Officially unveiled by Microsoft on June 1, 2011 at Taipei Computex 2011, Windows 8 is the codename for the next generation of Microsoft Windows. Speculation on its release date has been made but the official line from Microsoft is that it will be some time in 2012, which is good news for organisations waiting to make upgrades.
On September 13 2011, Microsoft released the Developer Preview version to the developer community. It was reported that there were more than 500,000 downloads within the first 12 hours of its release, demonstrating that the developer community is taking this seriously and is looking to develop applications and solutions for the new Windows.
The previous version of Windows 7 came with 6 platform versions based on limitations of hardware and functionality on desktop versions alone – there has not yet been confirmation as to whether Windows 8 will follow the same model, although support for non-Intel hardware, specifically to target handheld devices, indicates there may be some choices.
In Microsoft’s “reimagining of Windows” its aim has been to produce a single, common technology that will work on desktop, laptop, tablet, slate, netbook, mobile and kiosk hardware. This means that users will always know how to use the operating system and supported applications, regardless of where it is deployed.
The most radical change in Windows 8 and obvious manifestation of Microsoft’s reimagining is the ‘Metro’ start screen, a personalised mosaic of tiles replacing the icons usually found on a desktop.
The tiles behave like start icons but are much larger and in place of static application icons they contain live information. Those who are familiar with Windows 7 mobile will instantly be at home with this concept. A collection of Metro tiles showing live data will provide a dashboard of data, and like a dashboard, can give the user an instant overview of all activity.
The Metro interface has been designed for touch use as well as with a mouse and keyboard. In previous versions of Windows where touch screen support has been available, operation has been tricky with very precise gestures being required. Proper touch screen support will make the operating system more accessible and intuitive.
On mobile devices, Metro will provide a clearer and more informative interface compared to that of iPhone or iPad where application icons are static. The interface has also been designed to be the start point for using applications and much effort has gone into making this usable for more than one application at a time.
If moving from mobile to desktop use, this common presentation and behaviour will decrease training costs and possibly calls to IT helpdesks, as users will always be familiar with their device and learning from one physical platform can be moved to the other.
Actual availability of software is unknown at this stage but there are a few details known about standard features. One thing for sure is that applications will need to be specifically written for use in the Metro interface.
Windows 8 is planned to ship with two versions of Internet Explorer 10. IE10 Immersive will be used for the Metro interface and IE10 Desktop. Many legacy web applications typically accessed via intranet or extranet portals require specific versions of Internet Explorer, meaning that adoption of Windows 8 with IE 10 will not be possible for all users until these issues are addressed.
IE 10 Immersive will support HTML5 only, so plug-ins such as Flash or ActiveX can’t be used in Metro. HTML5 support currently varies across current browsers therefore Microsoft’s take on HTML5 in IE10 must prove to be standards-based. However, with the current adoption of HTML5 technology, technical skills will be available to develop Metro compatible solutions.
The file explorer as part of Metro is aimed at arranging files by type, which is a major change from all other traditional file managers where data is arranged according to user definition. This content bucket approach will suit casual or home users looking to find photos and video but where data and files must be structured as for most businesses, the alternative traditional file manager will be needed.
The Metro file manager also merges data by type regardless of where it is located. This will combine internal file server data, cloud data, and local devices such as USB and disk. This may simplify finding data across enterprise storage devices but poses a problem for the user in understanding ownership of files if this is not already properly managed by IT.
What does Windows 8 mean for business?
Obviously the biggest questions faced by business and IT when upgrading to a new operating system for their users are, “how will I get the new version of Windows?” and “will all my current software still work?”
The roll out and support of Windows Vista proved to be painful for many IT departments. Windows 7 has been less of an ordeal but still maintains some complexity for users for installing and maintaining software. Windows 8 must prove to be an improvement but history may deter IT until an upgrade is a necessity.
There will undoubtedly be a new version of Microsoft Office to coincide with the release however due to the nature of these applications, their use in providing live data for the Metro interface may be minimal.
Personally, I think the new Metro interface is a winner for Windows 8. A single, well-designed and human approach for managing data and access to applications means switching between devices will be far easier for users and IT will only need to support one ‘family’ of operating systems, regardless of where they are deployed.