What to Expect: Windows 8

It started with an accidental posting on Microsoft's Dutch website saying Windows 8 was two years away from hitting the market. Then there were a few slides at the recent Microsoft Professional Developers Conference suggesting the next release of the Windows Server OS, which typically arrives just after a desktop edition debuts, was due in 2012. To add to the titillation, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, when interviewed at the Gartner Symposium, said the next version of the Windows desktop would be "Microsoft's riskiest upcoming product."

Ballmer says Windows 8 is a big risk for Microsoft
We know Microsoft is not afraid of taking risks, even when it brings ridicule. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- although Vista (pre-SP1) earned a bad reputation for a variety of valid reasons, it was a necessary risk that Microsoft took to provide better security now, in Windows 7, which is built on Vista. Meanwhile, Vista will go down in history as one of the worst OS releases due mainly to a media frenzy launched by InfoWorld that trashed the OS mercilessly and an inexperienced public that bought into the negative press.

[ Get all the details you need on deploying and using Windows 7 in the InfoWorld editors' 21-page Windows 7 Deep Dive PDF special report. | Stay abreast of key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

Is that what Ballmer is referring to when he says the next version of Windows is risky? Will Windows 8 be the next OS to take a bullet for the future of computing that we'll embrace with the Windows 9 to follow? Hopefully, history won't repeat itself so soon.

One thought is that Windows 8 will be only x64 and x128 (yes, you heard me), positioning Windows 7 as the last 32-bit OS. As crazy as that sounds, everything moves forward eventually. It wouldn't surprise me if the next flavor of Windows is 64-bit only. If it offers a 128-bit flavor, that would ensure Windows 9 will fully support 128. But this doesn't seem to be the big "risk" that Ballmer hinted at.

I'm more inclined, and excited, to think that the risk that Ballmer is speaking of relates to features. It's obvious the economy may not be ready for a new version of Windows that might require enterprises to spend money on more hardware upgrades. Also, those who upgraded from Windows XP to Windows 7 will not be eager to move to Windows 8 unless the features are compelling enough.

I believe the big risk Ballmer hinted at is whether the release will be significant enough to encourage the transition for XP stragglers and Windows 7 users alike. Given how good Windows 7 is, I'd have to be really impressed to make that move personally.

What Windows 8 may feature
What are the rumored enhancements? PC World reports three potential form factor "center of gravities" related to "lap PCs" and tablets, workhorse PCs, and family hub PCs. The lap PC will have tablet features, the workhorse PC is the traditional desktop or laptop system, and the family hub PC is your next evolution of Windows Media Center, where it ties your TV and other media devices.

One possible feature is called "My PC Knows Me," which will use a proximity sensor to detect your movements in a room and, for example, wake up your PC. When you sit at your system, it will scan your face and log you in. Multiple user accounts won't be a problem -- it will instead switch between users. I see this as an interesting parental control. Even if Junior discovers Mom's username and password, he won't be able to get around the facial-recognition-based parental controls.

Another new feature in Windows will be the equivalent of Apple's forthcoming Mac App Store or the iTunes store. Microsoft has already been working on this with Windows 7 and Vista in the form of the Games for Windows Marketplace, which is installed in PCs via Windows Update and will roll out in mid-November.

With the recent emphasis on Office 365, the productivity-oriented successor to Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS) cloud server suite that integrates with Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials (code-named Aurora), it is logical to imagine tight integration with Windows 8 as well. Some rumors say Microsoft will call its next operating system "Windows 365," which would further support the speculation that the desktop will be linked to its cloud offering.

One rumored change for Windows 8 is in the updating of key kernel OS files through the cloud servers. In doing so, Microsoft could ensure systems are updated (supposedly without reboot) with the enhanced files. Plus, this could help prevent piracy. In the event a connection with the Internet is broken, backup kernel files will be used until the Internet connection can be reestablished.

What else? According to leaked documents, as reported by Computerworld's Preston Gralla, we can look forward to improved energy efficiency, faster startup, and better help and support (although you don't have to read leaked documents to expect those updates). A push-button reset is mentioned, which would allow you to reinstall Windows without losing documents and applications. There is also mention of enhanced identity management that allows user identities to exist in the cloud and move with users as they go from PC to PC. These, too, are not incredibly futuristic in nature and should almost be expected in the next version of Windows.

My advice to Redmond: Take your time on this one. Windows 7 is doing just fine in the marketplace. Windows XP is slowly being retired where budgets and workload needs allow. The damaged reputation over Vista (earned or not) is beginning to fade, just as it did for Windows ME before it. Make sure the next flavor of Windows gets our mouths watering. Delay the release for as long as necessary until that is the case. We'll wait.

This article, "What to expect from Windows 8," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in business software and Windows at InfoWorld.com.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter