The first prerelease version of Windows 8 was the Developer Preview (DP), which was shown off at Microsoft's 2011 BUILD conference. At the start of the development cycle, Windows 8 was described by Microsoft President Steven Sinofsky as "a bold re-imagination of what Windows could be", and the DP gave us our first look at the new Live Tile-based Start screen with its (subsequently renamed) Metro look and feel. Meanwhile, the — Start button-free — Windows Desktop was relegated to just another application. We met the five Charms (Search, Share Start, Devices and Settings) for accessing system and application settings, and the Contracts that define how applications work together. Windows 8's cloud-centric nature was already evident in the DP, from the Live ID logon to a new Live Mail client with Exchange and webmail support, to SkyDrive integration.
"It's challenging to develop a user interface that scales from phone to TV, via slate, notebook and desktop PC"
— Simon Bisson
Our initial thoughts on Windows 8? Reviewer Simon Bisson noted that "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" and that "it's challenging to develop a user interface that scales from phone to TV, via slate, notebook and desktop PC". However, he felt that "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". Despite the Developer Preview's buggy pre-beta code, Simon considered Windows 8 "ready for developers to build and test new applications".
The second prerelease Windows 8 version was the Consumer Preview, unveiled at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Described by reviewer Simon Bisson as "close to the final Windows 8 user experience", the Consumer Preview saw a lot of fine-tuning of the UI, particularly the Metro (as it was still called) Start screen, including additional gestures and improvements for non-touch (mouse and keyboard) users, and Semantic Zoom for easier tile management. Touch users saw improvements too, with controls (for application switching and accessing Charms) in easily-hit locations, and a new swipe-down close gesture for closing running Metro applications.
Elsewhere, the Consumer Preview allowed users to personalise the list of tools used for publicly available contracts, including sharing and choosing files (part of the WinRT programming model, contracts allow applications to expose specific functions that can be used by other applications — with no need for either application to know about the other). Multi-monitor support was improved, with the choice of separate backgrounds for different screens, or one panoramic backdrop spanning multiple screens. Placeholder Metro apps from the Developer Preview, including Skydrive and Mail, were fleshed out and new ones — Bing Maps, for example — introduced.
We wrapped up our look at the Consumer Preview by noting that it was "considerably easier to use than the Developer Preview, especially with a keyboard and mouse" and that "end users (both consumer and enterprise) can start to learn a new way of working that's likely to be the foundation for Windows for the next decade".
Rolled out at the end of May, the Release Preview of Windows 8 signalled that it had moved on from beta code by dropping the Betta Fish from the startup screen, replacing it with 'Windows' in Metro (yes, it was still called that) typography. Microsoft promised 'tens of thousands' of improvements under the surface of the Release Preview, although at first glance it seemed little had changed from the previous CP release. A lot of Metro's rough edges were ironed out, though, and further improvements offered for mouse/keyboard users. The Start screen got new application tiles with better live content and multi-monitor support was further improved.
The Windows Store got a makeover, with new apps available — including Microsoft's own Live Essentials suite converted to Metro style. A new set of Family Safety tools, for controlling how children use a PC, also made its first appearance.
The Metro version of Internet Explorer 10 included Flash support — albeit limited to a whitelist of touch-friendly sites, blocking those that violate the Metro user experience guidelines.
As it neared feature-complete status, we advised that "IT departments should certainly start looking at Windows 8 now" and that "web developers should start to familiarise themselves with IE10's HTML5 and CSS3 capabilities". As for Windows 8's prospects in the marketplace, we thought that "it's still too early to say if Windows 8 will be a success. What we can say is that it definitely won't be a failure". We concluded that "There's a brave new world under the hood of Windows 8 — and it's one that IT professionals of all stripes will need to explore in depth".
For the final Release To Manufacturing (RTM) stage, we concentrated on the Enterprise version of Windows 8. The other versions for x86 computers are Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro, with Windows RT available for ARM-based systems.
Windows 8 is the basic edition for consumers, while Windows 8 Pro — which adds Remote Desktop server capability, the ability to join an Active Directory domain, support for Encrypting File System, Hyper-V and VHD booting, plus Group Policy, BitLocker/BitLocker To Go support — is for prosumers and business users. Windows 8 Enterprise lacks the ability to install the Pro edition's Media Center add-on and is for Software Assurance customers.
After almost a year's familiarity with the 'new' Start screen (Metro now being verboten following a rights dispute with a German company), we pronounced the UI "clean and fast, and easy to use with mouse and keyboard as well as on a touchscreen device". We noted that "There's an underlying simplicity to the new UI that's possible to confuse with 'dumbing down', but it does make complex tasks easy once you learn that the whole screen is a search UI, and can be navigated by typing". The bundled PowerShell 3.0 made it easier for admins to work with users' PCs both locally and remotely.
We didn't think that user retraining for the new UI would be a huge issue, if only because line-of-business applications were likely to remain on the desktop. Anecdotally, we found that "Windows 8 is like Windows 7 — just faster and more power-efficient (our test laptops have gained an extra hour of battery life on average after updating with Windows 8)".
"Windows 8 is an operating system upgrade that, alongside Windows Server 2012, will help get your business architectures ready for the next generation of hardware and software — especially the cloud."
— Simon Bisson
By RTM time, the Windows Store had more new-style apps (check here for data) — although of course it had (and still has) a long way to go to catch rival OS vendors' app stores. Enterprise customers will be able to deliver suitably certified new-style apps independently of the Windows Store at individual or group level. Group policies can also block file and settings synchronisation via SkyDrive (available to consumer Windows 8) and use file sync in SharePoint 2013 instead.
Windows To Go (WTG) is an Enterprise feature, allowing a full Windows 8 install from a flash drive. WTG gets access to all of a host PC's processing power and memory — but not its disk drives or other storage. Everything a user does stays on the flash drive, ready to move to another PC.
Our verdict on the RTM code for Windows 8 Enterprise? "With improved enterprise features, it's an operating system upgrade that, alongside Windows Server 2012, will help get your business architectures ready for the next generation of hardware and software — especially the cloud." Well, it's out now: let's see what happens.
Windows 8 Enterprise RTM: screenshot gallery