Microsoft Surface, Windows Phone 8 and 7.8, and the Latest Windows OSs

It’s been an amazing summer for Microsoft, with back-to-back announcements spanning a wide range of products and product categories. And if you thought news of the Windows 8 Release Preview and Windows Server 2012 Release Candidate was big, well, hang on to your hats. The hottest summer in Microsoft’s history is just getting started.

Microsoft Surface

In mid June, Microsoft began inviting journalists and tech bloggers to a mystery, invitation-only event in Los Angeles but wouldn’t provide any details. It was a blockbuster: At the event, Microsoft announced that it was getting into the PC hardware business for the first time and was launching a new series of hardware devices branded as Surface (see Figure 1 below). (Yes, it's the same name that was previously used by a niche lineup of touch-based tablets.)

Thurrott Fig1 Surface
Microsoft Surface

The first two new Surface products, called Surface for Windows RT and Surface for Windows 8, respectively, are nearly identical-looking slate tablet devices. And they are incredible.

The devices run on completely different architectures, with the Windows RT version, of course, using an NVIDIA Tegra 3–based ARM architecture and the Windows 8 version being a typical Intel-based PC with Core i5 innards; the Windows 8 version comes with Windows 8 Pro, not the “Core” version of Windows 8. They both utilize 10.6-inch widescreen displays, with a unique new VaporMg form factor, incorporating a built-in kickstand. From there, however, the specs differ.

The Windows RT version is thinner (9.3 mm) and lighter (about 1.5 pounds) than the Windows 8 version, which comes in at 13.5 mm and just a hair under 2 pounds. The RT version will likely be quieter as well, since it has no fans, but Microsoft is touting a unique, edge-based cooling system for the Windows 8 version that could be effective.

The Windows RT version utilizes an HD screen running at 1366 × 768, ideal for Metro, including side-by-side app “snap” support. But the Windows 8 version hits full HD, with 1920 × 1080, a high DPI wonder that Apple would feel comfortable calling a “Retina” display.

From there, the other differences range from understandable to weird: The Windows RT version comes in variants with 32GB or 64GB of Flash-based storage, while the Windows 8 version sports 64GB or 128GB of storage. The Windows RT ports include microSD, USB 2.0, micro HDMI video out, and dual MIMO antennae, but the Windows 8 ports are microSDXC, USB 3.0, mini DisplayPort video out, and dual MIMO antennae. The Windows 8 version includes a stylus for tablet PC–style note taking and drawing with handwriting recognition.

Both Surface devices offer a choice of two keyboard cover types, the former of which comes in multiple colors. The Touch Cover provides an ultra-thin (3 mm) cover with integrated keyboard and, believe it or not, multi-touch track pad. But there’s also the slightly thicker Type Cover for those who need a real (rather than occasional) typing experience.

Microsoft says that the RT version of Surface will ship when Windows 8 and Windows RT become generally available (in September or October 2012), while the Windows 8 version will ship 90 days later. Although there’s no explanation for that little delta, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Surface.

Obvious questions include how much the devices will cost, whether this move will harm Microsoft’s relationship with hardware partners, and whether Surface can succeed where most Microsoft hardware—sans the Xbox 360—has failed.

But no matter. With Surface, Microsoft has injected a sense of excitement and made Windows 8—and Windows RT—suddenly very interesting indeed.

Windows Phone 8

Microsoft will deliver Windows Phone 8 in late 2012 alongside Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012. It’s based on the same code base as those products, which is rather amazing, utilizing the same kernel, networking stack, security, sensors, multimedia platform, web browser, and other components as Windows 8 and Windows RT.

And although it will run existing Windows Phone 7.x apps and games, it also will support new WinRT- and DirectX-based apps and games that are somewhat compatible with those for Windows 8, a brave new world indeed.

The issue, such as it is, is that Windows Phone 8 won't run on existing Windows Phone handsets. So a new generation of hardware devices will be required, making this transition as much of a reset as was the move from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone 7 in 2010.

That sounds bad, but the changes coming in Windows Phone 8 should calm some frayed nerves. This is a big, big release.

Indeed, the feature rundown on Windows Phone 8, even at this early stage—Microsoft didn’t reveal many new end-user features at its June Developer Preview event—is long and fairly amazing. It will support multi-core processors and three screen resolutions, 800 × 480 as on existing devices, plus two HD resolutions of 1280 × 720 and 1280 × 768. It will formally support removable and expandable microSD-based storage cards. It will feature always-on device encryption, much like Windows RT, as well as Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI)–based Secure Boot capabilities.

A new Data Smart feature aims to help users get the most out of their data plans and is based on the metered broadband connection capabilities in Windows 8. It will offer an integrated Skype app that looks and works much like the normal phone experience but also lets third-party apps achieve the same via integrated Rich Communications Suite (RCSe) capabilities.

And it will support Near Field Communications (NFC), not just for “tap and share” with other compatible devices, but also for an amazing Microsoft Wallet experience that outdoes both Apple’s and Google’s similar mobile capabilities.

The Windows Phone 8 camera app is fully extensible via new “lens” apps, with third parties being able to take over when the hardware camera button is pressed. New app-to-app communications capabilities will bring a Windows 8–like Share Charm functionality to Windows Phone and will support side-loading of line-of-business apps so that enterprises don’t need to go through the Windows Store.

From an end-user perspective, the big new feature is a revised Start screen experience, which does away with the confusing “gutter” of empty space on the right side of the screen, addressing key user complaints. But the big deal is a formalization of the live tile sizes, which will now include three sizes: normal (square), large (rectangular), and the new small size, which is one-quarter the size of normal.

What’s interesting here is that every single pinned app or tile can be adjusted by the user to all of these sizes; in Windows Phone 7.x, only Microsoft and wireless carrier tiles could be large. And Nokia’s Maps app is coming to Windows Phone 8, benefitting all users, and not just those who buy Lumia devices.

There are a ton of other improvements, but I’m running out of space. Be sure to check out my articles, Windows Phone 8 Unveiled and Windows Phone Summit, for more information.

Windows Phone 7.8

Windows Phone 8 isn’t the only smartphone release that Microsoft will make this year. The software giant is also offering a Windows Phone 7.8 release for existing customers that will provide the single best end-user feature in Windows Phone 8—the new Start screen—to those using current devices.

This won’t make everyone happy—I understand why current Windows Phone users are feeling abandoned—but when you consider the engineering headache of porting other features over to a relatively small user base, plus the fact that many of Windows Phone 8’s other new features essentially require new hardware, the decision makes sense.

Windows Server 2012 Product Editions

Windows Server 2012 was developed alongside Windows 8, but these products differed in some crucial ways that Microsoft underplayed during the prerelease period. For example, where Windows 8 didn’t really hit “feature complete” status (or at least nearly so) until its Release Preview (or Release Candidate) phase in mid year, its Server brother was feature complete back in February at beta. And that means that Windows Server 2012 is actually a bit more mature, if you will, than Windows 8.

But many questions remain. And the big one, for this release, has been what Microsoft intends to do in regards to product editions, or what’s still called, anachronistically, SKUs (stock-keeping units).

Windows Server 2008 R2, for example, is a great product line, but like Windows on the client, it’s a bit bogged down by a rather large number of product editions, which includes, but isn't confined to, Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter, Enterprise, Standard, Web Server, HPC, Foundation, and a version for Itanium-based systems. And let’s not forget related products such as Windows Small Business Server 2011 Standard, Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials, Windows Home Server 2011, Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials, and even Hyper-V Server 2008 R2. Whew.

For Windows Server 2012, Microsoft has really gotten the simplification bug. This time around, it offers only four mainstream SKUs: Windows Server 2012 Datacenter, Standard, Essentials, and Foundation. Datacenter works much like before, with per processor licensing starting at $4,809, and it features unlimited virtualized instances of the product (on the same hardware).

Standard kind of bridges the old Enterprise and Standard SKUs, costs $882 per processor, and provides two virtualized instances of the product (on the same hardware), up from just one in Windows 2008 R2 Standard.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials is a direct upgrade to Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials, costs $425, and supports small businesses up to 25 users.

But Microsoft is finally killing off its legacy Small Business Server Standard product line, which provided on-premises versions of Exchange, SharePoint, WSUS, and, optionally, SQL Server, an unnecessary cost and complexity in this era of cloud computing. Microsoft also killed off Windows Home Server, a beloved but poorly selling product.

The Foundation product is interesting. As with Windows 2008 R2, Windows Server 2012 Foundation will be OEM-only, meaning that the only way to acquire it will be with new low-end server hardware. Like Essentials, Foundation lacks Hyper-V, Branch Cache, and some other high-end features, and it targets environments with 15 or fewer users. I’m told that Storage Server will continue forward, but no word yet on an update for Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials.

Windows 8 Upgrade Pricing

Windows 8 is an amazing leap over its predecessor, but of course many IT pros, admins, and tech enthusiasts are a bit nervous about a new Windows version that bears more resemblance to mobile devices than it does to PC systems of the past. And this nervousness leads to questions about how Microsoft can convince users to upgrade their existing PCs to this new system.

Well, no worries. Microsoft has apparently figured it out.

First, anyone who buys a new Windows 7–based PC between now and February 28, 2013 can get an upgrade version of Windows 8 Pro directly from Microsoft for just $15. At that price, the upgrade is such a no-brainer that even those not sure about Windows 8 are sure to jump.

Next, and perhaps more interestingly, Microsoft is running a special promotion through which users of existing PCs—running any modern OS, from Windows XP on up—can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for just $40, starting at the time of Windows 8’s general availability and running through the end of January 2013. This is a tremendous deal, and one I’d like to see Microsoft make permanent.

I suspect Microsoft will find a lot of takers, after people begin perusing new Windows 8–based hardware in the fall—especially those new Surface tablets—and realize they want this system on all their PCs.

I’ve described this kind of pricing as a “Crazy Eddie” type promotion for good reason. But it’s crazy enough to work and, I think, silence the doubters for good.

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