Editor's Note: Microsoft's Windows President, Steven Sinofsky, is speaking this week at the D9 Conference. It is rumored that he will show off the new tablet UI and the long-awaited cloud integration of Windows 8. We will update this article accordingly.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer finally confirmed what tech pundits knew all along: the next generation of Windows will be out in 2012. In the meantime, Microsoft is half-way done with Windows 8 -- it's in the Milestone 3 stage right now -- and is prepping up the first beta for this September's "Windows Developer Conference" in Anaheim, California.
But you don't have to wait until then to get a look at some of Windows 8's best new features. I've closely examined a pre-beta leak and dug up 10 great features and improvements you can look forward to. While these pre-beta builds have been covered left and right, I've chosen to focus on the lesser-known, but noteworthy improvements.
- Windows 8 facial recognition moves closer to reality
- Windows 8 portable workspace lets you take it with you
Looks pretty much like Windows 7: This early Windows 8 prototype hides many of its features. Some hidden gems are already accessible (via some registry tweaks and DLL hacks), others require a yet to be unearthed "Red Pill" from Microsoft. (Click here for a full-size image.)
1. Windows Store
Microsoft enters the lucrative app market, no surprise here. While "Windows Store" (which is the company's name for the online app shop) obviously doesn't work in this early build, the related DLLs and XML resources are already in place and ready to be examined by a variety of tools, such as PE Explorer or Resource Hacker.
Windows Store file details reveal feature set. (Click here for a full-size image.)
All the basic features of any app store are also present in Windows Store -- such as the ability to browse through categories, make in-app purchases, rate apps, download trials and so forth. New, however, is the ability to "stream" apps to your PC, which could lead to a couple of scenarios: 1) an app could be launched instantly after the purchase -- no need to wait until it is fully downloaded; 2) apps could be hosted in the cloud so that users stream only the part of the app they need at any given moment. That would be convenient for someone who'd like a larger product, say an Office suite, on a tablet with limited disk space, or who'd like to access the app from another machine.
Windows 8 collects all apps in its own "Application Explorer" and categorizes each app as either an "Immersive" or a traditional "Desktop" application (see below for more on that):
This ribbonized "Application Explorer" is a gathering place for all traditional applications and tablet apps. (Click here for a full-size image.)
2. Two-class society
Windows 8 will come in two separate interfaces flavors -- one traditional UI that resembles Windows 7's Aero and one touch-friendly UI specifically tailored to tablets dubbed "Immersive UI". The latter isn't fully implemented (or is too well hidden) in the early Milestone build, yet some specific tablet applications have already been unlocked:
Internet Explorer Immersive: A touch-centric version of Microsoft's IE browser that includes just an address bar (which auto-hides), a browser history and a tabbed view.
Modern Reader: Microsoft's own implementation of a (basic) PDF viewer that has only bare navigation and bookmarking support. (Still, Adobe likely won't be too happy about this.)
System Settings: A touch-optimized "Control Panel" that caters to mobile needs, such as connectivity, time zone settings or device management.
These few tablet apps are literally the tip of the iceberg -- the entire UI has yet to be revealed. While digging through Windows 8's various files, I found hints suggesting that users will be able to switch between the traditional Windows 8 UI and the tablet UI, through what's codenamed the "UIPicker". Also, we've found traces of a "Dock" that is supposed to hold built-in Windows features (such as a search box) and 3rd party apps.