Wi-Fi Direct support
Here's a feature that might not make headlines, but still holds promise: Like Android 4.0, Windows 8 natively supports Wi-Fi Direct. This emerging peer-to-peer technology uses a standard 802.11n Wi-Fi signal for network transmissions over short distances, but there's no need for a router -- it lets your Wi-Fi devices communicate directly with each other.
Wi-Fi Direct could usher in an age of interconnected devices in which your tablet sends data to your alarm clock, or maybe a smartphone communicates with a smart appliance in your kitchen.
Brian Fino, managing director at Fino Consulting, says Wi-Fi Direct is an important step in building connected intelligent applications. The more devices there are that support the technology, he says, the more robust software can be built to create a user experience that takes advantage of the direct connection.
Verdict: Wi-Fi Direct offers handy close-range peer-to-peer sharing, but it's too soon to tell whether the technology will catch on.
Another short-distance wireless technology called near field communication (NFC) has long been touted as a potential channel for in-store financial transactions. Although it's been slow to take off, the techology recently received a boost with the launch of Google Wallet, which lets you purchase goods by tapping an NFC-enabled smartphone against a terminal. Windows 8 will bring NFC support to tablets and laptops.
The idea here is that, with a tablet or laptop, you could purchase your next latte at Starbucks without fishing for a credit card. And as NFC terminals progress, two-way communication may come into play, such as offering users coupons or location-based marketing.
Dave Jakobik, a partner and lead programmer at Chicago Web design agency EtherCycle, was a bit incredulous about the usefulness of NFC in Windows 8. He says end users will be more likely to use a smartphone at checkout than a laptop or tablet.
But Peter Menadue, a general manager at Dimension Data, a Microsoft services partner, says NFC could be an enabler for other technologies. For example, if NFC becomes a common authentication method, it could replace Bluetooth pairing for headsets and other gadgets. And NFC is already used on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus to exchange contacts when you touch phones, so it could conceivably become a standard way to exchange data between laptops.
Verdict: Not terribly useful at present: Laptop and tablet users are unlikely to use NFC for financial transactions. It remains to be seen whether NFC will be widely adopted for other types of data transfer.
Native ISO image support
In previous versions of Windows, third-party software was required to mount ISO images, archive files that contain the entire contents of an optical disc and are frequently used to distribute software for bootable discs. In Windows 8, when you double-click an ISO image file on your hard drive, you can open the image in Explorer as a virtual optical drive, access its contents and even copy and paste files elsewhere on your hard drive for use with other programs.
This means easier access to a common file format; it's especially important for archiving legacy DVDs and CDs. Another common use: If you make an ISO image of your own photos and videos to burn a DVD, you can open that ISO file in Windows 8.
"ISO access is more and more useful with the slow disappearance of optical drives [and] the rapid increase in available hard drive space," says Jakobik. "I no longer need to carry my physical media with me; I can just have the images locally stored."
Verdict: This seemingly minor enhancement is a boon for IT staffers as well as people who use devices that lack optical drives.
Side-by-side apps on tablets
The Metro interface has one unique feature for future Windows 8 tablets: the ability to run two apps on the screen at the same time. Not even the market-leading Apple iPad 2 can run side-by-side apps.
"This could address a drawback of iOS," says Silver. "Windows (and Mac OS, of course) allows multiple windows on the screen at once. iOS only allows one, so you can't watch a video and surf the Web. Metro allows two applications to be seen at once, though Microsoft may need to rethink screen limitations."
Verdict: A useful feature for tablet users, but it's quite possible that competing Android tablets and/or the iPad will also support side-by-side apps by the time Windows 8 is released this fall.