Five unanswered Windows 8 questions

By the end of the day tomorrow, we'll know much more about Windows 8. But some questions will remain unanswered, even after a thorough demo. Here are the top five on my list.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

By the end of the day tomorrow, after the first day of Microsoft's BUILD conference is in the books, we'll know much more about Windows 8. That will certainly answer some of the questions that Microsoft watchers have been asking over the past few months.

But a few larger questions have yet to be answered and may not be addressed in full this week. Here are the top five on my list. I'll be collecting clues this week in Anaheim to see if I can come closer to answering them.

How will Microsoft manage the transition to a new interface?

Windows 8 will include two interfaces: the "modern" Metro-style interface and the traditional desktop as embodied in Windows 7.

That has to be nerve-racking for two groups. Business customers will be totaling up the training costs and worrying about potential backlash from users. Developers will be doing risk-reward calculations to decide which interface to invest their time and energy in.

It's a tightrope act for Microsoft. If the new interface doesn't get traction quickly enough, early adopters are disappointed and developers go broke. At a developer-focused conference like BUILD, I expect to hear lots of conversations about this topic.

Where’s the cloud strategy?

Microsoft has spent the past few years methodically building up its cloud-based offerings. With a Windows Live ID, you can get 25 GB of online storage for documents and photos. Confusingly, you can sync a separate 5 GB of data to SkyDrive using the Windows Live Mesh utility.

But the missing pieces are even more noteworthy. There's no easy way for apps to retrieve a file directly from SkyDrive. Online storage is walled off from Windows Explorer, and has to be managed in a web browser. And so far Microsoft has said nothing about its strategy for uploading your music collection into online storage. Google and Apple have already gone public with their cloud solutions.

Will the cloud picture get clearer this week? We'll see.

Can a credible Windows-powered tablet really wait till mid-2012 or later?

This is probably the question I hear more often than any other. The stunning success of the iPad means there's some urgency for Microsoft to respond. But a hasty response can be worse than none at all. Just ask HP, which abruptly canned the TouchPad less than two months after rolling it onto the market. Or ask anyone who bought a current-generation Android tablet and is now struggling to make it work.

Based on those competitors' experiences, Microsoft's decision to wait until it can release a combination of hardware and software that works well together is the right one. One theory I've heard is that Windows 8 could be delivered in two releases: one version exclusively for ARM-based tablet devices, early in 2012, followed by the full Windows 8 release for traditional PCs later in the year.

I think that scenario is unlikely, but it could happen.

How much will it cost?

This question is actually a twofer, because you can't answer without also defining the list of Windows 8 editions. Will Windows 8 be delivered in multiple SKUs? Absolutely—at a bare minimum you need one for consumers and another for businesses on enterprise networks. But if history is a guide, it will be months before we know the exact lineup.

And asking this question also raises the question of Apple’s $30 upgrade pricing, which it introduced with Snow Leopard and continued with Lion. Microsoft and Apple are in different businesses, of course. Apple makes its money from high-margin hardware, and it can afford to break even on an OS upgrade. Microsoft makes its money selling software through partners, and a $30 upgrade could be a profit-killer.

Most copies of Windows are sold through hardware manufacturers on new PCs. I don't expect that to change in the Windows 8 timeframe. Given Microsoft's decision to engineer the new OS to run on existing hardware, it wouldn't surprise me to see an offer of cheap upgrades for Windows 7 users. But we won't know those details until next year, at the earliest.

Where’s Office?

Earlier this year, when Steven Sinofsky and Julie Larson-Green showed off Windows 8 at the All Things D conference, the showed Excel 2010 running on the legacy Windows desktop. When Walt Mossberg asked why the Office team didn't rewrite Office for the new touch-first interface, Larson-Green responded, "Well. They may do something ... in the future."

I suspect that was a nice piece of misdirection by Microsoft. If you remember the playbook for the Windows 7 launch, Office 14 (Office 2010) was in beta and available for testing along with the new OS. I suspect Office 15 will follow the same schedule, and we may even see some clues about how a "modern" version of Word, Excel, and the rest will look in the next wave of Office Web Apps.

And that's my list. What questions are you hoping to have answered this week? Leave them in the Talkback section.

Editorial standards