Looking ahead to Windows 8: five big questions for Microsoft

The beta release of Windows 8 is just a few weeks away. It should be nearly feature-complete, and expectations will be high. So what's keeping managers in Redmond awake at night? Here are my top five questions.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft released the Windows 8 Developer Preview in mid-September of last year. Within three months, the full OS—a very large file—had been downloaded more than  3 million times.

That's an awful lot of interest in an unfinished operating system. As a point of reference, that number is larger than the total number of downloads for the feature-complete Windows 7 beta in January 2009.

Within the next few weeks ("late February" is the official target), Microsoft will unveil the next Windows 8 milestone. Technically, it's a beta, but it will probably be called a Consumer Preview edition.

In contrast to the incomplete Developer Preview, it has been designed for use by a broad audience, and it will undoubtedly be downloaded far more than 3 million times. More than 10 million? I wouldn't be surprised, given the level of interest I've seen so far.

The Windows 8 Developer Preview isn't really suitable for full-time use: Although you could try, it's missing some big pieces and has few real apps. The coming beta release should be nearly feature-complete, with full implementations of features that have only been demoed so far.

Expectations will be high for this release. So what's keeping managers in Redmond awake at night? Here are my top five questions.

Will customers adjust to the "reimagined" Windows 8 UI?

Microsoft has received plenty of feedback about the biggest change in Windows 8, the new Metro style Start screen and search box. Those features and changes that are a direct result of feedback, have been outlined thoroughly on the Building Windows 8 blog. The four separate blog posts on the topic have garnered 2,108 comments so far.

The discussion over file management was equally spirited, with some 2,200 comments to date. I love this picture showing how the results were tallied, although an Excel product manager is probably in tears over the thought of hand tallies.

In the demos I saw at CES, using relatively recent builds, the behavior of the Start and search screens had been changed in subtle but significant ways. It's probably not enough to silence the grumbling and occasional outright yelling over the changes.

I suspect there's a hard core of Windows fundamentalists who will never accept Metro style, or will resist it for some period of time. They'll just have to deal with it, because I'm told the final release will not include a "classic" option with the Windows 7-style Start menu and search behavior.

When will ARM devices arrive? How much will they cost? What will they do?

OK, that's three questions, but we'll count it as one.

Last year at the D9 conference Steven Sinofsky and Julie Larson-Green showed off Windows 8 for the first time. One thing Sinofsky said during that interview has stuck with me. Interviewer Walt Mossberg began asking a question: "And every program that runs in desktop Windows will run on ..."

And Sinofsky interrupted him to say: "It's Windows."

That's a theme I've heard repeatedly from others on the Windows team. The ARM edition is being developed on the same track as the x86/x64 versions. It will ship at the same time, and it will look and act just like its cousins on other chipsets.

What's different is that the code is hardware-dependent, and there isn't any Windows 8-ready ARM hardware available here in the outside world yet. That adds to the mystery around these exotic devices, and more questions that won't be answered until that hardware finally shows up in the wild.

Apps, digital media, and revenue -->

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Will there be enough apps?

The Windows 8 Developer Preview includes 28 sample Metro style apps. As I noted back in October, "Those sample apps do their job, which is to demo specific features so developers can get some idea of what Metro style apps can do. They’re fine for 30-second demos, but they don’t hold up for long-term use."

For the beta, the full suite of Windows Live apps shown off back at BUILD in September should be available. The list includes Metro style apps for Mail, Calendar, Photos, Messaging, and People. I'm curious to see whether the Mail and Calendar apps connect to Exchange servers. In a September blog post, Chris Jones, VP in charge of Windows Live engineering, said "Mail connects to multiple mail accounts, at home or at work. Calendar connects to your work and personal calendar..." One would think that Microsoft's definition of a "work e-mail account"  includes Exchange servers.

There will be third-party apps, too. As Mary Jo Foley reported last week, some developers are getting more recent builds of Windows 8 so their apps can be ready when the Windows 8 app store opens with the launch of the beta:

Microsoft is holding a First Apps contest to encourage developers to start building Windows 8 apps now for inclusion in the Store. The finalists are currently working with a private newer Windows 8 build to tailor their apps for the beta.

What will the digital media experience be like?

The Developer Preview includes no Metro style music or video players and no hooks to any online services. At BUILD, Microsoft confirmed this it was bringing Xbox Live to Windows as a primary source of games, music, movies, and TV shows. (Previously, Microsoft had announced that Xbox Live would be "the pervasive media service across devices"—including Windows PCs.)

The question is whether that service will be ready when the Windows 8 beta is ready.

Oh, and for the 25% of 6% of Windows customers who use Media Center, there's no backtracking: it will be available in the final release. (That odd statistic is courtesy of a Building Windows 8 blog post on the subject, in which Sinofsky used telemetry data to measure the actual size of the Media Center enthusiast base.) But the questions of how it will be delivered and whether it will be included in the beta release are still open—licensing of Dolby technologies is still a sticking point.

Will Windows 8 be able to sell at a price high enough to keep Windows revenues from sliding further?

It's a long way until Microsoft details the specific Windows 8 editions it will offer. But that's a crucial back-office calculation.

The success of Windows isn't just about selling units. It's also about getting the right mix of those units on the market, with business and enterprise buyers paying a higher price and consumers paying lower prices, usually indirectly as they purchase new PCs with Windows preinstalled.

A weak PC market depressed Windows revenues in the last quarter. Corporations will continue upgrading to Windows 7, but among consumers the biggest growth opportunities are in emerging markets, where prices are by necessity lower than in developed markets. In addition, there's the lower-cost ARM tablet category, where Windows 8 is expected to cost less than it does on x86 platforms. Growth in those two categories could shift the average price of a copy of Windows down further, meaning more pressure on revenues.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. There's a beta due in a matter of weeks. Even if it doesn't answer all the questions, it will give us plenty to talk about.

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