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Microsoft Windows 8 Explored at BUILD
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Date: Sep 13, 2011
Section:Misc
Author: Joel Hruska
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OS Overview and Resource Requirements
Windows 8 is damned impressive. That's our one-sentence summary of the company's keynote and it applies despite the appearance of a few bugs and hiccups during the on-stage OS demonstrations. The new operating system shares certain design elements with Windows Phone 7, but it's far from a large-screen version of Microsoft's smartphone OS. When Steven Sinofsky, President of the Windows division at Microsoft, wrote that "Windows 8 re-imagines Windows" and implied that this would be the largest overhaul since Windows 95, he wasn't exaggerating.


Steven Sinofsky holds a first generation Lenovo netbook with an Atom CPU and 1GB of RAM running Win 8

One thing classic users will have to get used to from here on out is that Microsoft's focus is on Metro UI. The classic UI environment exists--Microsoft showed Photoshop running seamlessly--but it's not the future of the operating system. We'll offer more details on classic mode and on the interaction between the two UIs as they become available.

Design Principles, Shared Performance



Windows 8 emphasizes a true "chromeless" full screen mode in which all title and menu bars are hidden until accessed by swipe or mouse gesture. The OS's various applications are able to take advantage of each other without the sort of vendor-specific linkages that caused so much trouble for Microsoft ten years ago.  Windows 8 is also designed to offer the same experience across both tablets and desktops. Microsoft may still offer a 'Tablet Edition' SKU, but there's no core feature difference between Windows 8 for ARM and X86 tablets vs. Windows 8 for high-end desktops and notebooks.



The second and fourth bullet points are the critically important ones and signal the greatest shift in Microsoft's thinking. Windows 8 is designed to be "used while carrying," and while it's too early to say if the company perfectly nailed the paradigm shift, it's a clear departure from previous mobile operating systems.

Ironically, the touch-enabled version of Windows 7 is the most likely to require the user to remain motionless thanks to the difficulty of navigating a mouse-driven interface by finger. Not so with Windows 8.

The last point is something we'll explore in more detail later in this article. Applications in Windows 8 are linked through the use of what Microsoft calls "contracts" and designed to share information and allow for seamless interaction between message services, social networks, and cloud storage. A number of the company's demos highlight the idea that the end user doesn't necessarily care--or need to care--whether an image is stored locally, on Windows Live SkyDrive, or on Facebook. The important thing is that the image is readily available when the user goes looking for it. Finally, there's the question of performance. Microsoft claims that Windows 8 delivers "fundamental performance gains" and offers the following comparison:


Windows 8, with a lighter footprint than Win 7?  Apparently, yes.

It's nearly impossible to verify Microsoft's numbers for Windows 7; the number of threads and total amount of available system RAM at boot will depend entirely on what applications, drivers, and third-party software has been configured to load at launch. We're assuming, for simplicity's sake, that the company's figures are based on a "typical" user profile, with all the slipperiness that implies. Clearly, we're meant to conclude that Windows 8 is a leaner, more svelte product. That may be true--but the truth is likely more complex.

There's a significant gap between both the amount of RAM and the available RAM bandwidth when comparing even modest mobile PCs and tablets. Low-end netbooks still sell with just 1-2GB of RAM, but even tablets using relatively high-end LPDDR2 rely on a 32-bit memory bus that's just half as wide as a standard 64-bit DDR2/DDR3 RAM channel.

We suspect Windows 8 will be capable of adjusting certain performance algorithms depending on what type of hardware is powering the OS. It makes sense to put the OS on a diet when dealing with devices that offer 2-3GB/s of total memory bandwidth, but there's little reason to enforce such strictures when a modern desktop offers 10-20x the bandwidth and 4-8x the storage capacity.

Update:  9/15/11 - 2:40PM - Here's a quick video quick video walk-through of the new OS on a Core i5 2520M-based notebook we had here in the test lab.


Having considered the operating system's general design and performance, let's move on to specific applications and screenshots.

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Applications and UI


The new 'Welcome' screen is clearly related to its Windows Phone 7 counterpart. Date/time, email and message updates, WiFi level, battery power, and even a bit of scheduling information are all prominently displayed before the user has unlocked the device or logged in.



The "Start" page, zoomed out. When zoomed out, program tiles turn back into icons, presumably to lower the performance hit to the system.  They can be re-arranged into groups, moving tiles from one group to another as desired. When zoomed in, we see program tiles, as shown below:



The difference between tiles and icons is that while icons are static representations of a program, tiles are updated "live" and display new information as it becomes available. Click on the Headlines tile (currently displaying a BMW in the screenshot above) and the app displays the following:



The latest RSS updates are available in real-time.

Browsing



Browsing, like other applications, is presented in a "chromeless" full screen mode by default. Here you see what Microsoft is calling "charms." These are accessible via swiping and the bar is invisible by default. More on charms and how they function in a bit.



Here you can see how the browser handles tab-shifting and manual URLs. The back button, address bar, refresh button, "Pin" option, new page, and forward buttons are laid out at the bottom of the page, with already open tabs and the new tab button at the top.  

Your System, Your Cloud



One of the other features of Windows 8 is the OS's ability to seamlessly share content from multiple sources. The Photo Feeder application is capable of indexing images from multiple cloud sources and the local hard drive. During the keynote demonstration, Julie Larson-Green, Corporate Vice President of Windows, shared the large concert photo with friends via Twitter, without first having to login to a different service or even specify where the original image was located.

Windows 8 Screen Shot Gallery - Click images for high res


Metro and The Classic Desktop



Performance Monitor, IE10 and Gallery of Memories


Paint and RSS Headlines


Near Me and Sharing via Social Networks
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Underlying Win 8 Technologies and Conclusion

On the right, Microsoft's legacy language silos.  On the left, Windows 8 and WinRT wraps it all up.

Earlier this year, there were rumors that Windows 8 would push HTML5 and Javascript as exclusive next-generation development platforms. The company (thankfully) debunked the rumor today with the introduction of Windows RunTime, or WinRT. WinRT is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that's meant to allow all of the company's disparate development environments to hook into the Metro UI.

One caveat to the OS's classic UI mode is that it will only be available to x86 devices. If you want to program for ARM and x86, you'll have to use the Metro UI, which is one reason why the classic UI option won't be the preferred development environment long term. The upcoming Windows Store will also be Metro-only. Developers will still be able to target the desktop UI and it'll maintain perfect backward compatibility with everything from Windows 7 and before, but it's clearly not the future of the operating system.



The last feature we want to circle back and discuss today involves the "charms" we showed you in a screenshot back on page two. One of the most interesting features of Windows 8 is the way applications are designed to be able to search, share data, and connect to each other without the use of the sort of vendor lock downs that made Microsoft famous once upon a time. Microsoft refers to these sharing arrangements as "contracts" and they're baked in on the application level automatically.

Note:  We're discussing application-level awareness that allows the "Search" function to poll Twitter or Facebook for information, not higher-level changes to the way Microsoft uses or shares your own personal data.

The unified photo results and simple sharing options are another example of how the need to juggle multiple applications and windows has been streamlined. The OS is designed to share information as much as produce it, and MS has clearly taken pains to bake those functions in from scratch.

Conclusion:

There are still significant questions regarding Windows 8, particularly on the dev side, where a huge number of professional apps don't shoehorn easily into Metro's fullscreen/split-screen application layout. It's hard to imagine a Metro version of Photoshop, for example. We suspect Microsoft itself is still hammering out the details on how it intends to handle such cases, while recognizing that they're the exception, rather than the rule.


Dual screen applications--News feed to the left, video playback to the right.

The OS itself is still buggy and rough-hewn in a few places; there's no doubt that certain features we saw today will be heavily tweaked before the OS launches late next year or early in 2013. What's clear today is that Windows 8 is a bold departure from any mainstream OS the company has previously launched. Carefully balancing that departure with the need to ensure backward compatibility will be critical to Windows 8's success. However, Microsoft is being cautious on this front, and taking pains to maintain full compatibility while keeping focused on what it views as the future of the Windows UI.

It's exciting, different, and may give tablet manufacturers the leverage they need to compete with Apple--provided Android doesn't find a way to do so in the next 12-14 months. Given Apple's near-total market domination and the difficulties surrounding Google's operating system, we're not exactly optimistic that the OS will cleanly escape the morass of legal issues its currently bogged down in.  At least there's a window of opportunity in this new market. Microsoft just has to make Win 8 real, sooner than rather than later.



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