8 questions about Windows 8

We already know a lot about Windows 8. We know it’ll have a new,touch-focused interface and application framework for tablets andtouchscreen PCs. We know it will still have a traditional desktop, withenhancements to Explorer (among other features). It will have versionsthat run natively on ARM-based CPUs in addition to the x86architectures we’re used to. It will integrate USB 3.0 support andcloud services.

For all we know, there is still a great deal we don’t yet have answersto. Next week, Microsoft will hold the BUILDWindows conference, previously known as the Professional Developers Conference(PDC). This will be Windows 8’s big unveiling, where the company willfinally detail and demonstrate the major features and changes to whatit is calling the biggest change in the operating system since Windows95. Here’s what we hope to find out:

1. How will the new Start Screen apps be built and distributed?
The new Start Screen interface, made for touch-first devices liketablets (or touch-enabled all-in-one desktops) is pretty slick. It usestiles that resemble the “Metro” style prevelant in Windows Phone 7, and may be builtwith HTML5 and Javascript technologies. Microsoft showed it off in atantalizing video (below), but we’ve only seen a glimpse of it. Whatother languages and tools will be used to build these apps? Will theybe distributed only through the built-in App Store, or can other sitesand download services distribute them? How does installing,uninstalling, and updating these apps work?

2. What new tools will make developers’ lives easier?
An operating system is only as good as the software that runs on it. Tothat end, Microsoft needs to make easier, more powerful tools fordevelopers. With Windows 8 support ARM architectures, developers willneed an easy way to complie and optimize applications for both x86 andARM processors. DirectX 11 is a couple years old now, and with perhapsanother year before Windows 8’s release, it may be time for Microsoftto start talking about its successor. With App Stores all the rage,users expect simpler install and uninstall capabilities as well as theassurance that their applications remain up to date. Will Windows 8incorporate new feautres to make it easier for developers andpublishers to meet these needs?

3. What new hardware will be supported?
Native support for ARM-based processors is a huge undertaking, and thebuilt-in USB 3.0 stack is an important stepforward, but what other new hardware will Windows 8 support out of thebox? Modern tablets – a key target market for Windows 8 – support awide array of sensors like accelerometers, cameras, proximity sensors,gyroscopes, GPS, and digital compasses. Will Windows 8 provide APIs togive developers easy access to all these things, or will a fragmentedarray of drivers and software interfaces have to suffice, as they dotoday? How about out-of-the-box Blu-ray support? How will Windows 8enhance support for multiple displays or projectors?

4. What about the built-in apps and utilities? Many of the built-in applications and utilities in Windows are due fora major overhaul. Windows Defender might as well be replaced with thesuperior Microsoft Security Essentials. Paint should be completely replaced. The built-in movie making software is similarly out-of-date. We know Internet Explorer 10 will be a part of Windows 8, but we’ve only seen some examples of how it expands support for HTML5 and boosts hardwareacceleration over IE9. What will IE10’s interface look like, and whatnew features will it bring? More advanced features like disk management could use some improvement, too.

5. What’s in it for gamers?
We already know Windows 8’s system requirements are supposed to be nohigher than Windows 7’s, but this promise of efficiency is not enoughto satisfy the tens — or hundreds — of millions of Windows gamers outthere. They want to know how Windows 8 will make their game-playingexperience better, faster, and easier. Will Xbox Live be integrated asa first-class citizen, built right into the desktop?

6. What about the cloud?
Microsoft is said to be integrating cloud services with Windows 8, butwe don’t really know exactly what that means. Is it just built-inSkyDrive, or does the integration go deeper than that? There have beenrumors that users can, by logging in with their Live account, storetheir entire desktop setup in the cloud and access it from otherWindows 8 computers. If this is the case, it raises all sorts ofquestions about security and compatibility. Then there are the details:How much online storage to users get? What will the inevitable premiumservices be and what will they cost? Perhaps most importantly, whathappens to users who want to opt out to all of Microsoft’s cloudservices – does this seriously compromise the operating system?

7. What do Windows 8 tablets and PCs look like?
We’ll probably see some prototype tablets, ultrabooks, and concept PCs at theconference. Some will be less refined than the actual products that hitthe market when Windows 8 goes on sale, others will never see the lightof day. Either way, we hope to be impressed by a very forward-lookingview of where the PC is going. Will an advanced ARM-based chip find itsway into a thin-and-light laptop, or will ARM be found only on tablets?

8. What about the beta?
Will Microsoft release a beta of Windows 8 at the BUILD conference? Ifit doesn’t, will we at least get a date for when the beta is to begin?Will it be as open and broadly accessible as the Windows 7 beta, orwill access be limited?

Despite the flood of information we expect to get at the conferencenext week, there are three bits of data we don’t expect to hearanything about: pricing, versions, and release date. As much as we wantto know how many different versions of Windows 8 there will be (we’rehoping fewer than Windows 7), how much they’ll cost, and when we canbuy it, it’s probably far too early for Microsoft to start divulgingthose details.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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