Microsoft has finally given the world a peek at Window 8, its next OS, which will span devices from phones to desktops and emphasize a touch interface. But the revelation raises a few questions.
After months of speculation and leaks, most of which turned out to be fake, Microsoft finally showed off a preview of Windows 8 at the D9 conference this week. The new OS is a drastic break from previous Windows versions, and the company has learned a lot from the two competitors that most threaten its existence: Apple and Google. What we’ve seen of Windows 8 shows a clear emphasis on touch-capable interfaces and optimization for smaller devices like tablets—a market owned currently by Apple with its iPad and one that Windows 8 targets head-on.
But the Redmond-based software giant steals from its own stable of ideas as well, most dramatically in its use of the Metro, tile-based interface of Windows Phone 7. From Windows 7 comes the ability to snap and resize an app to the side of the screen, à la Aero Snap.
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All the user innovation and learning from the competition is promising. But I still have a bunch of questions. And this list isn’t even taking on some of the biggest ongoing concerns about Windows: performance, stability, and security.
1. Where’s the app store?
Another feature not discussed was an app store—something that has appeared previously in the Windows 8 rumor mill. The presentations at D9 and Computex showed an icon for the store, and we know it will have one, but the implementation is key. Will apps auto-update? Will you be able to buy apps for more than one PC?
2. Will earlier Windows apps be second-class citizens?
From the demo at D9, the tiles for older apps didn’t look as rich as those for new apps, and the new file-sharing “basket” feature will also likely be relegated to new apps. Clearly, for an app to take full advantage of these, it will have to be recoded. At the demo, Microsoft’s president of Windows, Steven Sinofsky, mentioned that the company will be rolling out new developer tools to create new apps for the new OS, but we can hope that it will also deliver tools to make the transition smooth for existing apps at its upcoming Build show next September.
3. Will all new apps be Web apps?
4. Will Windows Phone apps run on Windows 8?
Sure, the Metro tile interface works on small and large screens and actually comes from Windows Phone 7. So too does touch friendliness, but the ability to run Windows 8 and Window Phone apps on either platform would be an advantage that Apple can’t yet equal, though stay tuned for next week’s OS X Lion launch. This interoperability also would beef up the lagging catalog of Windows Phone apps.
5. With all the emphasis on tablets, how well will Windows 8 run on existing PCs?
Touch input is great if you have a touch-capable device, but what about the nearly one billion non-touch PCs that already exist? Microsoft promises that Windows 8 will run on these as well, and considering the lower-power processors on tablets, the seemingly primary target of the new OS, we might expect it to run acceptably on desktop hardware; unless there’s more optimization for ARM mobile CPUs than for the older Intel 8086 legacy cores. Speaking of cores, a sub-question here is: how optimized will the new OS be for multi-core PCs?
6. How fast will it start up?
In its press briefing on Windows 8, Microsoft’s Windows Experience senior vice president, Julie Larson-Green, mentioned “fast launching of apps,” but what about fast boot? This was a stated goal for Windows 7 when that OS was first being discussed, but the current announcement makes no mention of a “15-second boot.” This is probably more of an issue for older PCs that will be running the new OS, as opposed to tablets, which usually are set to sleep rather than fully shut down. And as with the 15-second claim for Windows 7, what’s important is how fast Windows 8 machines boot in the real world, not Microsoft’s stated speed before the OS is released.
7. What about the Registry?
This comes up every time we consider a new version of Windows. It’s a major cause of PC slowdown after time. And it’s something Google makes a big point about with Chrome OS, claiming that, far from slowing down, the OS actually speeds up over time with update improvements. So will Windows 8 at least find some way to sidestep the Registry, at least for the new flavor of Web apps?
We’re expecting to get a major update of Apple’s desktop OS, Mac OS X Lion, next week at Apple’s WWDC show. So a major competitor will have something shiny and new to lure new users way ahead of Microsoft. CEO Steve Ballmer said recently that the new OS will debut in 2012, which Microsoft later said was a “misstatement.” Yesterday’s demos gave no indication of timing. Hopefully for Microsoft, its would-be tablet game-changer isn’t too late to the party, giving iPad and Android tablets even more firmly rooted.
9. And, of course, what about pricing?
Microsoft has always charged a hefty sum for operating system upgrades, especially if you compare it to those two lurking behemoths breathing down its back, Apple and Google. Steve Jobs’ company charged a mere $29 for the OS X Snow Leopard upgrade, and Google’s operating systems—Android and Chrome OS—are free. One could assume that most Windows 8 installations will come in the form of new tablets, but we hope that existing loyal Windows users don’t get gouged.