Windows 8: The 'dying gasps' of the desktop OS or the next big thing?

Even before Windows 7 is in the shops, the Windows 8 speculation begins

Even before Windows 7 is in the shops, the Windows 8 speculation begins

Just as the marketing hype around Windows 7 heads toward its peak, a few details are starting to surface about its likely successor.

You may groan but work on Windows 8, as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has referred to it, is already underway.

The next generation of Windows is unlikely to appear for a few years - probably by 2012 - but Microsoft is working on what comes next, even before Windows 7 hits the shelves.

Ballmer for one has implied there is still more to come. "In a sense there's still a lot of work to do [with the operating system]," he said recently in London.

The company remains tight-lipped about the work being done but Ballmer has suggested that improved management and voice recognition are development priorities. There is also speculation that it may feature a 128-bit architecture.

Clive Longbottom, analyst with Quocirca, predicts virtualisation will feature more prominently with Windows 8. He said: "With Citrix, VMware and Microsoft all looking at how to give the ultimate experience to the user, expect to see virtualisation within the OS providing enhanced support for virtual desktops, for streaming applications, for access to applications when untethered and unconnected to the internet and so on."

He added that Windows 8 could be "a big step forwards towards being a unified client operating system" with Windows Mobile, Windows Embedded and Windows Client all becoming more aligned in terms of their release schedule.

Despite these potential additions, Longbottom suggests businesses won't necessarily be looking for a big shift with Windows 8 as they generally just want an OS that allows people to do their work while also helping to save money and time, extend the life of assets and provide better support for business processes.

One likely scenario is that Windows 8 will be an incremental improvement on Windows 7. Jonathan Yarmis, research fellow at Ovum, predicts technology such as 3D and gesture recognition could make an appearance - but these may be little more than Windows dressing.

As for Ballmer's comments that voice recognition will be a more-developed feature of Windows 8, Yarmis feels it will be a feature that only a handful of businesses will have been crying out for. "In terms of exciting new vistas so to speak, I just don't see it," he said.

There is the chance that Windows 8 could mark the end of the line for the pure packaged OS as the technology world moves irrevocably away from packaged software towards online platforms.

Yarmis suggests Windows 8 might be lucky to even make it to the shelves. "It wouldn't surprise me if we never see a product called Windows 8," he said.

With Google's web-based Chrome operating system likely to have gained further momentum by the time Windows 8 emerges, Yarmis suggested Microsoft will be focusing more on pushing a similarly internet-based technology.

He said: "If you were designing a new modern operating system from the ground up it probably wouldn't look architecturally at all anything like Windows - you'd want to support lots of different device form factors, you'd want it to be net-centric from the beginning, things like that."

"If you're thinking of Windows 8's timeframe being two-plus years from now, [Microsoft had] darn well better have [its] net-centric client side platform in a similar state of deployment readiness. So I think Windows 8 goes side by side at the very least with a net-centric."

In a similar vein, Quocirca's Longbottom suggests that with Windows 8, Microsoft will increasingly have to demonstrate the value of a client operating system. "Microsoft has to somehow tie the client OS into the cloud, making a Windows-based experience better than any other," he explained.

He added that Microsoft is likely to integrate its work around the Azure cloud platform into the desktop environment.

And for some, the whole idea of a desktop OS may have had its day.

As Yarmis says: "The bottom line is I can't get excited particularly about Windows 7 let alone Windows 8. This is kind of the dying gasps of a desktop-centric operating system."