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What We Really Learned About Windows 8 @ D9

Last week, at a great expense of time and effort, I tried to transcribe Microsoft president Steven Sinofsky's now-not-so-recent appearance at the D9 Conference from early June into a written record that is far more accurate than the reprehensible live blog that the D9 folks provided at the time. As you are probably aware, this transcript takes place over three separate articles. Part one is the contents of an interview between Sinofsky and D9's Walter Mossberg. Part two involves a demo that also includes D9's Kara Swisher and Microsoft's Julie Larson-Green. And in part three, there's a Q & A with Sinofsky and Larson-Green.

You may be wondering. Why am I so fixated on this event?

Simple: Microsoft has discussed Windows 8 publicly only twice so far this year and each of these events has provided vital new information about the software giant's next major OS. The first was at CES 2011 in January, where Sinofsky revealed that Windows 8 would ship in versions for the ARM processor as well as for those based on the more traditional x86/x64 chipsets. The second was in early June, at which Microsoft made three simultaneous and related Windows 8 announcements via the D9 appearance, a Michael Angiulo appearance at the Computex trade show in Taipei, and a video introduction with Jensen Harris.

The Angiulo and Harris pieces are easily dissected, and of course I did so at the time, in Windows 8 Preview: An Analysis of the Computex Announcements and Windows 8 Preview: An Analysis of the First Public Unveiling, respectively. In both cases, a video is available, allowing anyone to step through the discussion and pick out all the relevant bits of new information for themselves as well.

The Sinofsky appearance at D9 was different, however. First, it involved both Steven Sinofsky--the man most directly responsible for Windows 8--and Larson-Green--who's in charge of the Windows 8 user experience--two top-level executives whose public pronouncements about Windows 8 can be considered canon. Secondly, the folks at D9 did an absolutely horrific (and purposefully, I believe) job of communicating what Sinofsky and Larson-Green said at its event, and then did even more damage by withholding the unedited video of their appearance for three long weeks. Why? We'll never know for sure.

Thus my transcripts. And if you're a completist, like me, you'll want to step through the entire thing, including every Mossberg interruption and every Swisher non sequitur, sure, but also hanging on everything the two Microsofties say, or in many cases try to say.

But maybe you have a 21st century attention span, or simply want to know what it is that was really said and then hidden from us for so long. I feel your pain. And so this document represents a summary of sorts of the information that Sinofsky and Larson-Green provided at D9, much of which is very unique. By which I mean it isn't repeated in the Computex or Harris videos.

So with that bit of exposition out of the way, here's what I learned from Steven Sinofsky and Julie Larson-Green at D9, weeks and weeks after they actually tried to communicate it.

Sinofsky is way funnier than we knew. He addresses Mossberg's many unwarranted attacks with a great sense of humor, and good for him. For example, when Mossberg asked Sinofsky if he was actually going to try and defend Microsoft's multi-SKU policy with Windows, Sinofsky jokingly answered, "Can I have a chocolate?" to offset the tension. Bravo.

"Little-used" features of Windows matter. Things like Media Center or the Pen and Ink functionality may seem like failures but they're used by millions of people and influence future Windows directions. Point being, simply putting something in Windows means that it will garner major usage share. And that's going to be even more true of the new Windows 8 Start screen, since it will be the default new user experience.

The new Windows 8 UI is not "touch-centric." Instead, it's "touch-first." But Sinofsky and Larson-Green very clearly (and repeatedly) stated--and showed--that it works with any PC interface, including mouse and keyboard. I've written elsewhere about the brilliance of this approach and about how Microsoft is replicating it across even more devices with a similar UI on phones (Windows Phone Start screen) and in the living room (the coming Xbox 360 Dashboard).

The new Windows 8 UI is scalable. Sinofsky also noted that this touch-centric UI is "scalable ... from about an 8-inch screen using today's current DPI all the way to wall-sized displays." So there you have the range of devices on which Windows 8 will run: 8-inch slate-type devices all the way up to wall-sized displays. This suggests (but does not prove) that Windows Phone will continue to be used on sub-8-inch displays, as on phones.

Windows is no longer leading when it comes to adopting new technology. This one isn't exactly good news, and of course Sinofsky didn't present it this way. But he did implicitly admit at least twice that Windows is no longer setting the agenda. Instead, it's following the hardware and usage patterns elsewhere. The iPhone and iPad are obvious examples. "When we looked at what was going on with tablets, or with touch user interface, we sort of just asked ourselves, what else can Windows do?" This is not leadership, it's following in the footsteps of others.

Windows is not this "big, gigantic, thing." In fact, typical smart phones today have the base requirements to run Windows: 1 GHz processor, 256-512 MB of RAM, GPU, and of course slates have 1-2 GB of RAM. This was, perhaps, one of the most insightful things that Sinofsky said during the D9 talk, and I admit I'd never thought of it this way. We can debate which approach makes more sense--Apple's "bottom up" approach where you take a smart phone OS and move it "up" to a tablet, or Microsoft's "top down" approach where you take a mainstream PC OS and move it "down" to a tablet--but you can't deny that Sinofsky is right about the specs. When you look at a typical smart phone today, it really is powerful enough to run Windows. (I wonder what they'll look like in a year or two.) And with Microsoft not raising the hardware requirements with Windows 8--they're actually lowering them in some cases--this makes even more sense.

ARM Windows 8 and backwards compatibility. This was actually communicated at CES, but it bears repeating: The ARM versions of Windows 8 will provide the full Windows experience minus backwards compatibility with existing apps. So that's all you lose. This suggests that ARM chipsets may be a better fit for iPad-style Windows slates where all you're looking for is "new" apps, a la the iPad, a not backwards compatibility with existing software. But I bet these won't just be mini slates; instead, expect to see a variety of ARM-based devices, including, possibly set-top boxes.

Windows 8 offers "no compromises." As Mossberg deridingly complained, this is indeed the Windows 8 marketing campaign. With Windows 8, you will get the iPad form factor but none of the limitations around printing, scanning, peripherals, full Windows software, and so on. This is great positioning, because Microsoft's partners will be able to deliver both full-featured Windows 8 slates (add a keyboard and you've got a full PC laptop, basically) and smaller, ARM-based devices that are more directly positioned against the iPad but cost much less.

Schedule. Windows 8 development started in summer 2009, before Windows 7 was released to the public.

That "side" UI. When you swipe from the right side of a Windows 8 touch screen, a special overlay user experience comes up. Larson-Green would have provided the name of this Windows 8 "side" UI, but Mossberg interrupted her.

Internet Explorer 10. We've seen a bunch of full-screen, minimal UI demos of IE 10, but Sinofsky said that this browser will works in both that full-screen mode as well as like a traditional Windows app when run from the legacy desktop. And while Mossberg tried to claim that the new UI was killing off the web site pinning functionality that Microsoft introduced in IE 9, Larson-Green would have none of that, reminding Walt that you can now simply pin sites to the Start screen. It's the same behavior.

They're called tailored apps, not immersive apps. This was actually mentioned elsewhere too, but it's important: What we've come to think of as "immersive" apps are actually called "tailored" apps. This refers to the new, HTML 5-based web apps that have APIs for accessing low-level Windows functions like the hardware, the file system, and so on. They will be packaged in a way that has yet to be described, and discovered and acquired via an online store.

Group Policy for corporations. Sinofsky and Larson-Green confirmed twice that companies will be able to control what appears on users' Windows 8 Start screens. This means that it will be easier than ever to lock down a kiosk or worker's PC so that they only see tiles for the apps they need to get work done.

PC makers can customize the Start screen as they do today with Windows. As with Windows Phone, Microsoft will work with partners to determine what they can screw up on the Start screen. This will work similarly to the ways in which PC makers can put a certain number of icons on the Start Menu, desktop, and taskbar in today's Windows.

New application capabilities. New applications (written in HTML 5/JavaScript/CSS) will be able to connect to each other, communicate with each other, exchange data, and perform other actions not yet described in any detail.

Silverlight on Windows 8. When asked directly about Silverlight on Windows 8 during the Q & A, Sinofsky said that Silverlight apps would continue to run of course (Windows 8 is backwards compatibility), but didn't ever hint that a new Silverlight-based API was coming. He later said that the new HTML stuff was much richer than people knew, with deep system integration bits. (As per the "new application capabilities" section above.)

So there you have it. I think I've officially beaten this appearance to death. But someone has to do this. I'm happy to be that guy.

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