Heading Into BUILD, What We Know About Windows 8

Next week, Microsoft will host its inaugural BUILD conference, an amalgamation of previous Microsoft conferences such as PDC (Professional Developers Conference), WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference), and MIX (which typically targets web and phone developers). But unlike those other shows, BUILD is owned and run by the Windows Division at Microsoft, and it has only one aim: To reveal Windows 8 to the world.

Thanks to leaks of various Windows 8 pre-release builds and, more recently, Microsoft’s decision to finally start talking publicly about Windows 8, we already know quite a bit about our next desktop OS. And although you can expect an explosion of Windows 8 information in the weeks and months ahead—indeed, this will be a major focus topic for at least the next year, as well as the subject matter of at least one book I'll write—I think you'll be surprised by how much we already know.

Schedule. As I exclusively revealed back in July on the Windows Weekly podcast, Microsoft will release a developer preview of Windows 8 at BUILD. This was originally supposed to be feature complete, but this past week Microsoft president Steve Sinofsky implicitly admitted that the company was behind schedule on Windows 8 when he revealed that the preview build wouldn’t include several features that are slated for Windows 8, including Media Center, the built-in games (apparently unchanged since Windows 7), Windows DVD Creator, .NET 3.5, and, curiously, the Upgrade version of Setup (which suggests that the preview will allow only clean installs).

That said, I expect to see a single public beta by the end of 2011, although a January 2012 launch also makes plenty of sense. This will be followed by one release candidate (RC) build in 1H 2012 and the release to manufacturing (RTM) and general availability (GA) versions by mid-year. Some have placed the Windows 8 launch at April 2012, which is certainly possible. But given the recent delays in getting all features into the preview build, that date is starting to look a bit optimistic.

Two major user experiences. Back in May, Microsoft revealed that it would replace the Windows Start Menu with a new full-screen Start Screen that will be the default Windows user experience, allowing users to launch two kinds of applications. The first are new, full-screen application packages based on HTML5 (HTML/JavaScript/CSS) and, according to some internal digging by my Windows 8 Secrets co-author Rafael Rivera, Silverlight/C#-based application packages (AppX files) modeled after those used by Windows Phone. The second are traditional (i.e., legacy) Windows applications, and if users are more comfortable with the old Windows desktop—or a business prefers this aging UI because of training issues—they can switch to that as well. My expectation is that Microsoft will move Windows more to the Start Screen model as we move forward and eventually obsolete and then remove the classic Windows desktop.

Start Screen and HTML5 apps are "touch first," not "touch only." If there's one thing that people get confused about with Windows 8, it's the new Start Screen and its HTML5 apps. Folks, these interfaces are not just for touch screens and tablets. They're for every Windows user, whether you're using mouse and keyboard, touch/multi-touch, stylus, hand controller/remote control, Kinect voice control, or whatever. The point here isn't to force people to use touch. It's to provide a UI that works equally well across all Windows interaction devices.

Internet Explorer 10. Microsoft will ship Windows 8 with IE 10, which is currently in development separately. But IE 10 isn't just an app in Windows 8, it's also the basis for the HTML5 application platform, and as such it might mark an interesting turn of events where the integration of IE and Windows is finally technically true and not just a marketing move, as it was in the past. IE 10 will also provide a new full-screen mode when launched from the Start Screen, and it will very closely resemble the version of IE found on Windows Phone 7.5. Rafael and I revealed the IE 10 UI back in April.

Welcome screen. The Windows 8 Welcome screen—which Rafael and I exclusively revealed in April—is also modeled after the similar UI in Windows Phone. It will support a pattern-based password (as in Android devices today), as well as music playback controls.

Windows Explorer. The file manager in Windows is getting a major update in Windows 8, despite the new emphasis on the Start Screen and full-screen apps. Again, Rafael and I exclusively revealed that the new Windows Explorer would sport a ribbon-based interface back in April, but Microsoft confirmed this last month and provided more details about how it arrived at this controversial UI.

In addition to the ribbon UI, Explorer is of course getting other updates. The traditional Start Menu is gone, because it's being replaced by the full-screen Start Screen. But if you tap the Start button in the Windows 8 desktop, you'll get a new, shorter menu that provides all the system restart/sleep options you current see on the fly-out menu in Windows 7. And Windows 8 is picking up automatic Aero colorization, too, so that you configure the glass parts of Explorer windows to mimic the color of the desktop wallpaper.

Finally, Microsoft is moving its IE-based SmartScreen technology to Windows Explorer, providing the same level of protection against malware outside of the browser. This makes sense, because files arrive on your PC from many places.

Modern Reader. Windows 8 will include a native PDF reader, similar to Preview in Mac OS X. It's called Modern Reader, and if I'm reading between the lines correctly, I suspect that it will work with XPS documents as well. Once again, the news about Modern Reader was another exclusive courtesy of Rafael and me.

Windows App Store. The name isn't certain yet, but Microsoft is including an application store in Windows that's modeled after the one in Windows Phone. (And, of course, in Apple's App Stores for iOS and OS X.)

History Vault. Microsoft appears to be consolidating a bunch of previous separate backup and data redundancy features—Windows Backup, Previous Versions, and so on—into a single interface called History Vault. Some will claim that History Vault is a rip-off of Apple's Time Machine feature, but that's unfair, because the features it consolidates have been in Windows for years—and certainly since before Time Machine ever existed.

Step-by-step install. Ever wish you could blow away Windows but retain your data, settings, and installed applications? It's coming in Windows 8, and if this feature works as expected, it means you can safely and reliably reinstall Windows in minutes without destroying all your customizations and data. This feature is long overdue and could in fact be Windows 8's killer app.

ISO and VHD mounting. Rafael confirmed that Windows 8 would natively mount ISO files in Explorer way back in April, but Microsoft confirmed this news last month and added news about virtual hard disk (VHD) mounting as well. That latter bit isn't a huge surprise, because you can actually do this now in Windows 7, but you need to know what you're doing.

Some curious requirements. Microsoft showed off some interesting features of its full-screen HTML5 apps, but the most curious, perhaps, was a new version of Aero Snap that lets you tile two of the apps on screen, next to each other, at the same time. What's so curious about this? According to Microsoft, this requires a screen that’s at least 1366 ´ 768. So all those tablets and PCs out there with 1280 ´ 800 resolution are out of luck: You'll only be able to display one full-screen HTML5 app at a time on such a computer.

That said, Windows 8's actual hardware requirements are good news. In fact, if you meet the Windows 7 hardware requirements, you'll be able to run Windows 8. But it's even better than that: Some technical requirements are being detuned a bit for Windows 8, so this marks the first time that a new version of Windows has lower hardware requirements than its predecessor.

Also, Windows 8 will run on both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Intel-compatible processors, as well as ARM-based processors. The latter is a first, but note that ARM-based Windows 8 systems will not be able to run legacy Windows applications such as Office 2010; these systems will only be able to run the built-in apps and whatever new, HTML5-based apps appear.

And . . . that's most of it. But as I said, we can expect a ton of new information about Windows 8—and of course Windows Server 8—in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

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