Still a year or more from final release, the next version of Windows has been making its fair share of appearances on leak sites in recent months. Codenamed Windows Next, the OS release we've come to know as Windows 8 will look much like its recent predecessors on the surface, but looks to be getting a serious revamp from the kernel up.
The rumours are coming in fast but, as with any unreleased software, it's hard to be certain which of the rumoured features will make it into the final product, which will wind up on the cutting room floor, and which never existed in the first place. We've taken a look at all the rumours, all the leaked screenshots, and a few screens we're pretty sure were flat-out faked, and we're ready to make a few prognostications about what to expect in Windows 8. We'll approach this category-by-category.
In part because of its massive installed base in the business world, Microsoft has been slow to move on storage trends over the years. While power users have grown accustomed to relying on third-party tools for handling disc images and drive maintenance tasks, the company has been sitting on a new file system for years.
ISO Mounting While other desktop OSes (Mac OS X, Linux) include the ability to handle disc images as a matter of basic functionality, Windows has lagged lamentably in this area. As recently as Windows Vista, users needed third-party tools to burn a disc image to a CD. And while Windows 7 can now write a disc image, it can't mount and read one. According to a variety of rumour forums, however, this feature will finally come baked into Windows 8.
ISO mounting won't mean much to the average user, but power users and system administrators will be able to use it to standardise installations across multiple systems, preserve reliable system images for posterity, and quickly deploy virtual machines. Given the gradual pace of change in recent Windows versions' support for disc images, this feature seems very likely to see the light of day in the final release.
Probability of actually appearing in Windows 8: 70%
To help users manage disk space, Microsoft appears to have revamped the Disk Cleanup utility for Windows 8. Unlike the relatively simplistic tool in Windows 7, the enhanced utility showing up in Windows 8 pre-release builds includes options that let you sort files by size and type. This should make it much easier to reclaim disk space quickly by targeting temporary files and quickly spotting the biggest space hogs on your hard drive.
In a move that usurps the role of third-party portable workspace utilities, Microsoft looks to be integrating a new feature called Portable Workspaces into Windows 8. Based on screenshots and videos leaked from an April build of Windows 8, Portable Workspaces will let users create a portable image of their system on any USB drive with at least 16GB of available capacity (16GB drives with 15.7GB of available space don't appear to work).
From what we've seen, it appears Portable Workspaces will create a streamlined clone of your desktop, user settings, and essential apps, so you can plug your USB drive into any PC and boot quickly into a familiar Windows experience. The leaked demos look surprisingly good, and we'd be surprised if this feature doesn't make it into the final product.
While Windows XP SP2 introduced a useful file-versioning feature called Shadow Copy, relatively few end users ever realised this feature existed. Even now, in Windows 7, it remains obscure and mostly inaccessible to ordinary users. A leaked Windows 8 feature called History Vault appears poised to bring Shadow Copy into the light of day.
Early screenshots of History Vault look eerily similar to Apple's Time Machine feature in OS X. We're not knocking the knock-off. If History Vault's timed, incremental backups of changed files prove half as usable as Time Machine, it might finally make backup a part of everyday life for users in the real world.
WinFS Since 2003, Microsoft has been working on a new Windows file system capable of detecting and using relationships between various chunks of data on a PC. WinFS (the "FS" stands for Future Storage) incorporates features of SQL relational database servers to intelligently find connections between files and surface them to applications. A common example of this might be a version of Windows Explorer capable of automatically discovering photos of a specific person and displaying them in chronological order.
WinFS was expected to launch as part of Windows Vista in 2006, but never made the final cut due to technical difficulties. Microsoft has made no announcements about the filesystem's chances of appearing in Windows 8, and we've yet to see credible evidence that it's coming. If WinFS does actually surface in the next Windows, we'll be surprised and delighted.
Windows 8 seems likely to be the most deeply internet-connected version of Windows yet, with a barrel of new features aimed at making web browsing more central to the user experience, syncing user data to the cloud, and protecting users from malicious code.
Internet Explorer 10 Despite constant revamping over the past decade (and the fact that IE comes preinstalled on every Windows PC, Microsoft's share of the browser market continues to decline in the face of growth for Google Chrome and Opera. So even though IE9 is barely out of diapers, development of IE10 continues at what looks to be a pretty brisk pace. Will it be ready in time for Windows 8? You betcha.
The most interesting browser enhancements we've run across for Windows 8 is a feature Microsoft calls Immersive Browser. Apparently based on the mobile browser in Windows Phone 7, Immersive Browser will presumably use the IE rendering engine within a simplified full-screen interface that will make the most of tablet displays. To get more web onto the screen, Microsoft reduced the number of menu options to Forward, Back, Address, Reload and Favorite.
Some leaked screens also reveal a tiled interface similar to the Metro UI in Windows Phone 7, which would display web links as tiles across the immersive browser screen for quick navigation. This feature looks like it would be more useful in a tablet than on a PC, but it may work for both. Given all the other tablet-friendly features we're seeing in the leaked code, we suspect Immersive Browser is a lock for the gold release.
SmartScreen Download Filter Internet Explorer 9 includes a reputation-based phishing filter called SmartScreen, which checks files, links, and sites against a reputation database before loading them in the browser. Early Windows 8 builds appear to be pulling this feature deeper into the operating system to give users the ability to check files against SmartScreen before allowing them to launch. These options have been spotted under the View tab in the Folder menu as user-selectable features. We have little doubt that they'll make it to the retail product.
Cloud Storage Despite curmudgeonly resistance from a certain segment of self-described power users, the cloud is now an integral part of mainstream computing. Microsoft has been pushing hard to catch up with third-party services like Dropbox and SugarSync with its LiveMesh syncing service, which lets users sync folders on their PC to a Windows Live account.
Leaked screenshots from Windows 8 alpha builds show code that apparently integrates cloud syncing directly into the operating system itself. It's unclear whether this will simply allow users to link their LiveMesh/SkyDrive account to Windows 8, or if this kind of functionality will be extended to third-party cloud storage services as well.
Push Notifications Digging through DLL files in the alpha code, inquisitive minds have uncovered signs of push-notification support in Windows 8. This comes as little surprise, given the operating system's other tablet-friendly features. While we have no clear evidence about how push notifications will work in the next Windows, it seems probable that they'll be able to do things like trigger a noise or flash a light when an email comes in, or announce a request for a video chat. We're looking forward to seeing more of this in the beta.
User Account Features
So far, we've spotted few changes to the way Windows 8 will manage user accounts, but two interesting features have popped up on the rumour forums.
Guest Mode Guest accounts have long proven tricky for desktop operating systems. While the idea of letting just anyone log onto a PC and use it temporarily sounds nice in theory, that convenience comes with its fair share of security concerns. The Windows 7 beta included a decent stab at a Guest Mode feature that did this pretty well, but it didn't make the final cut. Turns out it's harder than you might think to create a temporary user account with enough system access to be useful, without opening up the machine to deep security threats that put the primary user's files at risk. Will Guest Mode reappear in Windows 8? We have no idea at this point, but we suspect Microsoft hasn't stopped working on the feature and we think there's a better than 50/50 chance that it'll ship.
There's nothing especially new about the idea of facial recognition. It helped HAL track Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a number of PC manufacturers have shipped systems touting this feature over the past few years. In practice, however, the ability of consumer PCs to accurately spot faces has proved, well, spotty.
Back in April, Windows8Italia.com — which has been a leading force in uncovering Windows 8 features from inside the code —l eaked news of a Windows 8 API called "Detect human presence", which likely integrates face recognition into the OS. If legit, this feature would be consistent with other leaked information out of Redmond, which suggests Microsoft has been counting on the pervasive presence of webcams to power such a feature.
The big question here is not whether Microsoft is working on facial recognition. We know that they are. Our lingering scepticism centres primarily around the quality of the user experience and Microsoft's ability to make facial recognition work well enough that people will actually want to use it. If the feature's accuracy is less than 95 per cent, it'll earn Windows 8 more jeers than cheers from people who can't easily log into their PCs. So we won't blame Microsoft if this one doesn't appear on launch day.
Ever want to nuke your OS back to bedrock and get a fresh start with your PC? Screens leaked by a Chinese Windows site show the presence of a feature called System Reset that appears to do just this. The menu description for the feature reads, "Remove all programs you've installed and restore default Windows settings. You can choose to keep user accounts and personal files."
For those who like to occasionally reinstall windows as a way of reducing bloat, this could be a real boon. And for system administrators, it could be a huge timesaver in managing loaner systems. Whether System Reset would pose any potential security risks in administrative scenarios remains to be seen, but the feature sounds almost as plausible as it does cool.
So far, the screenshots we've seen of Windows 8 don't appear substantially different from those of Windows 7. It may be that Microsoft just hasn't applied all of the interface changes it's toying with, but so far we don't see too many changes worth getting excited or irritated about. Here are two tweaks worth talking about.
One of the most noticeable interface tweaks in Windows 8 pre-release builds is the proliferation of ribbon menus throughout Windows Explorer. Already present in included apps such as Paint and Word Pad, the ribbon interface adds a host of new buttons to the Windows Explorer menu. From the screens we've seen, it looks like the new interface will put more of the classic menu options within one-click accessibility, eliminating the need to click Edit, Select all, for instance (or learn the hotkeys, for that matter).
Of less impact to usability, but potentially more interesting to everyday users, is a leaked feature called Aero Autocolor. This simple menu option in the Window colour and Appearance control panel empowers Windows to automatically change the desktop colour scheme to match the dominant colour in your wallpaper. So if you have green rolling hills as your background, Windows would auto-select a hue from the wallpaper and apply it to window borders. Will this be preferable to window transparency? We can't say.
Computers and phones have long since morphed beyond the basic functions for which they were originally invented and become, among other things, entertainment devices. So how will Microsoft respond to this trend?
Windows App Store The most prevalent content-related rumour in the Windows 8 universe is that Microsoft is working on an app store. This is hardly a shock. Microsoft has already attempted to copy Apple's retail store model, and nearly every major platform now supports an app market of some kind. Sometimes imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; other times it's just good business. We think a Windows app store just makes sense, and could potentially prove more successful than the Mac App Store, given Microsoft's massive installed base. Our biggest question on this one is whether Microsoft's entry into the arena could spark antitrust inquiries into the practice of first-party app markets, thereby posing problems not just for Windows 8 but for Android and iOS as well.
At long last, Microsoft seems to be building PDF support directly into Windows with an app called Modern Reader. Presumably, Modern Reader will read a whole lot more than just PDFs, just as Preview does on the Mac. We're filing this one under D for "duh, it's about time."
For more than a decade, Microsoft has laboured unsuccessfully to get people to buy Windows tablets. First there was the Tablet PC, then the Project Origami UMPC tablets (which, surprisingly, still exist), and more recently the HP Slate, which we're pretty sure only a few people-all of whom were relatives of HP or Microsoft employees-bought. To counter this consistent flatline of interest and to capitalise on the current touch tablet craze, Microsoft is making a few moves to optimise Windows 8 for the slate.
System On Chip Support How do we know Microsoft is making Windows 8 for tablets? Because Ballmer basically told us so. In his keynote address at CES in January, big Stevie B. demonstrated a "future version of Windows with the current interface" running on an ARM processor, and spent a long time talking about the massive role the diminutive System On Chip (SOC) architecture will play in the company's future. Intel's Renee James confirmed this earlier this week when he stated that Microsoft will release multiple versions of Windows 8 for both x86 and ARM, including four distinct builds for the latter. What this means is clear: Windows 8 will be designed to run on low-power chips from ARM, Qualcomm, AMD, Intel and Texas Instruments. What form this functionality takes is not clear yet, however.
Touch Interface Taking SOC support as a given, the next Windows would be doomed on tablets without some serious improvements to the touch interface. Unsurprisingly, the Windows 8 rumour forums are awash in chatter about touch-friendly improvements throughout the upcoming OS, many of which appear to have been adapted directly from Windows Phone 7.
In what clearly looks like a major concession to the tablet form factor, early builds of Windows 8 include the option of a pattern login screen similar to that of the Android OS. In YouTube videos showing the feature (most of which now appear to have been removed at Microsoft's request, which likely corroborates their legitimacy), the pattern screen consists of a 16-block grid, which would allow for more complex security patterns than Android's 9-block grid. As far as we're concerned, this pattern login screen is a done deal for Windows 8, and lends an air of near certainty to reports of more comprehensive touch interface enhancements.
While a great many unknowns remain in the months leading up to Windows 8's debut, there are a few more forthcoming features that we do have some good information about.
Modern Windows Task Manager
Power users will get quicker access to the Windows Resource Monitor and Task Manager through a single control panel redubbed Modern Windows Task Manager. There's little in the way of new functionality here, but the merged control panels will make quicker work out of spotting resource hogs and shutting them down with one click.
Probability of actually appearing in Windows 8: 90%
Hybrid Boot To speed up boot times, Microsoft seems to have worked up a new method of shutting down and starting up known as Hybrid Boot. This approach reportedly works more like hibernation than actual shutdown, leaving lots of data cached for ready retrieval when the system is fully powered up again. Leaked screens also show an option to revert the system to conventional shutdown mode for users who'd rather conserve power. Also, it looks like Hybrid Boot will not alter the way Windows restart works.
Probability of actually appearing in Windows 8: 80%
Genuine Center We know you've all been waiting for this one, so we won't hold out on you any longer: Yes, Windows 8 will have the long-awaited Genuine Center feature that will finally lay to rest all your worries about the possibility that your copy of Windows 8 might not be the real deal.
OK, so we're being sarcastic, but you had to know this was coming. Microsoft's war on software piracy has long masqueraded as a user service, and the Genuine Center looks like little more than a continuation of that trend. In this menu, you'll be able to enter or change your licence key and view the status of your license's genuineness. Microsoft to users: you're welcome.
Probability of actually appearing in Windows 8: 100%