Microsoft Windows 8 is today’s hot topic because of the leaking of what appears to be a set of presentation slides aimed at helping the major PC manufacturers to develop their next ranges of machines. The slides from Ecosystem Forum II (April 13-15) have already been picked up and discussed by Windows Kitchen.
It must be stressed that these are, as one slide says, discussion topics, “not a commitment”. Also, there are more ideas than there is time to implement in a product that will hit beta next year. The fact that something is mentioned in a discussion does not mean it will actually be in Windows 8.
The other thing to remember is that the development of Microsoft Windows never stops. There are plenty of long-term goals for things like security, virtualisation and threading, and those developments will be integrated into Windows when they’re ready. Microsoft is also working continuously to improve boot, sleep and wake-up times, and improve “natural” user interfaces such as touch and speech. However, much of the stuff aimed at PC manufacturers has more to do with surface variations such as branding, which I’ll cover later.
Some of the features suggested for Windows 8 systems (including touch-based slates or tablet PCs) are built-in face recognition for user account switching, and automatically adjusting screen brightness to match the ambient lighting. These address some of the more obvious limitations of Apple’s iPad, though Apple could well fix them before Windows 8 appears.
For more powerful machines, Microsoft suggests support for “Stereoscopic 3D”, which includes both integral and separate screens, such as TV sets. It looks as though the “play to” feature of Windows 7 -- where you can play media on one device and consume it on another -- will be extended. Today, many PCs can play Blu-ray movies, and a few can play 3D movies, but these capabilities could become standard options in Windows 8.
One useful idea is a push-button reset that will enable consumers to restore Windows 8 after they have messed it up. This differs from the current “reset to factory condition” in that it retains personal files, applications, and settings.
One of the more surprising suggestions is for a Windows app store that includes some sort of cloud-based functionality (“My apps and settings follow me,” says the slide). This will enable developers to target a global audience with “flexible licensing and monetization” and create “sustainable post-sale revenue” for channel partners, say the slides. Presumably this builds on something like Xbox Live, where Microsoft has already demonstrated that you can start a game on an Xbox then continue it on a mobile phone or a PC, picking up where you left off.
Apps will be reviewed before they are offered for sale.
Finally, Microsoft is looking for ways to enable PC manufacturers to vary Windows with their own user interface enhancements and themes, either to cater for specific types of device (Windows does everything from 5 inch to 40 inch screens, from netbooks to supercomputers) or just for their own branding purposes. The idea is to help manufacturers differentiate their products, so that an HP doesn’t look like an Acer, and to differentiate high-priced machines from cheap ones.
There’s no doubt that “emerging markets” will dominate the industry in 2012-15, with China being the biggest single PC market. Price competition is therefore going to be tougher than ever. However, in the richer Western markets, there are plenty of people willing to pay over the odds for something that looks pretty and has better branding.
Microsoft is well aware that its direct customers -- the ones who buy hundreds of millions of copies of Windows a year -- are PC manufacturers. With Windows 8, it is looking for ways to help them diversify into new, differentiated product lines on which they can earn better margins, and then, through apps and add-on sales, derive long-term revenues.