Windows 9: How Microsoft might overhaul the interface in its next OS

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Every graying movie franchise needs a great sequel to give it a boost. Think Star Trek and James Bond. Operating systems are no different—especially Microsoft's. After receiving a critical beatdown for Windows 8, what does the company have up its sleeve for Windows 9?

It's too early to call Windows 8 either a success or a failure, but it's never too soon to ask what's next, particularly in connection with a rumored mid-2013 update dubbed “Windows Blue.” Microsoft will have to pull off a tricky balancing act with its next version of Windows: It must satisfy its existing base of users while transitioning from the old desktop paradigm to the new touch-first interface. As matters stands, there's definitely room for improvement.

Microsoft declined to answer questions about how it might build on Windows in the future. So we've done some brainstorming—with the help of a few trusty experts—to imagine potential ways forward.

Kill the desktop

With Windows 8, Microsoft demoted the desktop user interface. Instead of being the main attraction when you turn on your PC, it's just one app among many on the new “modern-style” Start screen. The fact that Windows 8 is essentially two operating systems in one has given impetus to some interesting hybrid devices such as Surface Pro, but it has also drawn jeers from critics who find the desktop-versus-Start screen dichotomy jarring and confusing.

Tom Hobbs, creative director for Seattle-based design consultancy Teague, argues that retaining the desktop in Windows 9 would be a mistake. “I think one of the things they should do is just ditch the whole desktop completely,” Hobbs says. In that case, only the touch-friendly side of Windows, with its walled garden of apps, would remain.

But wouldn’t users—especially those in enterprise environments—stage a revolt? Perhaps, but committing to touch also creates a clear path forward for users and developers, Hobbs says. It’s not unlike Apple’s transition from Mac OS 9 to OS X, an operating system that was incompatible with legacy software in the absence of an emulation layer.

“Of course, there’s going to be some resistance to that," Hobbs said. "There’s going to be some slow uptake, but at the same time, it means that people know where they are. They know where they stand."

The key for Microsoft, Hobbs thinks, is to capitalize on its strengths. That means abandoning the fight to make Windows a consumption product—leaving that field to the Xbox team and to devices like the rumored Xbox Surface—and instead positioning Windows as the best touchscreen OS for business. In this scenario, a Modern-style version of Office for Windows 9 would be a must, of course, but Hobbs can also imagine Microsoft reinventing desktop PC hardware with a focus on touch.

Hobbs came up short on suggestions for what this reimagined desktop would look like, but here’s one idea: Think of a Surface all-in-one PC that you could manipulate from afar with a Kinect-like system. It's not so farfetched.

We're already seeing glimpses of this type of functionality. A firm called Leap Motion is releasing a $70 motion sensor peripheral that's about the size of a pack of gum and can be added to Windows 8 PCs. Leap Motion technology lets you track movements of both your hands (and all ten of your fingers) at 290 frames per second and detect movements as slight as 0.01 millimeter (see the video above). Asus says that it will bundle Leap's hand-gesture technology into a number of high-end laptops in 2013.

Other ways to move beyond the mouse and keyboard in Windows 9 are possible, but success will depend on tight integration of hardware and software. Incidentally, such integration is the kind of thing that Steve Ballmer says Microsoft wants to do.

NEXT: Keep the desktop for diehards

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