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Windows 8 Preview: An Analysis of the Computex Announcements

Microsoft's revelations about Windows 8 this week were actually a concerted, three-pronged attack. First, we had Microsoft president Steven Sinofsky braving Apple-centric moderators at an industry conference. Second, we had Microsoft Director of Program Management Jensen Harris providing a hands-on video demonstration of Windows 8's new user experience. But there was a third piece as well: Microsoft corporate vice president Mike Angiulo appeared in front of the software giant's hardware partners and provided yet another glimpse at Windows 8.

I'd like to focus on Angiulo's talks a bit now, mostly because he actually did offer up a few unique tidbits that didn't appear in the other talks.

As before, there is a video version of the talk which I recommend viewing as well.

"You bring Windows to life for our customers," Microsoft corporate vice president Tami Reller told the partners in the audience on Wednesday. "We're appreciative of the work we've already done together on Windows 8, and that we will do going forward."

Angiulo then took the stage. If you're not familiar, Anguilo is responsible for the relationship with Microsoft's hardware partners, and also for Microsoft's own hardware, including the mice, keyboards, and even Surface. He appears regularly at CES and did the hardware demos during the Windows 7 launch as well.

His first order of business, crucially, was to provide background on some of the decisions behind Windows 8.

"For 20 years, Windows has really defined the computing landscape for over a billion customers from around the world," he said. "It's the most popular operating system of all time, I think because of the flexibility it's shown. Windows has continuously adapted to an always-changing technology landscape, even through some big shifts. The shift from client to server computing. The shift from 16- to 32- to 64-bit computing. Windows has even been ported to, and relevant to, other platforms, like Itanium, MIPS, Power PC, Alpha, and now ARM. And I think it's that resiliency that Windows has shown over time that keeps it being very relevant as major shifts happen."

He's right generally, but gets a few of the details wrong here. Windows wasn't "ported" to Itanium, MIPS, Power PC, or Alpha, it was created natively on those platforms alongside the x86 versions. With ARM, Windows is in fact being ported, so this is a new and different type of work, and one that is many years separate from the previous (and brief) cross-platform versions of Windows that preceded it. Point being, I'm not sure that any previous experience with Windows on non-x86/x64 platforms is relevant anymore today. Put another way, the ARM stuff is new territory for Microsoft, in my opinion, and not a continuation of anything.

Angiulo is very much right, however, about Windows' resiliency. Until the smart phone and iPad/tablet markets exploded, Windows was able to move fairly seamlessly into new markets--Tablet PCs, Media Center PCs, Ultra-Mobile PCs, and, most recently, netbooks--though not all of these efforts were commercially successful. With Windows 8, of course, the goal is to take on more markets, currently dominated by outsiders, and do so with a single, modular product line. It's a big bet, but one that is indeed in keeping with the prior history of Windows.

Angiulo said that the shift that occurred during the development of Windows 7 was around high-performance notebooks that offered tremendous battery life, so Microsoft focused on those issues, delivering a single OS that ran well on the smallest, least powerful netbooks as well as on the most powerful notebooks ever created. This is a bit of a stretch. Even Windows 7 isn't optimal on the single-core Atom-based netbooks that dominated Windows 7's first year on the market.

For Windows 8, Microsoft faces new trends: Immersive Internet computing. Ultra-portable devices. Touch screens.

"Windows 8 is a reimagining of Windows," Angiulo said, reiterating the same claim Sinofsky was making half a world away. "The web has been driving a lot of this. Changes in the way we work, the way we play, and the way we connect with other people. And of course the kinds of devices that people use to connect to the web are different too."

They're thinner and lighter, he said. They resume immediately. Some of them have batteries that can last for weeks at a time. Many are used with a touch-only interface. Here, Angiulo was careful never to utter the word "iPad," but this is clearly the poster child for the device type he is imagining, and the iPad is the only device I can think of that meets all of those criteria.

"Developers want to be able to build and sell applications that are tailored for that web experience and run on those devices," he said. "That was the reason for Windows 8. That was our driving motivation to do this."


Put another way, companies like Apple (with iOS) and Google (with Android) have created platforms that don't just provide simpler, device-like computing experiences but also an integrated market from which users can browser, purchase, and install apps. And Windows 8 exists because Microsoft wanted something like this ... on the PC.

We've known for a while now that Windows 8 will include access to some form of Windows Marketplace and that this online store will be used to sell a new kind of app, and that the whole experience will resemble the app stores we know and love on various portable devices. But Angiulo's comments suggest that this isn't just a feature of Windows 8 but rather the essence of the release, the reason for it to be the way it is. This is a very stark admission that these simple, app-based platforms are indeed the wave of the future.

Angiulo then launches into what should be a very familiar demo by now or, in his words, "how Windows 8 looks, how Windows 8 works, and specifically some design considerations for when you're planning future hardware for Windows." (Remember that the audience is hardware partners.)

Angiulo noted, too, that all of the Windows 8-based systems he would show on stage were running "real" code, a claim that various Microsofties have made to me privately via email as well. Microsoft is serious about this: It is showing off Windows 8, not a demo of what Windows 8 may look like. This is it.

Also, please note that most of Angiulo's demo was material presented elsewhere by Sinofsky and Harris. So I'll only discuss new information here.

The first system Angiulo shows off was the same as the "breadboard"-based systems Sinofsky carted out for his own demo. Angiulo described it as a "Dell XPS development station," a special test unit that Microsoft uses for evaluating touch screens and touch controllers.


Answering one obvious question, Angiulo navigates the new Windows 8 Start screen using just the keyboard. I've been asked about whether this UI would make any sense at all with a mouse and keyboard, and the answer is absolutely yes. I'm sure that the keyboard fanatics in the audience will be rewarded with numerous keyboard shortcuts, too, for things like the new Snap feature.

"We designed Windows 8 to be excellent with touch-only tablets," he said, "and it works really well with keyboard and mouse." One UI to rule them all, indeed.

Angiulo also confirmed that you can "arrange, group, and name" the Live Tiles on the Windows 8 Start screen however you like. And he reiterated a lot of other Windows Phone themes, such as how it "puts you at the center" with live updating of information across the various tiles.

Showing the same weather app as in the other demos, Angiulo referred to these new full screen apps as "chromeless," lacking the surrounding window baloney you see in today's apps and really "putting Windows in the background." This is similar to how Microsoft describes pinned web apps and Internet Explorer 9, and I'm positive that's by design. It is a brave, brave step for the maker of a product to be so confident in that product that they will allow it to be usurped by "sub-experiences" (web apps in IE 9, or, in this case, actual apps under Windows 8) and lose that branding. ("The real star is the apps," he later said.) I'd also point out that the Windows 8 Start screen is devoid of a Windows logo. It just says "Start."

Anguilo also introduces some new terminology. He called these new apps "tailored apps" (instead of "immersive apps" as we had thought they'd be called). He also said that the new platform was based on HTML 5, JavaScript, and CSS, and I think he's the only one of the three that actually added CSS to that list. These are "the most widely understood programming languages of all time," which I suppose justifies their use. But they're also not compiled into native code, which could result in some performance issues. Then again, Microsoft's fixation of web standards in IE 9 and its continuing of its own browser make a lot more sense when you consider that they are adding this stuff into the core Windows UI now going forward.

I mentioned the "onscreen overlay" yesterday, which appears when you swipe a finger left from the right side of the screen. Angiulo called these "the Windows controls" (and also the "edge UI," which may just be descriptive and not a formal name), and he used the Start icon there to perform an iPad-style navigation where you continually have to go "home" (the Start screen in this case) before you can switch between apps. He also demonstrated the more powerful, Windows-style app switching (Windows Flip-style) and side-by-side app usage. Note that in both cases, the "controls" (really gestures) for both are right under your thumbs, where you'd be normally holding the device already.

Side-note. As with the other demos, Angiulo never once held a tablet in portrait mode. I am very curious how that will work and look.

Here, Angiulo showed off some new UI. While the left and right edge of the screen is used to control the system (i.e. switch between apps, navigate back to Start and so on), you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen to control the current app. When you do this, an app-specific overlay, akin to the Command Bar in Windows Phone apps, but hidden by default, appears. This bar includes round, finger-friendly, and Windows Phone-like icons.


Some of them even include pop-up menus, which he also demonstrated.


"Here's how you actually control the apps themselves," he said, swiping up from the bottom of the screen. "I can get to the controls that control the app. So what happens is, Windows is working on the sides, and the apps work from the top and bottom. Those controls are easy to get to and then quickly get out of your way." (He later showed app UI coming down from the top of the screen, with IE, though this was of course previously demoed elsewhere too.)

Angiulo then discussed an interesting hardware requirement, or at least recommendation, that Microsoft has for Windows 8 devices. That is, they should utilize a 16:9 widescreen display (and not 16:10 or 4:3). "We think that's a really good orientation for the screen because its excellent for watching high definition videos." The screen he utilized during this talk was 1366 x 768, by the way, and featured "edge to edge capacitive glass." He later noted this resolution was the "minimum" recommended orientation, though Windows 8 will support lower resolutions like 1024 x 768 too. If you have a 1024 x 600, Windows 8 "will still run," but only in "desktop mode."

(Standard "multitasking while playing video" demo ensues here, but again I find myself wondering what this means about portrait view. Does Microsoft intend to even support this? Is it conceivable that Windows 8 tablets will only work properly in landscape mode? He does note that widescreen makes Snap possible, and it's of course true that side-by-side apps wouldn't work or wouldn't normally look right in portrait mode. Hm.)

From here, we're given an Internet Explorer 10 demo. Angiulo notes that it's optimized for touch and immediately (and presumably always) comes up in full screen mode.

(As with the Sinofsky and Harris demos, Angiulo also uses the IE 10 demo to show off the split "ergonomic" keyboard, which lets someone type with their thumbs when holding a tablet normally ... in landscape mode. So I'm once again wondering about portrait mode. Why was this never shown?)

Then, Angiulo shows off how the Windows desktop still lives under the new shell. He glossed over this but the Windows Explorer window he shows actually does have a collapsed Ribbon user interface enabled, and you can see two colored, dynamic ribbon tabs (Library Tools, Picture Tools) related to photo editing at the top.


Answering the BS complaints about the new Windows 8 Start screen being "just a shell" on top of Windows, he notes how quickly you can move back and forth between this screen and the traditional Windows desktop. "You see how fast that switches?" he asks as he goes back and forth between the two UIs in a decidedly non-jarring manner. "It's not a different mode. Launching this is like launching the Start Menu. It's just instant."

Actually, the Start Menu comparison is a good one because that's really what the Start screen is: A more visual, useful, descriptive, and expressive replacement for today's Start Menu.

Angiulo also expanded on what he called "app to app sharing," a feature that was demoed elsewhere too of course. He said that Windows apps aren't islands: They can register themselves with the system in various ways (picture sharing being the example du jour). This allows apps to do things like appear in the Pictures library as a source for photos. (Today, only folders that are local to your PC or on the home network can do this.) Apps "talking to each other" eliminates cutting and pasting, he said, or requiring users to save files to the desktop before manipulating them online, or vice versa.

Finally, Angiulo moves off the initial tablet demo and mentions that Windows 8 isn't just for tablets: It's for all kinds of PCs. This is an area where some critics are having a hard time getting it.


"Windows 8 is for hundreds of millions of computers of all different kinds, all different sized screens, whether or not [they] have touch," he noted. "Windows 8 is an upgrade for the entire ecosystem of PCs." Microsoft achieved this in two ways, Angiulo said. It kept the system requirements either flat or reduced when compared to its predecessor (Windows 7). And it "built some intelligence into Windows" to adapt the user experience based on what hardware you have.

That last bit is very interesting. And taken without any other understanding of what Microsoft is planning, you might believe that he's saying that this new UI will not come up by default on some PCs. That is not my understanding at all. I believe what he means, simply, is that if your display supports touch or multitouch, you will gain those abilities in the UI. If it doesn't you can use keyboard and mouse.

To show some of Windows 8's backwards compatibility from a hardware perspective, the second demo machine was a PC that's shipping today, the Samsung Series 9 notebook, which is frequently compared to the MacBook Air. Nothing notable here, but he used the keyboard to navigate through the new UI: Page Up and Page Down move the screen left and right, respectively, and the mouse works as expected, including with Snap and the edge gestures. The Windows key now pushes you back to the Start screen.


Next up, another current system, the HP dv6, which utilizes an AMD A-series Fusion processor.


Angiulo then showed off a "computer that doesn't have a widescreen" (though it looked widescreen to me), the ASUS EP121 tablet.


Here, something interesting occurs: When he tries to run two apps side-by-side, Windows 8 will not allow it (!) because "Windows knows" that a widescreen is not available. Wow. "So this way, you can still use tailored apps, even though you don't have a widescreen PC," he said, noting that this was another example of Windows adapting. Maybe Windows shouldn't overthink this stuff too much. I don't see any reason why two apps couldn't run side-by-side on such a display.

The next PC, a Sony VAIO model L, doesn't have capacitive glass but instead utilizes an optics-based digitizer. "But Windows can still work with it," Angiulo said, navigating through the Start screen with his finger.


Expanding on the idea here that Windows 8 would simply work on any kind of PC regardless of its hardware capabilities, Angiulo may have overstated a few things. He noted that all these diverse PC types would receive "the full Windows experience," which is not true: That non-widescreen PC wasn't delivering the full Windows experience at all and couldn't even run two native apps side-by-side. "The other thing to note is, that's not different versions of Windows, there's just one Windows," he said. "Windows runs everywhere." From there he launches into ARM.

I'll get to that in a moment, but come on. First of all, there is absolutely not "one Windows," and that's true no matter how pedantic you choose to be. Windows ships in multiple product SKUs, in both 32-bit and 64-bit variants, comes in client, server, and embedded versions, and so on. Unless Microsoft truly intends to just sell something called Windows 8 next year, and not Windows 8 Home Basic, Windows 8 Home Premium, Windows 8 Professional, Windows 8 Ultimate, Windows 8 Enterprise, and so on, this claim is just silly. And then of course, there is ARM too. It may look and work like Windows on x86/x64, but come on. It is a different version of Windows too.

Anyway, on to ARM. The second half of Angiulo's hardware demo involved a table of ARM-based devices. These systems were, however, just reference hardware, and not ship-level systems. There's not a heck of a lot to say here. If I had to characterize the decision to port Windows to ARM, I'd say it's because of the ability of ARM-based systems to achieve truly thin, light, tiny and power-friendly form factors. In other words, the Intel-compatible stuff will drive mainstream PCs, but the ARM stuff will be better for the smaller, tablet-like devices (like iPads and smaller) that will never (or, rarely) be used as true PCs. But not always, as we'll see.

While Angiulo previously had shot down the notion that the Windows 8 Start screen was a "mode" of any kind, he very clearly spelled out that only ARM-based devices would be capable of a new "mode" called Always On, Always Connected. (So much for "one Windows.") This will work as do smart phones, where they wake up from sleep instantly, can exist on standby for long periods of time with low power drain, and get great battery life, while staying connected to wireless networks all the time.

The ARM models also feature a hardware Home button, similar to the button on an iPad but, notably, mounted so that it is on the bottom of the screen when the device is held in landscape mode, not in portrait as on an iPad. (I hate to keep beating this one point to death, but I really find this notable.) Tapping this button toggles the display, instantly, between the Start screen and the traditional Windows desktop.


Angiulo also talked up the sensors that these devices would contain. There was some talk about sensors at the "Windows 7 PDC" in 2008, but this concept of hardware sensors didn't really take off until smart phone vendors started talking them up. Mentioned sensors include an HD video cam, plus "video, sound, location, movement, orientation, and proximity." (Most of those are not actually "sensors" but are rather information that can be provided by sensors.) Intriguingly, sensor access can occur programmatically via the HTML + JavaScript development platform. He later called this platform "Sensor Fusion."

Turning to a normal looking PC laptop, Angiulo declared that "ARM is not just for tablets. ARM enables ultra-portable computers of any form factor." This provides the all-day efficiency of ARM but in a more typical form factor. Line, consider yourself blurred.


Finally, Angiulo mentions something that I think nicely explains why Microsoft is going with this HTML-based platform. The same (web) apps run equally well on x86- and ARM-based hardware, with no recompiling, or dual targeting, and only one version of the app to deploy. This is a fairly critical point, and while it won't be enough to chase away those complaining about the lack of a native Silverlight environment too (a valid enough complaint), it's at least an answer.

"But that's just the beginning," he says. "What you've seen today is just Windows running on all of these systems ... and apps that are running cross-platform."

From there, the talk turns to what has been a fairly contentious issue: Microsoft's new approach to how it will work with partners in the ecosystem. By which he means, essentially, the hardware partners making the devices that will run Windows 8, of course, but also add-on makers, device driver writers, firmware implementers, and the link.

My take on this is that Microsoft is doing in the PC market what it previously did with Windows Phone, which is to somewhat rein in the disparate device types in order to present users with a more consistent experience. To date, the Windows PC world has been a bit too much like the Wild West, and if I'm reading Angiulo correctly, they'd like to close the gap between this world and the more consistent Apple ecosystem.

Here's how he said it.

"From day one, we engineered these systems with a much closer degree of hardware/software integration than ever," he said. "And that integration starts with manufacturing, and continues all the way through to final system configuration." Naturally, Angiulo framed this work as a collaboration, and he discussed the areas in which Microsoft is working with its partners to improve the Windows 8 hardware experience.


There's a new BIOS type, essentially, called UEFI, that is required on ARM devices and, apparently, will be required on future x86 PCs as well. UEFI apparently provides for much quicker boot times as well.

From there, he went on to discuss BUILD, Microsoft's upcoming developer conference for Windows 8. But even here, Angiulo provided a bit of useful extra information: I had wondered why the company would use a new brand for this conference, but he mentioned that it would include everything that developers previously needed to visit three different conferences--WinHEC, PDC, and MIX--to discover.

And on that note, it almost makes sense.

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