Windows

Not just a new interface: Delving deeper into Windows 8

There is more to Microsoft Windows 8 than just a new touch interface. Debra Littlejohn Shinder digs deeper into the inner workings of the new operating system.

In Part 1 of this discussion, I did a recap of Steve Sinofsky's presentation at D9 that formally introduced Windows 8 to the world and took a look at some of the more interesting reactions and commentary it inspired. Most agreed that the new GUI looks good, but is that enough? Let's delve a little deeper into some of the things we didn't see in the D9 demo, and the implications of a new Windows that "changes everything."

More than just a pretty (inter)face?

Other than a prettier, shinier, more touchy-feely look, we're all wondering what new features and functionality Windows 8 will bring to the table. Again, nobody knows for sure at this point (and if they do, they're sworn to secrecy), but there are hints and rumors galore, some of them backed up by those who have had some hands-on time with the early builds.

WinFS, Redux?

One of the biggest questions in the minds of Windows techies is: Will it or won't it include a much-anticipated and long-delayed new file system? We all remember WinFS, which was introduced at PDF in 2003 and was expected to be part of "Longhorn" (the code name under which Vista was developed). That never materialized, and it didn't surface in Windows 7, either.

The on-again/off-again project would have revamped the way data is stored and managed, replacing the old NTFS hierarchical directory structure with a relational database that would make organization and retrieval of the information faster and more efficient. Now we get the reports that Windows 8 has a new file system named Protogon.

Apparently the early builds include the new file system in addition to - rather than instead of - FAT, FAT32 and NTFS, and testers have been able to format drives in the new format (from the command line).

  • The good news: It appears to be faster and makes better use of disk space.
  • The bad news: It's not compatible with much of anything yet.

And before we get too excited about it, let's not forget that we have no guarantees it will even make it into the final release of the OS. After all, the early builds of Longhorn/Vista included WinFS before it disappeared somewhere along the beta-testing way.

What's in Store

After Apple announced that they were bringing their App Store to the desktop version of Mac OS X, it was probably inevitable that the next version of Windows would have a similar marketplace where users can download apps. The feature has been credited as one of the big reasons for the success of the iPhone and has been adopted by Google (Android Market), Microsoft (Windows Phone 7's Marketplace), RIM (Blackberry App World) and HP (WebOS App Catalog).

Early builds of Windows 8 include the Windows Store, which also apparently will let you "stream" apps to the computer from the cloud as well as downloading and installing them on the PC. That's something new, and is very much in keeping with Microsoft's commitment to cloud computing.

It will be interesting to see how the so-called "immersive" apps coexist with traditional Windows applications and whether these low-cost, more dedicated-purpose pieces of software cannibalize the market for big, expensive application suites such as Office, PhotoShop, etc. Will those large and complex programs eventually be delivered only as services? Consumers are already becoming resistant to spending even $30 or $40 for software, when they're used to being able to download an app to their phones and tablets for $1.99 to $9.99. Will companies continue to be willing to pay big bucks for software?

I just hope the Store is easier to navigate than Windows Phone 7's Marketplace. On the latter, whenever I search for an app, I get back results that include a bunch of songs along with the application names, which drives me nuts. And it goes without saying that it would be a huge mistake for Microsoft to try to "lock down" the desktop/tablet OS and allow users to download only "authorized" apps from the Store. To prevent a massive rebellion, the Store must be just one more way to get and install software - not the only way.

It's the little things

For me, it's all the little things that make software easy to use - or not. I was thrilled beyond reason to hear that Windows 8 will include (finally!) the ability to mount ISO files. I've always thought it was ridiculous that Microsoft provides all the operating system and application software on TechNet and MSDN in ISO format - which Windows can't do anything with unless you burn it to a disc or download a third party program.

I am also happy to hear that the group policies in Windows 8 indicate the possibility of built in support for taskbars on multiple monitors. I have been a multiple monitor fan since Windows 2000 (I currently have four connected to my primary workstation) and I hate having to buy UltraMon or another third party utility just to have a taskbar on each of the monitors.

Some changes, such as the rumored ribbon interface for Windows Explorer, will be loved by some and hated by others. I hope (but don't really expect) Windows will provide the option to switch back to the "classic" Explorer style for those who want it. I say this as someone who loves the Office ribbon - but who also has to support many, many users who don't.

I suppose if that option isn't included, it will provide yet another opportunity for third party developers (such as the makers of Classic Menu for Office) - but most users really dislike having to shell out $20 here and $35 there just to get the OS to work the way they believe it should have worked in the first place.

Windows 8 faces a situation that's different from previous versions. It won't be competing just against Mac and Linux, but against a whole new form factor: tablets. Not only will it compete directly with iOS, Android, webOS, etc. as an OS that runs on tablets, but desktop Windows PCs will, themselves, be competing with tablets as users ask themselves whether they can do everything they need with a tablet and do away with the desktop completely.

That means there are couple of "little things" that are going to matter a lot: fast boot-up and overall fast performance. Tablets have spoiled users; they now expect instant-on and responsiveness with no lag. That's especially important when you're interacting via the touchscreen. We're told Windows 8 will offer a new hybrid boot mode that will drastically improve start-up time, as well as performance enhancements. Microsoft absolutely must deliver on that promise to make a success of Windows 8.

What about the cloud?

As mentioned, the ability to stream applications through the Store is one way Windows 8 could distinguish itself as a true cloud-integrated OS. Some of those apps are likely to be designed for accessing various online services. I like that idea. I find myself reaching for my phone to do things like entering my diet and exercise details in the MyFitnessPal service, even when I'm sitting at my desk with my PC in front of me, because it's easier to do it via the phone app than via the web site.

Online services for things like that are great, but most of the people I hear from don't want Windows to go the way of Chrome; that is, they don't want an operating system is that is totally dependent on the Internet. What they do want is seamless integration with the Internet and online services.

For example, why do I have to open my web browser and navigate to a website to upload documents to my SkyDrive? Why doesn't it show up as a drive in Windows Explorer, so I can drag and drop files to it the same way I do with local drives?

It's expected that Live ID will be integrated into Windows 8, so that you can use your Live account to log onto the OS and create a "roaming profile" that follows you online. This is a first step that would allow for the kind of Explorer/SkyDrive interaction I'd like to see.

The cloud synchronization feature that's expected to be integrated into Windows 8 would let you sync various Windows settings across multiple Windows 8 systems, so that you get the same desktop configuration and preferences on all those devices.

Integration certainly seems to be the name of the game when it comes to Windows 8 - and that includes games, too. This week we got word that Xbox Live will be built into Windows 8. This has apparently been a success on Windows Phone 7.

Although I'm not a gamer, I was fascinated by the ability to build an avatar that looks (sort of) like me on my Windows Phone. I can envision the possibility of extending the avatar idea beyond the game platform, to act as an online visual representation of my identity on various types of interactive services and web sites. Of course, the security implications of all this will be interesting - and that's fodder for an article in itself.

Meanwhile, another indication that Windows 8 will have a heavy focus on the web and the cloud is the fact that it has a new development platform that will apparently be based on HTML and JavaScript. According to some reports, not everyone is happy about that.

Developers, developers, developers

Ars Technica reported, shortly after the Windows 8 demo, that developers are "horrified" by the news that the new APIs are based on these web-centric languages. In a somewhat overly dramatic diatribe, Peter Bright first interprets this to mean that Windows developers must now "discard two decades of knowledge and expertise" and switch to a "far more primitive, rudimentary system with substantially inferior tools." After all the angst, though, he concludes on page 2 that "Windows 8 won't be an HTML-driven horror after all."

Meanwhile, Mary Jo Foley and others are urging Microsoft to clarify the issue and reassure all those developers who are, if not quite horrified, at least a bit concerned about whether their .NET and Silverlight skills are about to become irrelevant.

The waiting is the hardest part

Microsoft is always being accused of copying Apple, and they certainly seem to be emulating Jobs with the secrecy and cone of silence surrounding many of the key issues surrounding Windows 8 (and other products, as well; see my previous commentary regarding the uncertainty over the future of TMG).

But whereas Apple manages to pull this off, creating an aura of mystery and excited anticipation with their strong-arm enforcement of their zipped-lips policy, when Microsoft does it, everybody gets mad. No, it's not fair, but that's the way it is, and those in the company who make these decision really need to realize that what works for the competition may not work so well for them.

Until they do, we wait. Presumably all (or at least much) will be revealed at Microsoft's developer's conference this fall. Of course, in keeping with the policy of keeping us all in the dark, for a long time nobody knew when or where this was going to be held. Turns out that while we were doing all that speculating (Did that obscure post on the Microsoft India web site mean it was going to be in Seattle this year?), we also didn't even know its name. The event formerly known as the PDC is now called BUILD and it's going to be held September 13-16 in Anaheim, CA. We still have three months to wonder.

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

16 comments
jasondlnd
jasondlnd

Every article I read about Windows 8 makes Mac sound better and better. It seems as though that Microsoft is going against everything they once offered with Windows...user customization and control are no longer the order of the day. The future of Windows looks like Microsoft trying to control users and how they interact with their computers. Heck, even with Windows 7, Microsoft has gone out of their way to hide tools vital to the computer, including the "Run" command and the command line! Such is not the order of the day in OSX. The Unix command line is clearly accessible in settings and spotlight comes as close to having a "Run" command as possible. You can even customize your user experience with just a few UNIX commands in the console, or, if you prefer, customize your user experience using the Automator. Getting back to Windows, though...Microsoft doesn't need to control the user experience...they need to allow users to control their own computer and customize it to how they like. This is one of the reasons that Windows XP was (and still is) popular.

creed
creed

Ok this doesn't sound good for us techie who like to have control of their pc's. Windows 7 is bad enough hiding the apps to do are jobs, hiding folders and blocking access. As for the interface it is more and more looking like a MAC. Not sure why MS thinks they need to complete Apple. It's two different market groups. Id10t's and pc users.

sylvrwulf
sylvrwulf

Forget touchscreens for the PC! they are fine for handhelds, but I like my huge monitor back from me and i do not like the idea of touching anything when I'm semi-reclining. What we need and what they should do is incoprorate the Kinect into windows. I watched the X-box 360 presentation at E3 and it was astounding what it could do! I was watching Tony Stark technology live and working beautifully. I want to attch it to my monitor and then use gestures to manuever and control the OS. That would introduce a whole new type of computing: 3D desktops, 3D context menus, as well as integrated voice activation just like X-box Kinect. It would revolutionize the PC gaming market as well. This would destroy Apple and not one person could say they copied it.

interpoI
interpoI

Didn't Window$ 7 just come out? Why doesn't micro$oft give it a rest for a year or 2...by the time you get one OS installed on all of your users desktops, out comes another one! Same thing with IE... Monday IE9 is released and Friday there is talk of IE 10, by the time you make everything work with IE9, IE 12 will be out!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I've heard one that W8 will come only in a 64-bit version; no 32-bit flavor. Can anyone confirm, corroborate, or deny?

blackepyon01
blackepyon01

-To make it run on a tablet: Remove the bloat! Simplify the code! -Stop rying to compete with Apple. If we wanted Macs, we would buy Macs. Those of us who stick with Windows perfer windows for what it is, not what MS is trying to make it. -MS's move away from the old ways: Those of us who prefer the old menus as opposed to the ribbons and the new start menu STILL want them! MS does itself no good by not making these things availible as an option to those who want them. -WinFS: Don't make it the only option just because it's better. Add it as an option and wait for everyone else to catch up.

pgit
pgit

Indeed, an excellent article. Alas, good enough that you confirm my growing doubts about the man behind the curtain planning this 'cloud' thing everyone seems to be blindly rushing toward. Another name for "cloud" is "fog," especially when it's on the road you're driving.

Orodreth
Orodreth

Whether I need it or not I agree it would be nice to be able to link to Windows Live SkyDrive or Live! whatever from the Windows Library. Windows 7 can also do with a few more reset to default configurations buttons, so I hope that will come in Windows 8. And If I remember correctly Microsoft has an ISO mount download for Windows 7 that actually works. When I hear and read about Window 8, I wish the event/error messages become more explanatory, trouble shooting actually resolved an issue, SVCHOST would go away, process descriptions indicated the default settings and parent processes, and the OS was really separated from applications.

douglas.gernat
douglas.gernat

Good insight, as well as opinion! P.S. The NoDo update fixed the marketplace search in WP7 :) The roaming profiles idea is great, with one exception. This has been an ability within the AD environment for a long time, and properly configured, it works great, with the exception of storage and profile size. Even if the "My Documents" library is offloaded to skydrive, and thus mapped like a standard mapped drive, how many folks store tons on their desktop, or offline attachment folders? This both slows synchronization time as well as requires much more storage? Who wants to get a random error "505, Windows 8 cannot load your profile because you have too many kitten videos on your dekstop"? More to come, but I'm excited :)

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

Thanks! Unfortunately the more I learn about Win8 the more I hate it. I hate cloud and SaaS. I hate ribbons. I hate on-line integrated features to my off-line world. I like to control when I am on-line. I also like to control my on-line prescence and exposure as much as possible. We need more walls in between us and this black cloud not less. It sounds like Win8 will be a security nightmare.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Now that we are seeing some more details about potential features that could be included in Windows 8, what questions do you have? What rumors about Windows 8 have you heard?

pgit
pgit

that is "about the same as always." MS shuffling tools around and renaming them is one of the reasons I have a job. I have to learn everything anew with each major release, then sit back and wait for the phone to ring when the clients bump up against one of the changes... =D

seanferd
seanferd

The plan is 2 year release cycles, so there is your year or two. 7 was RTM in July 2009. And 8 is hardly going to be released this July.

pgit
pgit

that would be huge, but I can sure believe it. There isn't much in the way of 32 bit hardware with enough horsepower to run even vista and win7. The main benefit to 32 bit has been availability of drivers and apps, for some time now. (barring all the XP boxes still deployed) There have been a few cases where I just couldn't get a 64 bit component going and fell back to 32 bit. Flash on some versions of firefox was one example I ran into rather frequently.

douglas.gernat
douglas.gernat

Or don't! I feel you on this one. As somebody who spends so much time "logged in", I like to control when I'm interacting with mydesktop locally only. I don't need what I'm listening or watching posted to facebook or windows live without the ability to turn it off. I'm not as concerned with the abilities to plug Windows into the world, but more so that everywhere it plugs in, I want to be able to control or unplug, without messing with my LAN connection...

sonicsteve
sonicsteve

This is kind of irrelevant, all hardware I've bought will run both 32 and 64bit OS's. Just because you bought a 64bit Intel chip doesn't mean you can't run the 32bit version of software. I have core i3 chip and yes it's 64bit but because I only run 2Gb ram I run the 32bit versions of Windows and Linux. From time to time I still find 64bit to be more hassle and doesn't return any of the promised benefit.

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