bits starting October 1. These Windows Insiders will then have access to the latest bits and will be able to provide feedback directly to Microsoft during the preview.
Windows 10’s consumer features will be discusses in early 2015, the developer story will be discussed at //Build, Microsoft’s developer conference, in April. The final version of Windows 10 is expected to be available later in 2015.
Let’s look at what was revealed in terms of Windows 10 at the event:
Perhaps one of the most wanted (and missing) features in Windows 8.x was the ever-familiar Start Menu. The Start Menu is back, but instead of simply being a Windows 7-style Start Menu, it is now going to have some Live Tiles next to the list of programs and folders. In addition, the Start Menu’s “shape” is customizable so if you desire a flatter and wider Start Menu, you can simply drag its boundaries and make it flat.
The search functionality in the Start Menu is back, and in addition to searching for files and folders on the local PC, the feature will search the web too, just like the main search feature that exists in Windows 8.x today.
Windowed Metro Apps
Another very highly requested feature from non-touch device users and users with large screens is the ability to run Metro apps in their own windows instead of defaulting to full screen. Despite improvements in snap mode in Windows 8.1, it wasn’t enough and by making Metro apps work seamlessly in their own windows which can be resized without affecting the usability of the Metro apps, Microsoft is taking care of the power users.
Windows 8’s Snap mode has made incremental improvements over time. With Windows 10, it gets even better so it will now be possible to snap up to 4 apps on one screen. The screen is now going to be divided into quadrants and each snapped app can occupy a quadrant or two. In addition, Snap Assist enables the best utilization of the screen real estate by snapping apps to appropriately fill the screen space.
A new button will be present on the Taskbar which will enable viewing open apps/applications as well as any virtual desktops in use.
In Windows 10, one will be able to create multiple “desktops” much like Mac OS X and Linux, to isolate the work based on any organizational aspect like work vs home, projects, etc.
One Store, One App Model
Microsoft also said that with Windows 10, it won’t be truly “one operating system” but it will be one product family with a common app development model and a common store. This way, Windows 10 will be able to run on “things” (from the Internet of Things) to ruggedized embedded systems, to phones and phablets to tablets and 2-in-1 devices to PCs up to 85″ in screen size.
In all this discussion about Start Menu and full-screen apps, the lines between a normal non-touch PC user and a tablet user are clearly drawn. However, what happens when someone uses a hybrid or 2-in-1 device like the Surface or one of the many detachable or convertible devices? In such situations, Windows 10 will invoke Continuum. This feature detects a touch screen usage and converts the use to a tablet use and if a keyboard or mouse is then detected, it prompts to switch to a PC use (and vice versa).
This is nicely demonstrated by Joe Belfiore in the video below (courtesy The Verge):
Here’s Joe Belfiore from the Windows team, walking through the new features:
And here’s a walkthrough of Windows 10 provided by Microsoft to Geekwire’s Blair Hanley Frank:
On April 30, Microsoft’s Bing Relevance Team announced on the Search Blog some of the updates they are making to Smart Search in Windows 8.1.
In essence, Smart Search is getting smarter. Today, Smart Search is called so because it searches everything and not just one domain like the computer’s file system or the web. Searching for something via the Search Charm enables search across files, emails, apps, web, etc.
Now, with the power of Bing, one can enter natural language queries as shown below (from the blog post), and get relevant suggestions for things like PC settings. This may seem like a small and obvious update but it is actually quite nifty that customers don’t need to know which exact setting to look for, to change screen brightness, for example. Settings like the Control Panel have always been confusing and to most customers, intimidating. Making it easy to “get things done” as opposed to finding the right place to change settings, will help in reducing the confusion.
As the blog post goes on to say, the beauty of these updates is that because it is powered by Bing, all the benefits gained by Bing across all the end points can be funneled back as features into all other end points. Hence, Bing has stopped being a “search engine” a long time ago and for Microsoft, it is a machine learning platform.
This update will be rolling out this week, so it does not look like it needs an OS or app update. Happy searching!
At its annual developer conference //build/ on April 2, Microsoft announced an update to Windows 8.1 simply called Windows 8.1 Update. This update will arrive via Windows Update on April 8 and is available via msdn from April 2.
As the name suggests, this is an update to the operating system but as you will see, the changes implemented in this update are all made to make it easier for mouse users to navigate and use Windows 8.1. Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 are obviously touch-friendly so tablet usage is not a concern. Also, there are tons of keyboard shortcuts including power user shortcuts like Winkey+X which allow heavy keyboard users to navigate their way around. Mouse users, especially on larger displays, had to move their mice too much in order to get things done. Not anymore. Some key user experience changes:
Adding common controls to Start Screen: A power button and a search icon get added to the top, right next to the user name/photo on the Start Screen, making it easier to shut down the computer and intuitively search the computer. Similarly, a PC Settings tile gets added by default to open up Control Panel. These are small changes but given that these actions are taken quite frequently, it makes a lot of sense that they are bubbled up to the Start Screen rather than having the users try to find them or stumble upon them accidentally.
Title bar in Modern Apps: The action to “close” a Modern App today is to take the mouse to the top of the screen and drag down the app in a single motion from top all the way to the bottom until the app disappears. That action, to say the least, is mouse user-unfriendly. On a small tablet, it would seem ok since taking a finger from the top of the tablet to the bottom is simple enough of a gesture.
In order to simplify this task, Windows 8.1 Update introduces a small (auto-hidden) title bar at the top of all Modern Apps and that title bar includes a minimize and a close button just like today’s Windows desktop applications. This makes a lot of sense, since a mouse user would normally go to look for those actions where they are used to seeing them in pre-Windows 8 operating systems.
Right-click context menu on Modern Apps: Another setting that completely makes sense. In non-Windows 8 environments and even in Windows 8’s desktop realm, anytime a mouse user wants to do something to an item, they would right-click. But in Modern Apps, a right-click does not pop up a menu where the cursor is, but instead it opens up the App Bar which could be at the bottom and/or at the top. By making the same Windows 7-style context menu now pop up where the mouse cursor is, Microsoft is making it easier for Windows XP and Windows 7 users to transition to Windows 8.
Pinning Modern Apps to taskbar: Yet another step towards making it easy for users to transition from Windows XP and Windows 7 is the ability to pin Modern Apps to the taskbar. That way, if someone spends most of their time in the desktop environment, they are not “cut off” from the Start Screen. Also, in a move to increase interest in the Modern Apps, Microsoft also announced that the Windows Store app will be auto-pinned to the taskbar on a default Windows installation. This, they hope, will prompt more visits to the Store because of the nature of being defaulted in Windows, thereby increasing the chances of someone downloading Modern Apps.
As you can see, the trend in the key updates coming as part of Windows 8.1 Update is to make the OS more welcoming to those migrating from Windows XP and Windows 7. If the transition is eased, more users will end up not wanting to avoid or being afraid of Windows 8, and thereby increasing the installed base and the developer opportunity. An introduction to the update in the video embedded below:
Are you looking forward to this update? Anything you had wanted to see that they did not include? Sound off in the comments!
If you were disconnected from the world for the past several months, you wouldn’t know that Microsoft is going to release the next version of their operating system for personal computers, called Windows 8. Let me rephrase that: Microsoft is going to release an operating system for mobile, highly-connected devices, with touch input at the front-and-center, and along with that operating system, it is also providing an upgrade to their existing Windows 7 operating system.
The look and feel of Windows is very different from earlier versions of Windows, and as a result there has been a lot of uncertainty and (unfair) judgement about it being circulated in the tech press. Instead of writing yet another article about how this whole thing is confusing, my goal here is to make it simple for someone who wants to know more about “The Big Launch” that Microsoft is undertaking at the end of October.
First and foremost, there is Windows 8. It is the operating system that will ship on most PCs and it is also something that you can upgrade from virtually any previous Windows version. This operating system runs the new “Start Screen” with Live Tiles, and will allow you to install apps (yes, there are now Windows Apps) from the Windows Store. Additionally, Windows 8 has a “desktop” environment that may seem familiar to users of Windows, especially Windows 7/Vista. Here, you can install applications outside of the Windows Store, for example CutePDF and Winrar. There is no restriction on what you can install in Windows 8 “desktop” environment. For apps on the other hand, unless you work at a company that supports it, or if you are a developer with the correct settings, you cannot install them from anywhere else except the Windows Store.
Windows RT is the radical new operating sytem that Microsoft is introducing for the first time along with Windows 8. It will not ship as standalone software, and instead, it will only be available as part of devices that ship with this operating system. Think of it as the software that runs your appliances like a DVD player or your car navigation system. Windows RT also has the same “Start Screen” as Windows 8 and you can install apps from the Windows Store just like Windows 8. It also has a “desktop” environment but you cannot install anything there. Yes, you read that right. Microsoft has locked the desktop environment so customers cannot install any software on the device except the apps you can get from the Windows Store.
Microsoft does ship Windows RT with a version of Office 2013 for free. It is called Office Home & Student 2013 RT which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Think of Windows RT as Windows 8 with only the Windows Store Apps along with Office. (Yes, I know there are more “desktop” applications that come with Windows RT, but at a high level, this should suffice.)
All the apps you purchase from the Windows Store will work on Windows RT devices as well as Windows 8 devices.
Windows Phone 8
Microsoft also makes operating system software for phones, called Windows Phone. The next revision of this software, called Windows Phone 8, is also due to be released at the end of October. Windows Phone 8 is built on the same core as Windows 8 so application developers can reuse their logic between a Windows 8 app and a Windows Phone 8 app.
Although the apps are not the same across Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, a lot of app developers are using the cloud to power native experiences across multiple platforms and devices. Evernote, for example, will have a Windows 8 app as well as a Windows Phone 8 app (in addition to other platforms), both delivering native experiences for the screen sizes, keeping most of the data and logic in the cloud so it is easily portable.
From a “devices” perspective, it is important to keep Windows Phone 8 in mind, but if the discussion is about “computers”, you only need to consider Windows 8 and Windows RT.
Having discussed the software at a high level, here’s the quick overview of Windows:
Windows RT is the new mobile operating system built for increasingly popular simpler devices like tablets and slates. It comes bundled with Office and the only way to get more apps is via the Windows Store. It cannot be bought in the store, it comes pre-installed with devices like tablets and hybrids.
Windows 8 is Windows RT combined with the ability to install any application that you can buy off the shelf today. It is built for more powerful computers, but retains all the advantages of mobility-focused Windows RT. It introduces many upgrades in that “desktop” environment over its predecessor Windows 7 and is generally installable on any PC that runs Windows 7 today.
The second complexity that will come in terms of increased choice is via the increased form factors of devices that are going to hit the market. Windows 8 being a touch-focused operating system, has led OEMs to ship many PCs with touch capabilities. So in addition to the simple desktop, laptop and tablet form factors, we have touch-screen laptop, devices with detachable screens/keyboards, laptops that convert to slate with a flip or a twist, and touchscreen all-in-ones. Additionally, PC makers as well as component makers have promised much better trackpad/touchpad technology in new devices and Windows 8 gesture support.
You don’t need to worry too much about the increased choice – just know that you can take advantage of touch, via direct touch on the screen or via indirect touch on the touchpad on laptops or separate trackpads that will ship with PCs, especially all-in-ones.
What will be tricky to decide and can only be done after trying a few PCs, are the convertible PCs. An Ultrabook-sized laptop, i.e., thin and light, that flips completely to convert to a touch slate, or a similar laptop where the screen detaches and becomes a standalone slate. I happen to prefer the convertible laptop (specifically, the Lenovo IdeaPad YOGA) but those detachables also sound quite interesting. Again, since we have not seen these form factors before, it is best to try them out before making a decision. (Yes, I know these existed in the Tablet PC era, but remember, Windows XP and even Windows 7 were not touch-first like Windows 8 is, and those PCs were thick and heavy. Besides, there was no app ecosystem like the Windows Store to enhance functionality in the PC.)
Of course, if you end up buying a pure slate form factor, Windows 8 and Windows RT both support Bluetooth so you can always slap an external keyboard and a mouse if you don’t see yourself always needing them.
Windows 8 is dramatically different from Windows 7. It also adds the mobile OS Windows RT. It is bound to create snap judgements from tech press used to “old Windows way of doing things” or those enamoured with anything that Apple produces. Having used Windows 8 over the past few months constantly on a very old PC with keyboard and mouse, I can assure you that for most people, it is going to be a significant ugprade over whatever else they have been using. It is fast, it is efficient and with the move towards an app-centric world, its functionality will constantly get enhanced by third-party developers building innovative apps and distributing them through the Windows Store. It will add some learning curve, especially for folks with muscle memory, but as we have seen with touch OS like iPhone/iPad’s iOS, it is much easier to learn navigating via touch than navigating via keyboard and mouse.
Don’t base your opinion on what’s being written by tech writers, especially those who have not really used the operating system. Certainly they have not used it on “Windows 8 hardware” so their opinions are either based on conjecture, or fear of change, or simply with a motive to get more pageviews because that pays the bills. I am sorry I had to create this disclaimer but having read the stuff that has been written about Windows 8, I can’t help but shake my head.
Having said all that, I must say, Microsoft’s efforts to educate what is Windows 8 and how it is different from Windows RT and which form factors are available and how to choose, has been abysmal. They may be able to train Microsoft Store employees in the last week before launch but how about the many other stores that are going to sell Windows 8 PCs and Windows RT devices? How are those employees going to guide the customers in the right direction? It would be a pity if customers see a beautiful ad on the TV showing “Windows 8”, go the store and happen to find a Windows RT tablet to be the cheapest, and go home and find out that they cannot use Quicken or Photoshop on it.
Windows 8 is too good for Microsoft to throw it off the rails like this. Hope they do enough in the “last mile” to guide customers in the right direction. They can’t rely on people like yours truly to keep demystifying and simplifying for them.
Are you sold on Windows 8? Do you plan to get a Windows RT device? Let me know in the comments!
Microsoft doesn’t exactly have the best of reputations when it comes to keeping cards close to its chest. Windows Blue is turning out to be no exception. We have had tips from insiders, leaks from partners, and even functional builds available for download on torrent websites. Now, Microsoft has finally opened up about its plans for the next iteration of the Windows operating system.
Speaking to shareholders, Tami Reller — who is the new Windows CFO, confirmed at the JP Morgan Media & Telecom Conference that Windows Blue indeed exists, and will hit the market by the end of this year. He also revealed that the operating system will be officially known as Windows 8.1. The best piece of news for current Windows 8 users is that the update will be available as a free download from the Windows 8 Store. Reller didn’t provide any insights into the expected enhancements in the next edition of Windows. However, the good news is that a public beta will be released on June 26th at the Build conference.
As was rumored, Microsoft announced an event on their campus scheduled for May 21, where they promise to talk about the next generation of the Xbox. Larry Hyrb, more popularly known as Xbox LIVE’s Major Nelson, announced the event on his blog.
Timing-wise, it works out very well for Microsoft. They can reveal the console and its capabilities along with the story of how it ties into the rest of the Microsoft ecosystem, especially around Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 in May. This reveal is then followed up 19 days later by the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) where Microsoft traditionally has had a major presence and a big keynote. This is where they show off the games that would accompany the launch, which is widely expected to by this Holiday season.
Finally, at the end of June comes //build, Microsoft’s developer conference where they could tell a deeper story to the rest of the developers (besides the launch partners, which are expected to be big game developer houses) and put the developer pieces together for not just game developers but perhaps all developers. If the rumors are true and the next Xbox is really “Windows 8 Inside”, there could be a lot of possibilities for all kinds of applications to be made available on the large screen. Combined with the power of the next version of Kinect, developers would have a great way to take their code from a Windows Phone 8 app or a Windows 8 app and tweak it for use on a large screen with gestures, voice and indirect touch via SmartGlass.
As for the #XboxReveal event itself, some of the media has been invited to the Xbox campus, but Microsoft is also live streaming the event on xbox.com, on Xbox LIVE on the console itself and on SpikeTV in the US and Canada. The event is on Tuesday, May 21st at 1pmET/10amPT/1700GMT.
As for the rumors, there have been a ton of them already about the specs of the console and the architecture. Much like Sony’s PS4, the Xbox is believed to be running on AMD architecture. Additionally, a more precise version of Kinect is expected to be on-board. There were initially rumors of an entertainment-only version of the console, to align with Apple TV, Roku and others, but recent updates suggest that it may have been postponed for now.
Among the unknowns of course are what the console looks like (there have been no leaks of the renders), the pricing and of course whether the current Xbox 360 would be kept in the market and if so, at what price.
I am excited about this, but not so much for the gaming on next generation hardware. I am more interested in the non-gaming parts of the next Xbox. How about you?
Finally, I say. After deflecting the need for and promising the availability of 2-step verification, Microsoft officially announced the roll out of optional 2-step verification on Microsoft account on April 17.
First, what is 2-step verification? It is a method by which services force you to provide an additional verification item to ensure you are actually who you say you are, before allowing you to login. Typically, this is done through a code sent via SMS after logging in with username and password. That way, the service ensures that just because someone has access to your username and password, they won’t be able to easily login to your account.
For Microsoft account, you can enable this feature by going to https://account.live.com/proofs/Manage. Once you enable it, you will be required to provide the code sent to your phone or if you set up a secondary method like email, then via email after providing your username and password. Additionally, for smartphones there are authenticator apps that work with Microsoft’s 2-step verification and Microsoft has also built an app for Windows Phone for the same purpose.
Once you set up the 2-step verification, it will work on Windows Phone, Windows 8, the web as well as Microsoft services on iOS and Android. As is the case with Google and other services that have already implemented 2-step verification, for clients that cannot support entering codes like Xbox, Microsoft will allow you to set up an app password. Once you have the app password for a particular client, it will remain associated with that client so you don’t have to enter the code at every login.
Microsoft has also enabled functionality where you can choose to have the code remembered for a particular application or service. If you do that, the code won’t be requested for 60 days, thereby making the process seamless.
It is also worth noting that Microsoft has enforced 2-step verification for some of its services already. For example, with SkyDrive you can remotely fetch files from other computers. Since this is a critical feature which can be abused by someone breaking into your account, Microsoft required a security code to be entered in addition to username and password.
Finally, remember that if you change your phone number or email, it is important to update the information in your account preferences before losing the number or email since it is something that cannot be updated by customer support. If you do lose the number and it is not reflected in your account preferences, you will have to wait for 30 days which is the typical account recovery period.
I like this step that Microsoft has taken. 2-step verification is not easy and has a lot of issues when the account is also used for authentication on other services besides the provider’s. It does seem like Microsoft is aware of the complexity involved and have tried to make it a bit more user-friendly than competing services. With more of our lives being stored in digital form, it is important to have good “locks” installed to protect our digital properties. 2-step verification is just one of the steps, and I am glad Microsoft has chosen to implement it.
One of the major issues plaguing the Windows Phone platform as a whole is the lack of quality apps, primarily the various popular ones that are currently thriving on iOS and Android. But simply porting these apps a few months — or more — to Windows Phone from their release won’t solve the problem. Microsoft needs to improve the platform’s mindshare amongst both developers and consumers.
When developers — big and small — work to release their apps as quickly as possible on Windows Phone, and treat the platform as an equal to iOS and Android, then Microsoft will have succeeded. Obviously, the issue isn’t just the lack of existing awesome apps. It’s the fact that now, when a hypothetical developer of what, unbeknownst to him, will soon be an incredibly popular app sits down to build it, he’ll prioritize getting the app on iOS and Android.
Maybe initially, due to the lack of resources and the need to ship, he’ll select one of these platforms to initially launch on. But then, in most cases, the next priority will be shipping an app on the other. After a year of hit sales on both of these platforms, maybe rumors will surface that a Windows Phone app is in the works.
This is the obvious problem with Windows Phone, and it’s why I’m perplexed as to how Microsoft could think that its latest incentive for people to develop on Windows Phone was a good idea at all.
The program, — aptly named “Keep The Cash” — encourages developers to create and submit up to 10 apps to the Windows Phone Store, offering $100 for each qualifying app. The program is also accepting Windows Store apps, allowing you to submit another 10 apps. That’s a total limit of $2000 in app submission.
Evidently, this drastically favors quantity over quality. The copy on the registration form blatantly encourages developers to make multiple apps. Can we seriously expect nothing less but shitty apps from developers who are developing multiple apps from March 8th to June 30th?
The program boasts that developers can earn up to $2000 per qualifying app. That’s a whopping 20 apps in roughly three months. And yes, the Terms and Conditions makes it clear that you cannot submit apps that have been previously submitted to the store.
Sure, some apps from developers who technically take advantage of this may be good; in that timeframe, developers who are wrapping up apps that have been in the works for some time could enter their creations in this program and claim the reward.
But we all know that this isn’t who the promotion is targeting. Everything is clearly targeted to appeal most to people who will try to pump out apps in this timeframe to gain as much money from the promotion as possible.
The negative image that this gives Windows Phone far outweighs anything positive that can come out of it. A good developer with taste from any platform — including existing Windows Phone developers — will scoff at the program.
With this program, Microsoft actually discourages quality developers from wanting to create Windows Phone apps while encouraging those who wish to make some cash as quickly as they shit out their apps to build on Windows Phone. On top of that, it can look like an incredibly desperate, “we’ll take all the apps we can get” program.
Even the registration form to participate looks sleazy. It’s reminiscent of those Monopoly promotions by McDonald’s, or even those cash for gold ads we occasionally see on TV. It’s aesthetically unpleasing and only serves as foreshadowing to the quality of the apps that will come as a result of it.
And, finally, this shows a lack of focus and awareness from Microsoft in regards to Windows Phone’s true problem, despite the fact that they’re definitely well aware of it.
In fact, Microsoft issued the following comment to AllThingsD regarding this:
We believe the best apps come from those partners who are invested in the platform and own their experience now and in the future. Of course, we are always working to spark creativity with new developer audiences and sometimes try limited incentives or contests, like Keep The Cash. However, it is not representative of an ongoing program.
Except it doesn’t spark creativity, it scares it away.
I largely wrote this article with emphasis on the impact of this program on Windows Phone, but it’s worth once again mentioning that the program also seeks out up to 10 Windows Store apps. The complete disregard of quality that’s projected through this program also impacts one of the company’s most valuable products.
In conclusion, I hope that Microsoft stops hosting programs like this and instead offers incentives that favor quality and innovation. As Long Zheng points out, that is something that the company is no stranger to doing.
Up until now, if users wanted to use Android on their Windows based PC, they had to use VirtualBox or any other VM manager.
While the average joe is not interested in running Android on his PC, it definitely comes in handy for developers as it allows them to test their app on the PC instead of switching to their phone or tablet every time.
Now, to make the life of developers easier, some gracious Chinese developers have managed to port Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich to Windows 7/Windows 8. This is a native port of Windows, and does not require any kind of VM environment.
While there is no Play Store yet, the developers are working hard on porting it along with the other Google goodies. Sideloading of APKs is possible, which will make it easier for developers to test their app. The performance is also impressively smooth with hardly any stability issues. Since the port is kernel dependent, it will not work on Windows XP or other versions of Windows.
A video of Android 4.0.3 running on a Windows based PC can be found here. An early release of the port can be downloaded from here.