For the 25th anniversary of Windows, MaximumPC examines the future of Microsoft's flagship operating system.
For better or for worse, the fact remains that on November 20, 1985, Microsoft released the very first version of Windows. If we asked you to use just a single word to define the 25-year history of Microsoft's OS, we're betting that "erratic" would pop up 70 times out of 100. There are a lot less-accurate descriptions.
To shed some light on the future of Windows, we decided to ask a handful of the world's leading independent PC manufacturers what they've heard and what features and functionality they'd like to see in the next big Windows release. A few people were OK going on the record, but most preferred to keep their comments anonymous or on a "background only "basis.
Imparted wisdom, thoughts, facts and some outright guesses are inside.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In Windows 8, users will trump systems and the cloud will rule us all What will Windows 8 look like? And when will it happen?
Earlier this year, the world got its first chance to see what might be in the cards for Windows 8 when Italian tech site Windowsette.com posted several allegedly leaked internal Microsoft PowerPoint slides. Most of the leaked slides end with a disclaimer saying they were a "Windows 8 discussion" rather than a "plan of record", but they still shed insight into the future.
Arguably the most intriguing and surprising slide is one that not only admits to the successes of a rather well-known competitor, but in effect champions it. Entitled "How Apple does it: A virtuous cycle", the slide addresses the perceived positive user experience of Apple customers and gives a huge nod to Apple product satisfaction and in turn the brand loyalty and revenue generated by that satisfaction.
Another key slide, labelled "Focus: hardware capabilities", flaunts an image of a prototypical all-in-one PC in order to make the point that the form factor for Windows-based systems is evolving. Accompanying this image are a number of bullet points discussing everything from biometric recognition logins (the presentation later forecasts that "camera integration will likely be ubiquitous by 2012"), to voice control, to a touch display with "five or more contact points for improved sampling." Furthermore, a "Sensors" section alludes to support for features such as infrared proximity sensors, proximity-based sleep/wakes, and light sensors that automatically adjust screen brightness to suit ambient room and environment conditions.
This is a look at two of the "Discussion" slides that were allegedly leaked from a Microsoft OEM presentation earlier this year.
It also seems clear that Windows 8 will have its head in the cloud, so to speak. According to the leaked "discussion," Windows will evolve from a machine-based system to a user-based one. In theory, Windows customer accounts will be connected to the cloud. Remote PCs will log onto websites on behalf of users, and cloud-ensconced settings and preferences will follow users from one device to another.
What's more, the leaked slides put forth the concept of a cloud-based "Windows Store", ostensibly Microsoft's take on Apple's App Store. In the ideal scenario envisioned by the PowerPoint deck's discussion, consumers will be able to purchase applications online that "they can use on any Windows device", and where developers can get a big helping hand to "reach millions of users".
Other notable innovations on the table for discussion include instant (or near-instant) on, improved diagnostics and hardware/software monitoring, and support for a one-touch "reset" button that not only reinstalls Windows but retains the entire user environment, including settings, personal files, and applications. If the leaked material can be believed, an emphasis will be placed on being able to "connect end users to the right help when they need it", which is no small challenge given the preponderance of software and hardware developers.
Interestingly, when the presentation discusses target formfactors, it does so without referencing the stalwart desktop PC. Instead, the three "centers of gravity" include all-in-ones, laptops and slates.
What Won't We See?
Not surprisingly, when we asked our panel of independent hardware vendors what they wanted in Windows 8, we received a wide range of responses. Most of them took the time to laud Windows 7 for being stable and fast. One of our panel members, Kelt Reeves, owner of Falcon Northwest, told us his company is still riding high on Windows 7 sales, so much so that his only hope for Windows 8, "Is that they don't mess up all the progress they've made with Win7!"
Given what seems to be a two-year development cycle as opposed to the traditional five-year cycle - more on this below - it's likely that Microsoft won't introduce any major new underlying technology in Windows 8. Given the stability and reliability of the NT kernel that has served as the foundation for all recent versions of Windows, it's unlikely we'll see any significant changes there. And, given the satisfaction that hardware manufacturers and users alike have expressed regarding Aero as implemented in Windows 7, it's unlikely we'll see any significant changes in the interface schema itself, aside from touchscreen enhancements.
What Will We See?
Instead, what we - and everyone we spoke to - expects to see in Windows 8 is a shift in focus from system-based computing to user-based computing. This is no small task - the implications of this shift are massive, with thousands of ripple-effect ramifications. We also expect to see performance boosts and feature implementation designed to ward off not just Apple, but Google's Android and Chrome operating systems, as well. Windows 7's relative stability should greatly aid Microsoft in this pursuit because the company can focus on adding features as opposed to fixing bugs. "Windows is under fire from all sides - with iOS and Android/Chrome threatening them," one of our off-the-record OEMs told us. "It still has incredible momentum and is not going away, but the OS of the future needs to be more nimble and responsive."
As always, faster boot times will be a goal, and the onset of SSDs - which we're betting will be ubiquitous by the end of next year in mid-end to high-end systems - will help. "We are asking Microsoft for boot times of under 30 seconds," one manufacturer told us. With the constantly evolving power of the PC platform, we won't be surprised to see the next version of Windows booting in less than 20 seconds.
Almost every one of our experts was adamant in insisting that Windows implement an instant-on mode. In an ideal world, and a stable OS, boot times will take a back seat because instant-on is essentially the same thing as waking up from standby. Either way, the feature is a no-brainer with all the media streaming and remote access sure to come in future iterations of all operating systems. To date, display-driver instability and incompatibility continue to thwart fast system wake-ups. Microsoft will have to address the third-party driver situation at the code and distribution levels. No big surprise here: We'll see a more effective means of certifying and automatically distributing these drivers.
Let's get the other no-brainer enhancements out of the way now, also. Universal requests include deeper calendar/contact integration and social network integration-preferably at the desktop level as opposed to the browser or application level. Given the popularity of Android's highly dynamic desktop, we also expect to see more useful and functional application-style widgets, multiple desktop views that we can change based on the context and situation, and improved taskbar and desktop notifications. There's obvious room for improvement around troubleshooting, diagnostics and self-healing.
Enough of the small stuff-let's take a look at the bigger features and functionalities we can expect to see in Windows 8.
Apps & Gaming
Every year Microsoft, Apple and Google keep expanding their spheres of influence by acquiring, mimicking or duplicating third-party software makers' applications and services. We're betting that for Windows 8, Microsoft applies the lessons Valve and Apple have learned with Steam and the App Store.
The next iteration of Windows will have tighter built-in integration with games and other applications via a built-in games/applications manager. Origin PC founder Kevin Wasielewski agrees. "Although Mobile Phone 7 will include Marketplace," he told us, "it will be nice to see this carry over to Windows 8. Programs installed should function more like apps, with updates, in-game purchases and more." Valve's Steam client is the perfect model here. In Windows 8, app management, updates and even purchases will all be seamlessly and automatically managed, with no need for install discs or serial keys. We're drooling for cloud-based saves that will allow us to play games across multiple systems.
Valve's Steam gaming client has caught on like wildfire in recent years. It's an ideal app/gaming marketplace client, and we should see something similar in Windows 8.
The truth is, Microsoft already has a marketplace. It's called Xbox Live. The company also already has a framework for independent game development with its XNA software developer's kit, which is capable of running on Windows, Xbox 360, Windows Mobile, and Zune. The real secret sauce could be Microsoft's ability to encourage and allow users to migrate their apps, games and gaming content between devices, or permit access to games via remote connection. Wasielewski adds, "OnLive is cool, but I am limited to their content and possibly their bandwidth during heavy use. I'd like the ability to remotely connect to my slick gaming PC or server at home and remotely play my games from another location and/or my mobile device."
We're starting to get sick of hearing about Cloud Computing - it feels like an obvious evolution, and one that's actually been around for quite some time - but it will be extremely relevant as Microsoft shifts to a cloud-based, user-first architecture in Windows 8. But what does this mean in terms of actual features? First, companies like Dropbox, Carbonite and other cloud-based storage and backup services should be concerned, because Windows 8 will include built-in support at the File Manager level for Windows SkyDrive, which will allow us to save and access files from anywhere and on any device.
With SkyDrive, Microsoft already has its Dropbox killer. We can expect to see SkyDrive fully integrated into the File Manager in the next version of Windows.
Along similar lines, we'll finally see robust implementation of Microsoft's entire Office suite via Office Live. The big difference is that it will be built into the OS itself. We envision Microsoft implementing a pricing scheme similar to Xbox Live here-various recurring monthly or annual subscriptions will grant users access to Office Live applications, cloud services, video/movies, and the Windows app marketplace.
To date, virtualisation feels under-utilised, and we expect this to begin to change with Windows 8. It's difficult to predict how this will play out though, aside from virtual application threads and quarantined safe zones for browsers and applications. One of the experts we consulted with for this story gave us an interesting idea by suggesting that Microsoft implement a "high-performance mode for gaming that turns off unnecessary BS services and tasks with a simple click". Agreed. We took this sentiment a step further and began to contemplate the possibilities of combining hardware-accelerated virtualisation with cloud-based gaming services. Imagine a service like OnLive that uses virtualisation, but also provides unfettered, no-latency access to your PC's hardware layer.
Virtualisation could also be utilised to enhance remote connectivity and interoperability between mobile devices and Windows. It's not too big a reach imagining Microsoft coming up with an application that leverages the company's VirtualPC technology to allow users to fully and automatically connect to and use their mobile device within the Windows OS. Virtualisation could be used to duplicate and host such an environment, which we'll dub the "Windows Teleporter". This would be easy to accomplish with the Windows Mobile OS, but would obviously require more complicated (and conflict-laden) solutions with BlackBerry, Android and iOS.
Windows 7 included support for the Trim function, which allows the operating system to communicate with a solid-state drive about which sectors are OK for garbage collecting and made consumer use of solid-state drives practical. However, SSD space is limited and is best used for applications, not documents. Windows 7's Library feature made it easy to set default libraries to link to external drives, but to truly offload all documents meant fiddling with symbolic linking to fool programs that save to the C: drive no matter where they're stored. As such, we expect Windows 8 to include greater separation between apps and data (like Linux), and allow for total dissociation between the OS partition and document and data storage - or at least include a wizard for moving the Documents folder.
On the other end of the spectrum, expect support for bootable partitions greater than 2TB. This is supported in 64-bit versions of Windows since Vista, but they need UEFI bootloaders and GPT partitions. Windows 8 and the hunger for bigger storage will drive UEFI adoption.
The Living Room and Beyond
One final thought: We're betting that Windows 8 spells the end of the Windows Media Center layer as well as the Windows Media Player itself. The direction Microsoft has pursued with Xbox Live makes us think Zune will become the foundation for all Windows-oriented media in the same manner that iTunes is for Apple.
TV and Home Theatre is one category where Microsoft has strong offerings, but attaching an entire OS to an HDTV or even to a low-end all-in-one PC doesn't make sense. One request we heard repeatedly from our experts was for a version of Windows that is "smaller and has lower specs for low-cost appliances such as HDTV, but with the full Windows shell and GUI", as one boutique systems manufacturer put it.
We expect to see Windows Media Center stripped down for installation on appliances such as HDTVs and low-end all-in-one PCs.
So, when will Windows 8 make its debut? One of the slides in the leaked discussion presentation indicates a beta release in mid 2012, with a full release at the end of the year. This would be a greatly accelerated release schedule for Microsoft, which has previously released new versions of Windows every five years or so.
This said, we're betting that the release of Windows 7 marks a development-cycle shift for Microsoft from five-year cycles to two-year cycles. Why? Apple does it, and Android does too. In today's rapidly changing environment, five years is too long to wait for even a minor iteration of a major operating system. We're calling late 2012 on this one.
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