Windows 8 and the Cloud
Microsoft has built many of the Windows Live services into Windows 8, backing up state and settings into the cloud, along with user tiles. After logging into a Live ID, you can immediately start downloading settings to a new machine.
A new Live Mail client provides Exchange support, as well as for web-based mail applications. It's a very similar tool to the Windows Phone 7 mail client, with a two-pane view of your mail. You can tap to open folders, while the Calendar application will aggregate views from several calendars, including shared calendars.
If you use the People hub on Windows Phone 7, you'll find the Windows 8 People application very familiar. A connected service, it uses the social connections built into Windows Live to give you one place to see everyone you know — along with their social media status updates. There's no need to worry about networks, as it's all handled by the Live service platform, with links for instant messaging and for photo libraries.
Microsoft has finally integrated its SkyDrive cloud storage tools with Windows, and applications will be able to use the service. Users will see SkyDrive in the Share charm, and will also find applications using it to handle sending large files — sharing photos, for example. The SkyDrive service will also now show connections from other PCs, letting you connect to your work PC with no need for additional authentication or tools.
Developing for Windows 8
HTML Metro applications use the same rendering engine as IE 10, so you get all the benefits of its GPU acceleration and standards compliance. That also includes its CSS support, and the new layout standards for grids and flexboxes. With support for WebSockets in Windows 8, applications will be able to connect to data sources and services, as well as taking advantage of Web Workers for background processes. Touch comes for free with the Windows 8 controls, and it's also easy to add contracts to your application using WinRT APIs.
The Windows Store
Windows 8 will introduce Microsoft's new application store. Similar to the Marketplace developed for Windows Phone 7, the Windows Store is integrated into the Start screen and into the Windows 8 developer tools. This makes selling and distributing applications just another step in the application development lifecycle.
Microsoft's Building Windows 8 blog has already shown some of Windows 8's performance optimisations, with the aim of producing an OS that runs on the same hardware as Windows 7, while offering efficiencies. A new Task Manager has a clean Metro look-and-feel, with a new process management view that owes a lot to Sysinternal's Process Explorer. You can use it to see a heat map of resources in use, as well as getting an application performance history for Metro applications. As an added bonus, a right click on a process name launches a web search, helping track down details of unknown processes.
The pre-beta developer preview already uses less memory that Windows 7 on the same hardware, and coalesced system times and new lower power state tools have improved overall performance. The new kernel hibernation-based boot is extremely fast — faster than a monitor's resolution detection and switching! Some functions, like a new low power connected standby mode, only work with ARM architectures at present, handling saving application state for rapid power-off.
As Metro applications are designed to be shut down at any time, they can enter a new suspended state, not scheduling processor time, which helps to deliver multitasking on CPU-constrained machines like Atom netbooks. A set of performance contracts let you write code that won't be suspended or shut down, so you can write applications that carry on using network connections or play audio in the background.
Windows 8 also brings deduplication to memory pages, consolidating memory used by shared libraries and common data. It's a process that only works when memory pages are identical, but can save several megabytes of memory on a busy machine. It's a lazy process, periodically scanning memory and combining where possible.
Security in Windows 8
Like other recent Windows versions, Windows 8 has been built using Microsoft's security design lifecycle methodology. It also adds new security features to the OS, including a secure booth that works with UEFI BIOSes to sign the boot process and only trust those signed processes. If a PC is booted with a compromised OS it won't start, reducing the risk of installing rootkits and other low-level malware.
The boot process also loads anti-malware early — even during fast boot. Microsoft will bundle its own anti-malware suite, an upgraded version of Windows Defender, but OEMs will be able to install their own anti-malware solutions. Windows Defender will add full antivirus, with run-time, network filtering and web protections — protecting you from compromised devices and drive-by web attacks. Windows' reputation-based defences are getting an upgrade too, with SmartScreen now supporting applications installed from more than just the web.
Windows 8 makes it easy to re-provision and manage machines. If a system has a recovery image, all you need do is hold down the Windows key when you restart, and choose the reset option to fully format the hard drive and reinstall Windows, ready for a new user.
If you're having problems, a refresh will reset the OS, replacing your applications, settings and data, so you can carry on working — with only a five-minute wait
An alternative option allows you to refresh the operating system. Choose the refresh option and your PC will take your files, data and personalisation, save them off, and then reapply them to a refreshed operating system. It's a quick process, and can help recover machines that may have had system files corrupted or replaced by third-party applications.
Windows 8 and business
Although much of Windows 8's new user interface seems targeted at the consumer market, it also contains many business-specific features — especially when used in conjunction with Windows 8 Server.
One important new feature is Windows To Go, which runs Windows 8 from a USB stick, secured with BitLocker. It's an interesting alternative to VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) for smaller organisations, where implementing a shared storage system and running VDI servers can be expensive. All you need to do is issue staff with Windows To Go USB sticks, and they can plug them into a machine and reboot to launch their personal Windows environment. If a running copy of Windows is accidently unplugged, you just reinsert the key and the system will automatically restart and resync, leaving you where you were when the USB drive was unplugged.
Windows 8 has full VDI support too, using RemoteFX. Users will be able to see a catalogue of remote applications on their desktop, accessible with full fidelity — with touch support too. There's also support for multiple remote desktops, and for using Hyper-V on Windows 8. Virtualised Windows on Hyper-V is a debugging tool, and developers can use it as an isolated debugging environment.
The future of Windows?
Windows has changed completely many times — the jump to Windows 95, to XP, to Vista and to 7. However, none have been as dramatic as the changes in Windows 8. The new shell and the Metro user interface model are very different ways of working to the familiar WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse and Pointer) paradigm. That's not a bad thing: PCs are changing, and Windows needs to change in order to support the next five years of hardware.
It's challenging to develop a user interface that scales from phone to TV, via slate, notebook and desktop PC. But Microsoft seems to have nailed it. Metro's immersive look and feel works well on a range of different PC hardware, is easy to learn and a lot more informative than the old start menu and task bar. Change like this is good, and although it can't be a big bang that disenfranchises current Windows users and developers, Windows 8's desktop-as-application model makes a lot of sense as a tool for backward compatibility, while encouraging development of new Metro applications.
The pre-beta code we've seen is buggy, and not ready for prime time. However it is ready for developers to build and test new applications — and with the new Visual Studio and Expression Blend tooling, Microsoft is giving them what they need to get started. It's going to be an interesting few months as Microsoft fine-tunes Windows 8 for release, and as developers learn to build applications and services that make the most of it.