Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 "Reimagining" and Whither Windows Phone?

I've written separately and exhaustively about Windows "8" and Windows Server "8"—yes, both are still code names—but as you might expect with such major upgrades, there's a lot to discuss. So I'd like to focus on the Windows 8 and Windows Server 8 issues I didn't have time to address inmy formal reviews.

Better Together?

You have to go back a decade to Windows 2000 to find a set of Windows client and server releases that is as monumental in scope as those in the Windows 8 generation.

The Win2K release, as you may recall, ushered in Active Directory (AD), DFS, disk encryption and many other features we take for granted today.

Windows 8, by comparison, offers the first major replacement of the Windows shell since 1995 and the first major replacement for the Windows runtime engine since, well, forever.

Windows Server 8 overhauls how servers are managed by letting admins address multiple machines simultaneously, from a central console. And Microsoft takes major steps toward a UNIX-like future by remoting the Windows Server management interfaces, helping to ensure that fewer admins will ever have to sit in front of a server and manage it interactively.

With Win2K, and with subsequent jointly-released Microsoft products, the software giant often rolled out "better together" marketing initiatives, suggesting that while either product was great on its own, only by implementing both would you realize the true power of an integrated solution.

So what about Windows 8 and Windows Server 8? Are they "better together"?

So far, it doesn't appear so. But that might not be a negative. While Microsoft does seem to be largely ignoring the business market with Windows 8 in order to more strongly focus on consumers, I understand why Microsoft would want to make Windows 8 look and work like Windows 7 in tightly-controlled corporate environments. That’s because businesses that belatedly performed their migrations from Windows XP to Windows 7 aren't about to do it all again so quickly. So businesses that are looking for continuity can roll out both Windows 7 and 8 and achieve a relatively consistent, training-free mixed environment.

And let's be clear here: Windows Server 8 is a huge upgrade for businesses, one that will have ramifications a decade down the road, just as Win2K does today. Therefore staggering the big client and server changes as Microsoft appears to be doing does make some sense.

Something New

If any aspect of Windows 8 is controversial, it's the new Metro-style UI. That’s understandable, as it's so different from what came before.

And it appears, in this early look, to offer only super-simple, full-screen apps that couldn't possibly deliver the power and functionality of complicated "classic" Windows applications like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop.

Wrong again, everyone.

To be fair, the issue here isn't your lack of imagination, but rather Microsoft's inability to communicate not just the obvious but something that’s frankly quite excellent. But that's fine, Microsoft. I can handle it for you.

Microsoft says that Windows 8 represents a "reimagining" of Windows and, surprisingly, it does. There's a completely new runtime engine, right on top of the kernel, called WinRT that takes the syntactical elegance of .NET and supplies it with on-the-metal performance.

Developers have their choice of three basic environments for writing WinRT apps—those apps that appear in the Windows 8 Start screen—including DirectX (for games), and two sets of programming languages and presentation layers. The first is JavaScript plus HTML and CSS, and the second is XAML plus your choice of high-level language (C#, Visual Basic, and more, but also C++ or even C). Those latter two environments offer identical functionality and almost identical performance.

WinRT apps share a common platform, and Microsoft provides a ton of built-in controls that developers can use to create consistent-looking applications (or not—their choice). They'll be able to sell those apps—assuming they meet Microsoft's strict compliance rules—via the new Windows Store.

In fact, that's the only place where consumers will be able to get new Windows apps (as opposed to old-school "applications"), providing users with a safe, consistent platform that is, in many ways, more similar to curated smartphone platforms like the iPhone or Windows Phone than the PC of old.

WinRT apps can take advantage of a standard set of system functions, too, including visual elements like the edge UIs—the Charms, which I’ll explain in a moment—as well as a set of contracts—for intra-app sharing, like the Windows Clipboard on steroids—or file pickers that work with the local file system and cloud storage simultaneously.

Multi-tasking is handled by the runtime too, and as with phone apps, Windows 8 apps that aren't displayed on the screen are suspended and, should the memory be needed, automatically shut down too. (Leading to my number-one Windows 8 email query so far: How do you shut down a Metro app? Answer: You don't.) But this is OK because Windows 8 apps also can't throw up a Save dialog: Data saving is automatic, always, as is app state.

Microsoft thus far has shown off only very simple apps, but the company tells me that very complex apps are not just possible but expected. Indeed, developers can write any app for WinRT that they'd previously write for Windows. The only exceptions are NT services, device drivers—and viruses.

Because WinRT apps are sandboxed from each other and from the OS, Windows 8 literally starts a new era of safer computing, one in which the bad guys are simply locked out of the system. App installs take two to three seconds, according to Microsoft, and no longer utilize the "spray your hard drive with files" approach of traditional Windows applications; instead, everything is written to a single, easily accessible (and removable) folder package. You know, like the Mac had a decade ago.

Put simply, Windows 8 is “a fire hose of new” from a platforms perspective. And by the time you read this, that fact will have begun slowly dawning on developers everywhere. It's going to be exciting.
Not bad for an OS whose version number—yes, seriously—is 6.2.

Something Old, Something New

Whether you're a PC user or an administrator of servers, it seems like Microsoft changes interfaces with every Windows release. This has never been truer than with Windows 8 and Windows Server 8, and if you're a complainer, this is going to be a target-rich environment.

With Windows 8, it’s most obvious via the new Start screen. Windows 8 also provides a new environment for full-screen apps, a new notification system, a new set of so-called Edge UIs that are available through the OS, and other new interfaces and panels that will keep OS geeks busy for months to come.

Furthermore, because the way you interact with Windows 8 differs somewhat between mouse and keyboard, touch, and pen, the ways in which you access certain UIs or features varies from mode to mode as well. Take the Charms, a set of five icons that appears on the right side of the screen when you swipe in from that screen's edge with your finger.

When using a mouse and keyboard, you make the Charms appear by mousing over the lower left corner of the screen—where the Start button used to be—but not clicking. This makes a bit of sense, since users are familiar with mousing over to the old Start button location.

But it's so different from how Charms are otherwise accessed, that it requires you to remember both methods, since most people will use a combination of input methods.

This is just a single example, but typical of Windows 8. I've decided to just embrace it all. With great change comes new learning—we should expect this and move on.

With Windows Server 8, the user experience changes are just as vast. Yes, a Windows Server 8-based server boots into Server Manager by default as it does with its predecessors. But Server Manager is a completely different animal, an immersive Metro-style app with flat UIs, multiple panels of information, and the ability to manage multiple servers simultaneously.

And as I predicted months ago, Windows Server 8 does indeed utilize the Windows 8 Start screen as well; it comes preloaded with tiles for useful management interfaces, and as you install new roles and features, tiles for those capabilities are auto-added to the Start screen too.

Performance Matters

While the Apple-friendly press and various tech pundits are trying to rewrite history as it happens by obfuscating the relative success of the iPad with the relatively slow growth of the PC market, the numbers are simple: At its most successful, the market for iPads and iPad-like tablets will be one-tenth the size of the still-growing PC market this year. At best.

But the iPad does bring some useful capabilities to market, not the least of which are the device's performance. Say what you will about the Fisher Price-like qualities of the iPad, but the thing is fast.
If the Developer Preview is any indication, Windows 8 is going to be bringing iPad-like performance to the PC market.

I've seen boot times of five to eight seconds on all of my own PCs. I've seen Windows 8 wipe out the entire install, reinstall Windows, then reapply all of my custom settings, documents, and Metro-style apps—in just five minutes.

Windows 8 (and Windows Server 8) also employs some cute tricks to bolster overall performance in small but meaningful ways. Take Windows Update, please. Windows 8 will download updates in the background and intelligently install those that don't require reboots first.

What's unclear, currently, is whether Microsoft can wrangle the kind of reliability one expects and gets from the iPad into a traditional PC, regardless of the form factor and the variety of devices and components it utilizes. The Developer Preview build we have now is far too early—and far too buggy—for an accurate assessment.

But it's something I'll be monitoring going forward. Normally I wouldn't even dream this big. But the performance picture is so solid, I'm starting to wonder.

Whither Phone?

Microsoft hasn't publicly admitted this yet, but I've heard from multiple sources that the next major release of Windows Phone, which could hit as early as Q3 2012, will indeed be based on Windows 8, providing Microsoft's smartphone platform with modern underpinnings, a consist user experience, and, most intriguingly, app compatibility with the desktop. Is this going to happen?

I think so, and if it does, Windows Phone could experience a surge in popularity thanks to the superior Metro-style UI. Which means that predictions about a sudden rise in Windows Phone's fortunes were based on more than just wishful thinking.

Haven't gotten enough of Windows 8 yet? Here's a list of the most recent Windows 8 coverage at Windows IT Pro.
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