Windows 8 wishlist: The six make or break features for Microsoft's OS

The features on analysts' wishlists, from virtualisation to Windows 7-friendliness...
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor

The features on analysts' wishlists, from virtualisation to Windows 7-friendliness...

Microsoft's unveiling of its next operating system, codenamed Windows 8, last week has shed light on the company's plans to seriously target the tablet market, take advantage of web standards such as HTML5 and pursue system-on-a-chip technology.

But with little concrete detail coming from Microsoft on what CIOs can expect from the OS, questions remain over whether Windows 8 will represent enough of a draw to upgrade from the now widely deployed Windows 7.

Here's silicon.com's take on the key areas Microsoft needs to address if it's to keep CIOs onside with the launch of Windows 8.

1. An interface for all devices

Analysts agree that Windows must have a user interface that can cater to both the emerging tablet market as well as the installed base of PC users.

Gartner research VP and distinguished analyst Michael Silver told silicon.com: "The elephant in the room is the tablet. Microsoft has been unable to respond to the iPad because Windows 7 is too big and Windows Phone 7 is not strategic for that type of device."

Microsoft would seem to concur, having shown off a tile-based interface during a demonstration of Windows 8 last week.

Microsoft has redesigned the user interface for Windows 8

Windows 8's tile-based interface may not be as suitable for PC users as it is for tabletsImage: Microsoft

"The new design is very phone- and tablet-like and will help people feel like the PC is an extension of those devices, which many are spending more time on and feeling more at home with than their PCs," Silver added.

Forrester senior analyst Sarah Rotman Epps also feels Microsoft has made positive steps towards making Windows 8 tablet-friendly. "Microsoft recognises that we're in a post-PC era. The desktop is still relevant but it's not the centre of Microsoft's strategy any more. Microsoft is transforming Windows for the post-PC era. The desktop still matters, but it's not the centre of attention any more," she said.

However, with most businesses unlikely to ditch traditional hardware set-up any time soon, Windows 8's ability to cater for slates without compromising its performance on the desktop will be key in encouraging CIOs to make the switch.

2. Making Windows more cloud-aware

Since the launch of Windows 7 in October 2009, cloud computing has continued to gain momentum in the business world, and Microsoft has been no stranger to embracing the trend.

However, analysts feel it still has...

Microsoft Office 365

Analysts say Microsoft needs to make Windows more cloud-aware with its next iteration of the OSImage: Microsoft

...work to do on the desktop front. Windows 8 needs to have more built-in cloud support to "drive the use of the cloud by making Windows cloud-aware", according to Quocirca's service director Clive Longbottom. "Ensuring that any connection to a cloud service is secure and audited will be a core requirement," he added.

While offering tighter integration between Windows 8 and its cloud-based productivity suite Office 365 would be another obvious step for Microsoft, Longbottom feels such a move could cause the company to come under scrutiny from the EU and the US Department of Justice, in terms of getting a competitive advantage by bundling software. Microsoft has been on the receiving end of negative attention from Europe and the US over similar issues more than once - notably over the bundling of Windows Media Player and its Internet Explorer browser with Windows, and fear of a repeat experience could deter the company from too tightly linking Office 365 with Windows 8.

For the time being, Microsoft remains tight-lipped on its cloud plans for Windows 8. "There's a lot we don't know about the product," Forrester's Rotman Epps told silicon.com. "What's the cloud story?"

However, Microsoft's emphasis on apps - particularly HTML5 web apps - in its discussion of Windows 8 is a significant shift in the company embracing cloud for its operating system. Microsoft is "recognising that the old model of client software is dead, and apps have the potential to breathe new life into software", Rotman Epps said.

With cloud continuing its unstoppable march into greater and greater numbers of businesses, Microsoft needs to make sure Windows 8 is up to the job of working with SaaS services.

3. Better integration of virtualisation

Better integration of virtualisation is an area that several industry watchers feel Microsoft needs to address with Windows 8.

Although Microsoft has incorporated virtualisation technology into its Windows Server product for a number of years, the in-built capabilities of Windows 7 to support different virtualisation options are more limited.

"Microsoft has a strong virtualisation portfolio but right now they are sold as separate products. They could stand to integrate some of that into the base operating system so the operating system is more virtualisation-ready," IDC program VP Al Gillen told silicon.com.

Tools to allow multiple operating system images to run side by side on the same computer would be a useful addition, according to Quocirca's Longbottom, who hopes to see Microsoft integrate tools - such as APIs and policies technology - into Windows 8 that would determine how these virtual images can interoperate and how information can be moved between virtual images.

Virtualisation, along with cloud tech, could also be...

...used to improve the back-up capability of Windows 8, according to Longbottom, by taking snapshots of virtual images and saving them into the cloud.

However, the use of a hypervisor - a software platform which separates the operating system from the hardware it runs on - would be sensible in order to keep the OS separate from the hardware and to make it easier to make changes to either element, the analyst said.

4. Compatibility with Windows 7

Backwards compatibility is always an important issue whenever a new Windows OS is launched and Windows 8 is no exception. Compatibility with Windows 7 will be critical in how well the newer OS is adopted.

Windows 7 has been a big success

Microsoft must ensure Windows 8 can play nicely with the widely deployed Windows 7Image: Microsoft

"It's important for the next version of Windows to be first and foremost compatible with earlier versions of Windows, meaning it's not disruptive to Windows 7 customers," IDC's Gillen told silicon.com.

When demoing Windows 8 last week, Microsoft said the OS will support all Windows 7-approved applications and hardware, but the compatibility situation may not be as clear cut as it seems. Despite Microsoft's promises, Gillen said such compatibility will be incredibly difficult to achieve for those Windows 8 devices running on ARM-based system-on-a-chip architectures.

Windows 7 doesn't run on system-on-a-chip, in which all components including the operating system are integrated into a single chip. So the fundamentally different approach will mean many Windows 7 applications won't run on many Windows 8 devices, at least without a significant amount of development work.

"[Microsoft] will have to bring the operating system over to a different architecture because any of those devices are going to be ARM-based, and at the moment Windows 7 does not run on the ARM-based processor," Gillen said.

Gartner's Silver believes Microsoft also needs to address compatibility issues in light of the changes the company is proposing to the Windows 8 user interface.

"The demo really did not show much about how legacy and new apps will work or look side by side or whether or how they will integrate. Microsoft has not said anything about timing and there are tons of questions on how the UI will work when moving between legacy and new applications," he said.

5. A faster and more efficient Windows

Greater efficiency of the Windows OS is another item on CIOs' wishlists for Windows 8.

While there were some enhancements in efficiency with Windows 7 - improved boot-up time compared to Windows XP and Vista, for example - it's an area Windows 8 will need to build on.

Microsoft's decision to develop Windows 8 to run on system-on-a-ship technologies signals improvements in boot-up time for devices running Windows 8 in this way, but ideally standard PCs also need to benefit from improvements in boot-up time with the OS.

"[Microsoft] needs to continue to think about...

...reducing start-up times and things like that which make devices start more efficiently. It has always been a concern with Windows machines - they don't come on fast enough. They made some improvements with Windows 7 but there is always room for improvement," IDC's Gillen said.

Quocirca's Longbottom said Microsoft could make Windows 8 run faster and more efficiently if it "cleans up" the operating system by removing legacy code and unnecessary processes.

One way of doing so could be taking out support for kit like modems or analogue telephones which aren't as frequently used as they once were, and offering them as optional modules rather than standard elements in Windows 8.

"Many [Windows services] are not really needed 99 per cent of the time, but take up a lot of resource. Kill them off - only load them when they are needed," Longbottom said.

6. Minimal disruption for existing Windows deployments

With Windows 7 now on 350 million PCs worldwide, including an increasing tranche of business machines, Windows 8 needs to be launched without causing disruption to those rolling out earlier versions of the OS.

"It's a bit of a challenge," IDC's Gillen said. "What do they do, how do they bring out a new product and how do they be careful that they don't disrupt or unseat the current product?"

It's an especially pertinent issue given the looming end to Windows XP support, meaning many businesses still using the evergreen OS will now be preparing to replace it with Windows 7.

"Most organisations cannot skip Windows 7, wait for Windows 8 and still get Windows XP out by the end of support in April 2014," Gartner's Silver said.

IDC expects Windows 7 to have a similar life expectancy to the perennial Windows XP, meaning Microsoft can't afford to neglect its current OS when Windows 8 emerges. "They are going to be in the business of supporting two operating systems for a long time," IDC's Gillen said.

Windows 8 might nevertheless find one early niche in business - it might appeal to business users with tablet PCs before it takes off in the desktop market, the analyst predicted.

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