Touch Me! Microsoft gets ready for BUILD
By on September 13th, 2011

build

We were greeted to Windows 95′s launch by The Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up, a reminder of the new, but now iconic Start button in Windows. Maybe for Windows 8, Microsoft should use The Doors’ Touch Me.

//build/

We have been waiting anxiously for this day to arrive. Tomorrow, after months of keeping a tight leash (leaks notwithstanding) on the progress of or the details about Windows 8, Microsoft will reveal its newest operating system to the world at BUILD.

BUILD is Microsoft’s new developer-focused conference, a combination of PDC (Professional Developers’ Conference) and WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference). It is being held at the Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, CA.

What we know

Ever since Steven Sinofsky and Julie Larson-Green revealed Windows 8 at All Things D’s D9 conference in June this year, the anticipation and expectations have gone up for what Windows 8 will be. Windows 8 sports a brand new Metro style interface with its big tiles. This interface is obviously suited to touch gestures and along with the upcoming Xbox dashboard update, it completes the trifecta of Metro styled interfaces from phones (Windows Phone 7) where it started, to PCs and TVs. Recently, Microsoft started a new blog dubbed Building Windows 8, where they have revealed (or confirmed rumors regarding):

  • Support for ARM architecture
  • System requirements for Windows 8 will be the same or less than Windows 7 requirements which means the hundreds of millions of PC’s being used today can be upgraded to Windows 8 without the need for further investment
  • The teamswithin Windows 8, which in some ways confirmed rumors such as existence of Hyper-V in the Windows 8 client and an App Store for Windows.
  • USB 3.0 support
  • New file copy/move/delete experience in Windows Explorer, along with a new conflict resolution user experience
  • Ribbon-ized Windows Explorer
  • Native support for accessing ISO and VHD files
  • Hyper-V in Windows 8 client
  • Extremely fast boot times in Windows 8

From what is explicitly mentioned in the blog and what was demonstrated at D9, we also know that Windows 8 will have two user interfaces. The first being the Metro style, tile-based, interface and the other being the classicWindows 7-style interface. Both these interfaces, Microsoft claims, are an effort to have no compromise. By no compromise, they are implying that just because an interface has touch-first design, does not mean it will not support keyboard and mouse. Microsoft realizes that a large portion of its user base uses Windows in an enterprise where the tile-based, touch-first interface may not be the most optimum. Hence, instead of ditching the past and starting afresh with the new paradigm, Microsoft is now at a stage where it has to explain how the two interfaces will co-exist. This co-existence leads to many more questions, which brings me to my next topic.

What we don’t know

While extremely fast boot times, Metro style interface and support for ARM makes Windows 8 seem like it is ready for the post-PC era, the co-existence of classic Windows and Metro interface raises many questions:

  • Developer story: During D9 and thereafter, Sinofsky, Larson-Green and everyone at Microsoft have kept chanting the HTML5 mantra. They have kept saying that apps on Windows 8 will be written with modern, standards-based technologies like HTML, JavaScript and CSS. While they have not ruled out Silverlight and .net, they have not mentioned it explicitly either. This has created a lot of confusion and fear among the faithful army of .net/silverlight developers who have bet their careers on these technologies. This also ties into the tools update, and given that Satya Nadella and Jason Zander are going to keynote on the second day, there is hope that Visual Studio will have a prominent role to play in the next generation of Windows development.
  • Applications on ARM and x86: While it is great to know that Windows 8 will be supported on ARM architecture, resulting in battery-sipping devices (tablets/slates), what happens to existing x86 applications? This information is not only useful to users but also, of course, to software developers, who will then need to plan for any possible changes to their applications and/or strategy.
  • Windows Live integration: Windows Live, primarily SkyDrive, Live ID and Live Mesh are expected and rumored to be tightly integrated with Windows 8. This gives hope for the possibility of being able to sign in with your Live ID into multiple PC’s, and to have all your applications, files and settings be sync-ed automatically. The details of this integration are unknown, and in fact there is no official mention of this kind of integration at all. We know about this integration from leaks of interim Windows 8 builds. Needless to say, with iCloud and ChromeOS as a backdrop, this integration will be a key weapon for Microsoft.
  • What about phones?: While all the discussion, anticipation and expectation is about a Windows tablet/slate, there is no information about how Windows Phone factors into Windows 8. There are rumors that Windows Phone 8 will have Windows 8 core, which makes sense, but it has not been confirmed or even hinted by anyone at Microsoft. As for applications, wouldn’t it be sweet if the 30,000-odd applications written for Windows Phone can now be used on the PC as well, specifically tablets/slates?
  • Xbox: Microsoft has stopped talking about Zune and has started pitching Xbox as their entertainment solution. Along with the Metro style dashboard, Microsoft has also hinted at Live TV and voice commands (via TellMe) and bing-powered search coming to the Xbox later this Fall. Will Xbox be present at //build/ at all? If Microsoft wants to talk about 3 screens and a cloud, Xbox better be a part of the event. What is the story Microsoft wants to tell about Xbox in the context of Windows? We can only wait for a few more hours to find out.
  • Release dates and details: We can safely assume, based on the Windows 7 schedule, that Windows 8 will hit the market around the same time next year. That is just how Sinofsky runs his organization. The question is, is it going to be too late for a manufacturer to ship a credible iPad competitor? Will we see any surprise in the form of an earlier-than-expected release, perhaps in April 2012? How about the SKU’s? Will there be a simplified SKU structure like Apple’s OSes tend to have?

No matter what, this week is going to be huge for Microsoft. It is a pivotal moment in its long history. Everyone seems to chant the post-PC era mantra, which by association denotes the post-Microsoft era since Microsoft has virtually no presence in post-PC devices. If Microsoft can pull it off with Windows 8, they will not only remain in the discussion, they will have a serious shot at making the competition irrelevant. If they cannot pull it off, they stand to lose their loyal developers, their OEM partners (most of whom have already started shipping Android and ChromeOS devices), their customers and risk becoming a boring, struggling technology company which once completely dominated the computing world.

Keynotes from //build/ will be streamed live and the sessions are going to be made available 24 hours after they complete. Look out for details on the BUILD website. I cannot wait for tomorrow.

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Author: Romit Mehta Google Profile for Romit Mehta
Romit writes about mobile news and gadgets, and is currently a Windows Phone owner (Nokia Lumia 920). Find him on twitter @TheRomit. Personal site is http://romitmehta.com.

Romit Mehta has written and can be contacted at romit@techie-buzz.com.

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