Preview of Windows 8: End of the PC Era

The 8th time around for Microsoft's operating system (Graphic: grasundsterne)
Microsoft's Windows 8 has the rumor mill buzzing (Graphic: grasundsterne)

The tried and true desktop PC now has 30 years under its belt. Most of those years have been spent with a loyal companion: the Microsoft Windows operating system, which debuted way back in 1985. These days, however, the PC seems passé, and new platforms like tablets, smartphones, and the cloud have long since begun encroaching on the erstwhile alpha’s territory.

And whither Windows? With Windows 8, Microsoft appears ready to make a significant leap, describing it as the most innovative release since Windows 95. Likely the most daring aspect of the transition is how Windows 8 will run not just on PCs, but on netbooks, tablets, and Windows phones, as well. Just a few of the new features include an app store, a touch interface, and tiles in place of windows. An alpha version – or the “third milestone” in Microsoft-speak – is currently available, and the first beta is expected to follow this fall.

For more insight into the innovations in Windows 8, its chances of being a hit, and when the final version will be released, simply read on.

The start screen displays your most important tiles, along with various information (screenshot: YouTube)
The start screen displays your most important tiles, along with various information (screenshot: YouTube)

Multitouch, tiles, and 3D

At the recent All Things Digital D9 conference in California, Windows president Steven Sinofski unveiled a completely revamped interface in comparison to Windows 7. Where once were windows is now a tile-based design – also known as Metro or Immersive UI – that users may recognize from Windows Phone 7. On the start screen, conventional programs and apps are displayed in this format and deliver information at a glance. The Outlook tile, for example, shows incoming mail in real time, and your browser presents your active downloads.

Available video demos reveal the multitouch gestures used to navigate in the system. You can open a tile simply by touching it, while swiping enables you to arrange programs next to each other and adjust their size. This makes it possible to display and run multiple programs on the same screen. Another swipe of the finger and new apps enter the screen. You can enter text using an integrated touch keyboard, which also gives you the option of dividing it ergonomically into left and right blocks. This interface variant is considered definite for Windows-based tablets, and is also probable for desktop PCs. Using the latter will, however, still be possible with a mouse and keyboard.

Meanwhile, insiders report that a 64-bit version intended for high-performance desktops will be capable of 3D effects. Word is that a version modeled on the Aero design of Windows 7 may also be available for platforms with less horsepower.

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Touching the weather app tile, for example, brings up more detailed information (screenshot: YouTube)
Touching the weather app tile, for example, brings up more detailed information (screenshot: YouTube)
Windows Phone Marketplace: the template for the Windows app store? (Screenshot: Microsoft)
Windows Phone Marketplace: the template for the Windows app store? (Screenshot: Microsoft)

32-bit and 64-bit versions

Although Microsoft originally announced its intention to offer only a 64-bit variant, it has since confirmed that Windows 8 will also support ARM processors. These chips – often used in tablets and smartphones – are currently only available in 32-bit configurations. The fact that mobile devices have limited working memory is another argument for a 32-bit version of Windows 8.

Meanwhile, a component known as Feature-on-Demand User Experience (FonDUE) could enable the operating system to start only certain applications and processes depending on the device in question. To ensure availability on all devices, Microsoft is also said to be working on a file system called Protogon – a successor of NFTS. The first hardware manufacturers to receive development kits for Windows 8 were Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA, as well as the ARM processor manufacturers Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.

App store

Causing the most stir, however, is the rumor that Microsoft is planning its own app store for Windows. The related discussion was stoked by a blog entry in which Steven Sinofski introduced all of his division’s developer teams – including an “app store” team. Through such a store, it would presumably be possible to purchase, download, and update apps. The corresponding developer platform, at the moment known only as “Jupiter,” allegedly ensures that all apps are compatible with Microsoft Silverlight and .NET. This would make true rich Internet applications (RIAs) possible. Installations are said to be based on the AppX standard, making them usable on both stationary and mobile devices. In addition to apps, Microsoft appears to be continuing its support of conventional programs, which may run in a Windows 7 mode.

Security from the cloud

To prevent hacking attacks, Windows 8 is expected to require activation through Standard OEM Activation (OA) 3.0, and the obsolete BIOS concept will be replaced by UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface). Should the desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) concept come to fruition, cloud functions would provide a boost to the system’s security and usability.

By partially or completely outsourcing the operating system, network administrators would gain the ability to configure Windows 8 centrally and stop malware from directly accessing the Windows kernel. In addition, backups, security, functions, and multiple user accounts could be offered as cloud-based services.

Another new function, the touch keyboard (screenshot: YouTube)
Another new function, the touch keyboard (screenshot: YouTube)

New tools and functions

Among all the new features planned for Windows 8, Microsoft intends to rework the task bar, add in speech recognition, and include an icon that displays the progress of device driver installations. The system will also support both USB 3.0 and Bluetooth 3.0, and users should be able to activate an enhanced Task Manager through a registry key. Meanwhile, compatibility with disk images in ISO and VHD format will eliminate the need for programs such as Daemon Tools.

Those who have missed the “up one folder” button since Windows XP will be please to hear that this feature is making a comeback, and Windows 8 will also incorporate the online storage system Windows Live Mesh to a greater extent. Screenshots of the alpha version of Windows 8 reveal buttons for synchronizing local folders and making them available in the cloud. Much more vague, however, are signs pointing to a login process that involves Windows Live or face recognition. Gamers can continue to hope for an integrated Xbox service that may support the motion-sensing control system Kinect.

Here are some more of the key innovations Windows 8 is expected to offer:

New file management: Microsoft’s own studies have found that users are particularly dissatisfied with the current Windows file management system. Copying or moving files takes longer than two minutes 20% of the time; naming conflicts occur, and the entire process can fail because one particular file can’t be moved. Microsoft wants to change this with a window that displays copying processes and enables users to pause them individually. The source and destination folders in question are constantly visible, and a percentage indicates how far along each process is. Microsoft also plans to address problems related to file name conflicts.

Ribbon menu: You may already be familiar with this combination of menu control and toolbar from recent versions of Microsoft Office. Tabs at the top of Explorer reveal different sections of functions, replacing the previous “File,” “Edit,” and “View” drop-down menus. Though more intuitive for new users, many die-hard Windows users find this confusing, which is why the concept is not certain to be included.

History Vault: Like Apple’s Time Machine function, History Vault creates backups you can use to reset your computer to a specific point in time. This has the potential to make full reinstalls of Windows – in cases of lagging performance, for example – a thing of the past. Unofficial sources report that this function can also be used on individual objects and deleted files.

Quick start: A combination of “Shut down” and “Hibernate” makes for faster startup times. UEFI, the successor of BIOS, plays a central role in this feature while also conserving energy.

Immersive Reader: Replaces the notoriously error-prone Adobe Reader.

Windows 8’s new file management system makes copying files easier (screenshot: YouTube)
Windows 8’s new file management system makes copying files easier (screenshot: YouTube)
The motion-sensing input system Kinect: Will gestures someday replace touch interfaces? (image: Microsoft)
The motion-sensing input system Kinect: Will gestures someday replace touch interfaces? (image: Microsoft)

Final release: 2012?

As Microsoft has just issued the third milestone of Windows 8 – three being typical of Windows releases, the first beta version could arrive this fall. It is expected, in fact, to be presented at the BUILD conference, which is scheduled for September 13-16 in Anaheim, California. The conference will replace Microsoft’s Professional Developer Conference (PDC), an event the company commonly uses to release beta versions of Windows. As for the release of the final version, forecasts range between early 2012 and later that fall.


Windows is the most-used operating system in the world. However, Windows 7 and its predecessor, Windows Vista, were targets of a broad range of criticism: The systems are known for consuming significant resources, suffering rapid declines in performance, and being neither intuitive nor attractive. Apple’s Mac OS X enjoys greater esteem, yet Windows’ high level of prevalence and standardization make it the first choice of companies in particular.

In recent years, Microsoft has been known more for maintaining its market power than for setting the pace of innovation, but this could change with Windows 8. A fresh design, cloud functionality, and above all, the compatibility advantages the company is promising among Windows-based PCs, phones, and upcoming tablets present compelling arguments to businesses. The question remains, however, as to whether Microsoft has already missed the boat on mobile platforms and will thus be more or less tied to the shrinking PC market.

Will Windows Phone 7 guarantee the success of Windows 8? (graphic: Microsoft)
Will Windows Phone 7 guarantee the success of Windows 8? (graphic: Microsoft)