Of all the differences between Microsoft and Apple, the biggest one is this: Microsoft does much of its development in public. Because of its partner model, it can't cloak its projects in complete secrecy and spring big surprises the way Apple can. The broad outlines are there for all to see, if you know where to look. Many of the specifics are there, too, delivered at developer and partner conferences where the audiences need details to plan for their next generation of products.
While it's intriguing to obsessively analyze screen shots and videos and slide decks, they're almost a distraction. You don't need a bootleg copy of an early Windows 8 build to figure out what's coming next. All you need is the ability to identify the big themes and connect a few dots.
On Tuesday morning, September 13, at 9AM Pacific Time, someone from Microsoft—almost certainly Steven Sinofsky—will take the stage at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim for the opening keynote and will offer the first extended public demonstration of Windows 8.
I expect very few real surprises in that demo. Oh, sure, there will be interesting and unexpected details, but the broad themes and the big picture have been out there for months, even years.
I have no inside knowledge of Windows 8—I haven’t seen it yet, except in the same video clips you have, and I haven’t been briefed on it by anyone inside or outside Microsoft. But I can say with certainty that this will be a major release, with a long list of noteworthy changes.
Windows 7 accomplished its goal for Microsoft, cleaning up the Vista mess and reestablishing Microsoft’s reputation to deliver a well-engineered software release on a predictable schedule. With Vista in the rear-view mirror, Microsoft can concentrate on fundamental improvements in performance, reliability, and the user interface.
We have already had a few sneak peeks at Windows 8 and can list some of the obvious changes:
- The new OS will run on x86 systems as well as new designs based on ARM processors. Its system requirements will be equal to or lower than those of Windows 7.
- It will have a new Start screen, designed to work equally well with a touch screen or a mouse and based on the same Metro design principles used on Windows Phone 7 devices.
- A new generation of full-screen apps (based on HTML5) will be especially suited for tablet devices.
- The traditional Windows desktop, with support for all the programs you can use today on Windows 7, will be available as a full-screen app, with the capability to switch from the desktop to a full-screen app with a gesture.
- Internet Explorer 10 will be part of Windows 8, and the Trident rendering engine will be at the heart of the new Start screen and app model.
- The ribbon will be a key part of the interface for Windows Explorer and other utilities that run on the traditional Windows desktop.
- There will be a new, Microsoft-managed App Store.
And that’s just what’s been publicly discussed so far. I expect to see a lot of changes aimed at reducing the friction that makes managing a Windows PC annoying and occasionally painful. Finding and installing drivers, migrating data and settings to a new PC, backing up data ... these are all, in Microsoft's jargon, pain points.
Back in 2008, at an equivalent stage in the development process for Windows 7, Sinofsky devoted one of his first posts on the E7 blog to an entry titled “Measuring the scale of a release.”
The magnitude of a release is as much about your perspective on the features as it is about the features themselves. One could even ask if being declared a major release is a compliment or not.
What followed was a typically thorough discussion of the all the constituencies that have a stake in a new Windows release—end users, developers, partners, IT professionals, and influentials. Reading that post today is like going through a checklist for Windows 8. New APIs and capabilities to take advantage of in software? Check. Lots of change in the hardware ecosystem? Certainly. Under-the-hood changes and a new UI? Yep.
On the Building Windows 8 blog last month, Sinofsky wrote:
We started planning Windows 8 during the summer of 2009 (before Windows 7 shipped). the start, our approach has been to reimagine Windows, and to be open to revisiting even the most basic elements of the user model, the platform and APIs, and the architectures we support. Our goal was a no compromise design.
We are certain that as we show you more in the coming months you will see just how deeply we have reimagined Windows.
That sounds like a major release to me.
As for the schedule, I expect it to follow the same basic timeframe as Microsoft followed with Windows 7. For that version, Microsoft had an unveiling at its developers conference in late October, with a beta in January, a release candidate in April, a final release to manufacturing in July, and a public launch in October. Those are quarterly milestones, and they reflect the engineering process that the Windows team continues to use today.
It took almost exactly a year for Windows 7 to go from a developers’ preview to general availability. If Microsoft follows that same schedule, as I expect they will, we should see a final release of Windows 8 in mid-September 2012. A lot can happen between now and then, of course, but those are the dates to bet on.