What you should expect from Windows 8

Early insights into Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 Consumer Preview should give IT a lot to chew on when the bits arrive

With the Windows 8 Consumer Preview beta edition just around the corner, now is a good time to examine what we know and don't know about Microsoft's forthcoming OS, and what IT should look for when the Consumer Preview hits as expected on Feb. 29.

Windows 8 rates as Microsoft's latest bet-your-company move, with the computer industry rapidly adopting mobile platforms. For Windows 8 to thrive in the corporate environment, however, it has to not only add important new capabilities to today's Windows 7 desktop but also morph into a touch-enabled, highly portable, secure OS that IT can tolerate and users will love.

[ See InfoWorld's Windows 8 preview visual tour and go deeper with InfoWorld's Windows 8 Deep Dive and Windows Server 8 special report. | Keep up to speed on the key Microsoft news and insights with InfoWorld's Technology: Microsoft newsletter. Sign up today! ]

Can Windows 8 make it as both a floor wax and a dessert topping? Let's take a look.

Putting Windows 8 Consumer Preview into perspective No doubt you've already banged around the Windows 8 Developer Preview, and your clicking finger is poised to get the Consumer Preview bits as soon as they appear. But it's worthwhile to step back and take a look at what will, and won't, be happening at the end of the month.

Microsoft isn't trying to convince you to upgrade all of your Windows PCs to Windows 8. Quite the contrary -- last week, Microsoft's general manager of investor relations, Bill Koefoed, gave a short talk at the Stifel Nicolaus Technology & Telecom Conference (video and transcript), where he said, "One-third of businesses have upgraded to Windows 7. ... For the enterprise, the path to Windows 8 is through Windows 7." Microsoft is far more interested in getting all of your PCs on Windows 7 than they are on pushing your PC users to Windows 8. I have a feeling that's going to come through loud and clear in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

"Consumer preview" is a bit of a misnomer anyway. This is a reasonably stable, mostly feature-complete build of Windows x86/x64, where the user interface isn't locked in concrete, and that's it. Microsoft is way beyond the point where substantive changes can be made. Online comments and extensive eavesdropping -- "telemetry" in Microsoft parlance -- may lead to some interface changes. But the plumbing is already in and won't be altered.

The version of Windows 8 that has gotten the most recent buzz, Windows on ARM (WOA) will go out to a very select few; there isn't even a hint of when we unwashed masses will get to see them. We do know that Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Texas Instruments are working on WOA devices -- likely tablets but perhaps touchscreen netbooks as well.

WOA won't have the Windows 7 "desktop" part of Windows 8, so it won't run the familiar Windows Explorer or existing (Win32s) Windows apps. It just runs the Metro UI, a touch-oriented operating environment for lightweight applications, and apps designed specifically for Metro -- sort of like how Apple's iOS is the separate-but-related, light counterpart its Mac OS X. Of course, x86-based PCs get both the Windows 7-derived "desktop" and Metro, whereas Macs can run Mac OS X but not iOS.

What to expect from the Windows 8 user interfaceIf you've been looking at the Developer Preview, you know all about Windows 8's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde interface(s).

You've seen the touch-oriented Metro interface with tiles in reorganizable groups, where the faces of the tiles change programmatically and you can pinch to zoom out to view all of the tiles at once ("semantic zoom"). In the Consumer Preview, Microsoft promises we'll be able to create and name new groups, drag groups, change the background color and style, turn big tiles into little tiles, and use the mouse (not just our fingers) for all sorts of navigational actions, including semantic zoom. There are several minor changes in the way you swipe and click, particularly with the charms bar (Search, Share, Start, Devices, Settings) on the right. These changes are largely cosmetic, but if you're thinking about deploying a Metro app -- especially a Metro app that has to live in a mouse-friendly world -- they could be crucial.

Also on the Metro side of the fence, the current, reprehensible App Search behavior changes: Instead of Search splatting an alphabetized list of all your applications on the screen, as the Developer Preview does now, the Consumer Preview arranges them by groups. You'll probably want to work with it a bit, try rearranging and renaming groups, and see if your users can live with the new tools at hand.

On a "legacy" Windows 7-based PC (a loathsome term), more changes are in store. It still appears as if all Windows 7 apps and drivers will just work on Windows 8 PCs -- that is, desktops and laptops using Intel or AMD x86 CPUs. That's certainly the goal, anyway. In the Consumer Preview, we'll see a few changes: an improved Task Manager with more details and app startup tweaking; the new Windows Explorer ribbon won't appear by default as it does in the Developer Preview (yes, Explorer will still have the "up one level" button, as well as the Open Command Prompt menu item); a few long-overdue tweaks to the copy and move dialogs. They're all worth a look, though nothing's really compelling.

The big change in the "legacy" PC version is the Start button. In the Developer Preview, clicking on the Start flag (it wasn't really a button) switched you to the Metro interface. Apparently the Consumer Preview does away with the button, but not the behavior. As I explained recently, the overriding problem is that the "legacy" Windows desktop doesn't have a "legacy" Start menu. A small cottage industry has grown up with registry hacks and lightweight programs to bring back the Start menu in the Developer Preview. Will Microsoft make it easy for admins and users to unlock the menu in the Consumer Preview?

What has changed beneath the Win8 covers When you're going through the Consumer Preview, be sure you check the new features with your current environment -- and sound off if you hit any snags. Here are some potential sticking points.

Virtualized storage -- called Storage Spaces in Windows 8 -- brings fully redundant backup and easily extensible disk pools to any Windows 8 client system with two or more hard disks. It's a brilliant concept, popularized in Windows Home Server's Drive Extender, now adapted for Windows 8 clients. When the Consumer Preview arrives, you should spend time testing it with your corporate data backup routines. Although there shouldn't be any problems, it's a very new way of interacting with clients.

Much has been made of Windows 8's new refresh and reset capabilities -- analogous to a wipe command on a tablet or smartphone. Reset completely erases the client computer and reinstalls Windows. Refresh is supposed to keep personal data and settings, retain Metro apps, and reinstall Windows. It isn't clear at this point precisely which personal data and settings are kept in a refresh -- and whether everything is obliterated in a reset. Make sure your apps survive.

All new PCs with the "Made for Windows 8" sticker must implement Secure Boot, a UEFI option that may bring you grief if you have users who need dual-boot capabilities. Secure Boot enforces electronic signature checking on operating systems before they're loaded. Windows 8 will pass muster, but other OSes may not. Most -- but not necessarily all -- x86/x64 "Made for Windows 8" PCs will have an override capability. WOA devices will be able to boot only into Windows 8 Metro.

The SkyDrive cloud storage service is due for a major makeover in the Consumer Preview, and part of the change involves single sign-on with a Windows Live ID. There are significant security implications as developers can "enable single sign-on and access a user's data on SkyDrive to make your Metro style app more personal -- with the user's consent, of course," as Microsoft puts it. Of course.

The Consumer Preview will give us the first glimpse of Microsoft's Windows Store. There's a particular twist here for the enterprise IT: The only way consumers can put Metro apps on their PCs and devices is through the Windows Store. (The only way WOA owners can put any apps at all -- or drivers -- on their devices is through the Windows Store.) At the Build conference last September, Windows president Steve Sinofsky said that businesses would have a private area in the store, which would dish out corporate apps, but only to authorized machines. We haven't seen any details of exactly how that's going to work -- and it'll be an important question for all corporate developers.

Microsoft has put us on notice that we'll see better and faster connections to Wi-Fi and other mobile networks, more adept power conservation, new and much more touch-friendly picture passwords, Windows to Go for running Windows 8 (presumably x86/x64) from a USB drive. Some of those may apply to your shop. Hyper-V will be available on x86/x64 machines, but it isn't clear whether the Consumer Preview version is in any way different from the Developer Preview version in that regard.

What the Windows 8 Consumer Preview means for IT From an IT point of view, the Consumer Preview should give you a very good idea of where your x86/x64-based applications will evolve in the near future on "legacy" PCs. The Consumer Preview will also show you how Metro's going to work -- or how it won't work -- with WinRT-based apps you're thinking about developing. (WinRT is a new type of app using the Windows Runtime for portability between x86/x64 and ARM platforms.) Microsoft continues to promise that WinRT apps will be transportable from the x86/x64 version of Windows 8 to WOA, so the strengths and weaknesses you see in Metro in the Consumer Preview edition should carry over to both x86/x64 and ARM platforms.

Sinofsky has stated, definitively, that the only applications allowed to run on the WOA desktop are four Office 15 apps -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote -- and a small handful of Microsoft apps, including Internet Explorer 10 and Windows File Manager. That's it. Per Sinofsky, "WOA does not support running, emulating, or porting existing [Win32s] x86/64 desktop apps." Period.

If you have hopes of developing an app that will run on cooler, lighter, cheaper, battery-miserly ARM devices, you'll have to write it Metro-style. Or if you can get it to run under Remote Desktop Services, it may be compatible with Internet Explorer 10 on a WOA device -- maybe.

The differences in Internet Explorer 10 between WOA and x86/x64 may drive your Web programmers nuts. IE10 runs on the Metro and desktop interfaces on both x86/x64 and WOA hardware. That's four different versions of IE10. Plug-ins won't work on three of the four combinations: They're banned on everything except the "legacy" version of IE10 running on x86/x64 hardware. If your site requires a plug-in, and a user comes at the site using Metro on an x86/x64 PC, they'll be notified of the need for the plug-in and given a one-touch option to flip over to the legacy desktop version of IE10. But if the user has a WOA tablet, there's no option: They're dead in the water, like most other mobile users.

Which is probably just as well. No more Flash. No more PDF plug-ins. No more ActiveX. I'd be hard-pressed to say which of the three has led to more infected Windows PCs over the past decade.

One final note on testing: You're going to want a touch-enabled tablet to test Metro, even for the x86/x64-only Consumer Preview. Using touch is very, very different from mousing your way around. Although Windows 8 -- both Metro and the legacy environments -- will run on any monitor with a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels or higher, your PC must support 1,366-by-768 resolution or higher to get all Metro features to work.

In particular, if you want to use Windows Snap -- Microsoft's facility for helping apps run side by side -- to get a Metro window and a second window displayed next to one another, you need 1,366-by-768 resolution or better. Quoting Sinofsky again: "The resolution that supports all the features of Windows 8, including multitasking with Snap is 1,366 by 768. We chose this resolution as it can fit the width of a snapped app, which is 320 pixels (also the width designed for many phone layouts), next to a main app at 1,024-by-768 app (a common size designed for use on the Web)."

Beyond the Windows 8 Consumer Preview: The great unknown Over the past year we've gone through layers and layers of rumors, particularly about Windows 8 on ARM. Features come and go. Perhaps the most egregious example is in a video made at the Build conference last September. It shows Roger Gulrajani, from the Windows Hardware Ecosystem group, demonstrating Flash running in IE10, on the desktop, on an ARM device. Now, we're assured IE10 won't run Flash on ARM devices. That much has changed in just four months. Or maybe Microsoft itself was confused and got it wrong; there were several such misstatements at Build, and you can expect confusion to continue given the addition of ARM support for just part of the complete Windows 8 experience.

And I haven't even touched on Office 15. We know very little about it, except Sinofsky has promised, "WOA includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These new Office applications, code-named 'Office 15,' have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption, while also being fully featured for consumers and providing complete document compatibility."

Will all WOA devices ship with Office 15? If so, as full versions or ad-supported giveaways? At an extra cost or free? For that matter, will x86/x64 Windows 8 PCs ship with Office 15, or a stunted relative?

You can bet there are plenty of additional surprises that'll surface before the final version.

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