Microsoft's developer preview of Windows 8 takes user interfaces in a bold new direction. But is it enough for the Redmond-based software giant to get its mojo back? Brett Haggard went to Anaheim, California for Microsoft's BUILD developer conference to take a closer look at the future of operating systems.
When Microsoft’s market-leading Windows operating systems comes up in a discussion about technology today, it’s generally associated with some form of criticism or commentary on how it could be better. But, that’s the curse that comes with the territory of being a market leader. You get to own the entire market share, make a metric ton of money and know you have a customer base that puts everyone else’s to shame. But you have to pass up on the glory of being super innovative and interesting. It’s a funny thing, though. When you’re the super innovative and interesting company, all you want to be is a market leader. And when you’re a market leader, you try everything you can to get your cool back. And occasionally when you get the balance right, as Apple has, you get to be cool, interesting and innovative, while making more money than anyone else. That’s the holy grail of today’s technology companies. But give Microsoft more time. The strategy it’s been pursuing for the past couple of years is a blend of the two ideals that might just work. And if things align just right, it’s setting the stage for a comeback of note.
Start with a phone
The release of Windows Phone – a completely re-thought and re-spun take on organising the information and applications smartphone users enjoy – was the first hint that Microsoft was on the road to recovery. Fresh, responsive, visually appealing and with the wholehearted support of the biggest name in the mobile phone world, namely Nokia, Windows Phone will be the platform to watch for the next 12 to 18 months. But as we’ve seen from the whole convergence trend, people like cohesion in their lives – and they don’t only need their information to flow seamlessly across the variety of devices and usage modes they employ on a daily basis. They want things to look, feel and behave the same. It’s the reason Apple is slowly blending its desktop and notebookfocused Mac OS X operating system with its iOS smartphone and tablet operating system. And it’s the same reason that Windows 8 – shortly after the release of the Windows 7 operating system that’s been received so well over the past few years – is incorporating touch, tiles and easy-to-use information sharing. Look how far along the road the two companies are in this process; and note how Microsoft, surprisingly, seems to be ahead of Apple. The colour schemes, look and feel, flow of logic and way applications expose data to users in Windows 8 are almost identical to Windows Phone. This not only builds familiarity, it also sets the perfect platform for what really counts: the services that underpin the devices and UI. The so-called ‘cloud’ services environment is after all where all the money will be spent … and made.
More than Skin deep
Windows 8 isn’t just smartphone-like when it comes to look and feel, though. For starters it boots in an almost unbelievably short period of time and wakes from sleep in a couple of seconds – just like a smartphone. On boot, users are presented with a lock screen that, much as they would expect on a phone or tablet, displays some of their most relevant information: what’s coming up next in their diary, the number of unread e-mails in their inbox, the number of unread instant messages and their computer’s remaining battery life. Delve a little deeper into the ‘start’ screen – the place where users will launch and interact with the new Windows Phone-like applications that Microsoft has dubbed ‘Metro-style’ applications – and the ‘phoneims’ persist. Icons are a thing of the past when it comes to Metro style. Tiles are the next big thing, since Microsoft says they’re far more expressive than icons ever were. This in layman’s terms means that simply by glancing at the start screen, users will be able to preview content that’s housed within applications pinned there. The amount of information displayed (like previews of the three most recent e-mails in the user’s inbox, or a summary of the weather) is controlled through the ability to resize, drag and group application tiles on different parts of the start screen. The start screen stretches out towards the right of the user interface in an almost movie-reel way. To get to more content, users either gesture to pan across the start screen, or pinch to zoom out (something Microsoft calls ‘semantic zoom’) to get a ‘stepped back’ view of the whole start screen ‘reel’. Because Windows 8 is touch-enabled, launching applications is as simple as touching their application tile. The Metro-style look and feel carries through to the applications, which again strongly resemble the slick, content-rich applications on Windows Phone. The big difference is of course that there’s a ton more screen real estate to go around in Windows 8. As is the case with smartphone applications, this new style of interface lends itself well to content-rich applications. When active, applications can either be set to fill the entire screen or be ‘snapped’ to a variety of form factors, so more than one application can be viewed or used at a time.
The one area in which Windows 8 departs from Windows Phone is in its data handling capabilities, which are nothing short of revolutionary. Through a new universal runtime and some cleaver architectural changes, Microsoft has managed to make content sharable across a wide variety of applications, without them even being aware of each other’s existence. Microsoft enables this through a mechanism called ‘contracts’. Contracts have been described as the clipboard of the future: just as the clipboard helped applications move data around the operating system in previous versions of Windows, so contracts allow for content to move around Windows 8, but with added context. This means a substantial shortening of application development lifecycles. For example, developers can make use of the ‘sharing’ contract to pull information from another application that similarly supports the sharing contract to make its information available. The three contracts Microsoft showed off are sharing, sending and searching. The idea is simple. If a developer wants his application to share its information with other Metro-style applications, he includes a couple of lines of code that define which information is shareable. Similarly, if a developer wants her application to make use of information being shared by another application, she includes a couple of lines of code stating what kind of information her application is willing to accept. The same goes for sending information (a slightly different contract to sharing) and searching for information. With a couple of lines of generic code, developers are able to choose whether users can send information from their applications (like attaching content to an e-mail, tweet or blog post) or whether the information within their application can be searched. The great big uncomfortable question developers are going to ask is, what about applications that have been designed for the more traditional Windows interface and are not yet updated to Metro style? For compatibility’s sake, Microsoft has kept the desktop interface around. The difference is it’s exposed as an application on its own as opposed to a different graphical environment. Because it looks so vastly different from the start screen and Metro-style applications, however, the unfortunate reality is that it feels as if there are two distinct operating system environments running inside Windows 8. While Microsoft isn’t admitting it, there’s the definite possibility that keeping the desktop around in this way will mean developers don’t get as on board with Metro-style apps as they should, choosing instead to continue developing ‘ugly’ applications for the desktop. Let’s hope Microsoft has the gumption to lean on its developers and make Metro-style apps the priority.
Cloudy with a Chance of Sync
‘Cloud’ is one of the most overused (and misused) terms in the technology environment, often simply included in the sales pitch or value proposition of a product to make it sound more applicable to the market’s needs. But looking at some of the things Microsoft is enabling using cloud
technology built into Windows 8, it seems to be the exception to this statement. Most users today have three devices: a primary computing device such as a notebook, a smartphone and a tablet. And some have more than this. Of course the challenge is keeping data, credentials and preferences in sync across all of those devices. With Windows 8 and a Live ID, however, Microsoft reckons this will be a breeze. And SkyDrive, Microsoft’s consumerfocused cloud storage solution, is at the core of this. The SkyDrive integration built into Windows 8 allows for all forms of information to seamlessly propagate across all of a user’s devices, provided each of those devices has the same Live ID. That means, if a user’s profile picture changes on one machine, it automatically changes on all of the others. The same holds true for the personalised aspects of the operating system, such as the user’s choice of desktop wallpapers, images shown on the lock screen and, obviously, security credentials. What is really powerful, however, is the SkyDrive-powered photo reel Microsoft will enable with Windows 8. Really simple but hugely effective, this feature allows a user to take a photo on their tablet, smartphone or any other Live-enabled device, and for that photo to automatically be synchronised with a cloud-based photo reel that’s present on all devices. While data can easily be synchronised with SkyDrive, there’s often data lying around on a home PC that might not be important enough for storage and backup on SkyDrive. Again, this is where the Live ID comes to the rescue. By simply having the same Live ID present on two machines, users will be able to access all data on a remote PC’s hard disk – all via the cloud.
The last topic Microsoft has brought to light by lifting the wraps on Windows 8 is an online store developers can use to sell their wares. This Windows store is modelled heavily on the store it currently houses and sells Windows Phone applications through – only on a much bigger scale. While a developer will conceivably be able to publish an application and have it available in the store within a day of completing final development on it (something Microsoft sees as a big differentiator), the Windows store will also offer try-before-you-buy periods and gives developers access to deep analytics on their application’s storefront.
All in all, Windows 8 is a compelling product. It looks great, enables new functionality and fits perfectly into the other products within Microsoft’s stable that users are having a great experience with – namely Xbox, Xbox LIVE, the Zune Marketplace, Windows Live and of course Windows Phone. The reality is that Microsoft is sitting on a wealth of powerful properties in the market. It needs a PC operating system to bring it all together. Technically, Windows 7 could be that today. But Windows 8 looks so much more appealing ...