For what it’s worth, the first 25 years of our lives weren’t that smooth, either. So forgive us for favoring words like “commemorate” or “contemplate” instead of “celebrate,” which feels like too rosy a word for an operating system that has given us so much frustration, confusion, and heartache. Hey, maybe now that it’s 25, Windows will behave like a grown-up.
For better or for worse, the fact remains that on November 20, 1985, Microsoft released the very first version of Windows. If we asked you to use just a single word to define the 25-year history of Microsoft’s OS, we’re betting that “erratic” would pop up 70 times out of 100. There are a lot less-accurate descriptions.
Instead of recounting the very well-known past of the venerable OS—we’re sure that we’ll all see countless retrospectives, timelines, and detailed histories online—we decided it would be more interesting to peer into the future. These are wild and woolly times for Microsoft, Apple, and even Google as each company tries to give users the digital equivalent of the moon in exchange for a lifetime of loyalty. Based on the leak published earlier this summer, it’s clear that Microsoft has already given ample consideration and thought to Windows 8, or whatever the next version will be named.
To shed some light on the matter, we decided to ask a handful of the world’s leading independent PC manufacturers what they’ve heard and what features and functionality they’d like to see in the next big Windows release. A few people were OK going on the record, but most preferred to keep their comments anonymous or on a “background only “basis.
We also checked in with our Lab (of course), and with you, our readers, via our Facebook Fan page. To cap off our story, Reviews Editor Michael Brown reports on his hands-on experience with the beta of Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Home Server V2, which we expect will release later this year.
Imparted wisdom, thoughts, facts, and some outright guesses are inside.
In Windows 8, users will trump systems and the cloud will rule us all
What will Windows 8 look like? And when will it happen?
This summer, the world got its first chance to see what might be in the cards for Windows 8 when Italian tech site Windowsette.com posted several allegedly leaked internal Microsoft PowerPoint slides. Most of the leaked slides end with a disclaimer saying they were a “Windows 8 discussion” rather than a “plan of record,” but they still shed insight into the future.
Arguably the most intriguing and surprising slide is one that not only admits to the successes of a rather well-known competitor, but in effect champions it. Entitled “How Apple does it: A virtuous cycle,” the slide addresses the perceived positive user experience of Apple customers and gives a huge nod to Apple product satisfaction and in turn the brand loyalty and revenue generated by that satisfaction.
Another key slide, labeled “Focus: hardware capabilities,” flaunts an image of a prototypical all-in-one PC in order to make the point that the formfactor for Windows-based systems is evolving. Accompanying this image are a number of bullet points discussing everything from biometric recognition logins (the presentation later forecasts that “camera integration will likely be ubiquitous by 2012”), to voice control, to a touch display with “five or more contact points for improved sampling.” Furthermore, a “Sensors” section alludes to support for features such as infrared proximity sensors, proximity-based sleep/wakes, and light sensors that automatically adjust screen brightness to suit ambient room and environment conditions.
It also seems clear that Windows 8 will have its head in the cloud, so to speak. According to the leaked “discussion,” Windows will evolve from a machine-based system to a user-based one. In theory, Windows customer accounts will be connected to the cloud. Remote PCs will log onto websites on behalf of users, and cloud-ensconced settings and preferences will follow users from one device to another.
What’s more, the leaked slides put forth the concept of a cloud-based “Windows Store,” ostensibly Microsoft’s take on Apple’s App Store. In the ideal scenario envisioned by the PowerPoint deck’s discussion, consumers will be able to purchase applications online that “they can use on any Windows device,” and where developers can get a big helping hand to “reach millions of users.”
Other notable innovations on the table for discussion include instant (or near-instant) on, improved diagnostics and hardware/software monitoring, and support for a one-touch “reset” button that not only reinstalls Windows but retains the entire user environment, including settings, personal files, and applications. If the leaked material can be believed, an emphasis will be placed on being able to “connect end users to the right help when they need it,” which is no small challenge given the preponderance of software and hardware developers.
Interestingly, when the presentation discusses target formfactors, it does so without referencing the stalwart desktop PC. Instead, the three “centers of gravity” include all-in-ones, laptops, and slates.
Not surprisingly, when we asked our panel of independent hardware vendors what they wanted in Windows 8, we received a wide range of responses. Most of them took the time to laud Windows 7 for being stable and fast. One of our panel members, Kelt Reeves, owner of Falcon Northwest, told us his company is still riding high on Windows 7 sales, so much so that his only hope for Windows 8, “Is that they don’t mess up all the progress they’ve made with Win7!”
Given what seems to be a two-year development cycle as opposed to the traditional five-year cycle—more on this below—it’s likely that Microsoft won’t introduce any major new underlying technology in Windows 8. Given the stability and reliability of the NT kernel that has served as the foundation for all recent versions of Windows, it’s unlikely we’ll see any significant changes there. And, given the satisfaction that hardware manufacturers and users alike have expressed regarding Aero as implemented in Windows 7, it’s unlikely we’ll see any significant changes in the interface schema itself, aside from touch-screen enhancements.
Instead, what we—and everyone we spoke to—expects to see in Windows 8 is a shift in focus from system-based computing to user-based computing. This is no small task—the implications of this shift are massive, with thousands of ripple-effect ramifications. We also expect to see performance boosts and feature implementation designed to ward off not just Apple, but Google’s Android and Chrome operating systems, as well. Windows 7’s relative stability should greatly aid Microsoft in this pursuit because the company can focus on adding features as opposed to fixing bugs. “Windows is under fire from all sides—with iOS and Android/Chrome threatening them,” one of our off-the-record OEMs told us. “It still has incredible momentum and is not going away, but the OS of the future needs to be more nimble and responsive.”
As always, faster boot times will be a goal, and the onset of SSDs—which we’re betting will be ubiquitous by the end of next year in mid- to high-end systems—will help. “We are asking Microsoft for boot times of under 30 seconds,” one manufacturer told us. With the constantly evolving power of the PC platform, we won’t be surprised to see the next version of Windows booting in less than 20 seconds.
Almost every one of our experts was adamant in insisting that Windows implement an instant-on mode. In an ideal world, and a stable OS, boot times will take a back seat because instant-on is essentially the same thing as waking up from standby. Either way, the feature is a no-brainer with all the media streaming and remote access sure to come in future iterations of all operating systems. To date, display-driver instability and incompatibility continue to thwart fast system wake-ups. Microsoft will have to address the third-party driver situation at the code and distribution levels. No big surprise here: We’ll see a more effective means of certifying and automatically distributing these drivers.
Let’s get the other no-brainer enhancements out of the way now, also. Universal requests include deeper calendar/contact integration and social network integration—preferably at the desktop level as opposed to the browser or application level. Given the popularity of Android’s highly dynamic desktop, we also expect to see more useful and functional application-style widgets, multiple desktop views that we can change based on the context and situation, and improved taskbar and desktop notifications. There’s obvious room for improvement around troubleshooting, diagnostics, and self-healing.
Enough of the small stuff—let’s take a look at the bigger features and functionalities we can expect to see in Windows 8.
Every year Microsoft, Apple, and Google keep expanding their spheres of influence by acquiring, mimicking, or duplicating third-party software makers’ applications and services. We’re betting that for Windows 8, Microsoft applies the lessons Valve and Apple have learned with Steam and the App Store.
The next iteration of Windows will have tighter built-in integration with games and other applications via a built-in games/applications manager. Origin PC founder Kevin Wasielewski agrees. “Although Mobile Phone 7 will include Marketplace,” he told us, “it will be nice to see this carry over to Windows 8. Programs installed should function more like apps, with updates, in-game purchases, and more.” Valve’s Steam client is the perfect model here. In Windows 8, app management, updates, and even purchases will all be seamlessly and automatically managed, with no need for install discs or serial keys. We’re drooling for cloud-based saves that will allow us to play games across multiple systems.
The truth is, Microsoft already has a marketplace. It’s called Xbox Live. The company also already has a framework for independent game development with its XNA software developer’s kit, which is capable of running on Windows, Xbox 360, Windows Mobile, and Zune. The real secret sauce could be Microsoft’s ability to encourage and allow users to migrate their apps, games, and gaming content between devices, or permit access to games via remote connection. Wasielewski adds, “OnLive is cool, but I am limited to their content and possibly their bandwidth during heavy use. I’d like the ability to remotely connect to my slick gaming PC or server at home and remotely play my games from another location and/or my mobile device.”
We’re starting to get sick of hearing about Cloud Computing—it feels like an obvious evolution, and one that’s actually been around for quite some time—but it will be extremely relevant as Microsoft shifts to a cloud-based user-first architecture in Windows 8. But what does this mean in terms of actual features? First, companies like Dropbox, Carbonite, and other cloud-based storage and backup services should be concerned, because Windows 8 will include built-in support at the File Manager level for Windows SkyDrive, which will allow us to save and access files from anywhere and on any device.
Along similar lines, we’ll finally see robust implementation of Microsoft’s entire Office suite via Office Live. The big difference is that it will be built into the OS itself. We envision Microsoft implementing a pricing scheme similar to Xbox Live here—various recurring monthly or annual subscriptions will grant users access to Office Live applications, cloud services, video/movies, and the Windows app marketplace.
To date, virtualization feels under-utilized, and we expect this to begin to change with Windows 8. It’s difficult to predict how this will play out though, aside from virtual application threads and quarantined safe zones for browsers and applications. One of the experts we consulted with for this story gave us an interesting idea by suggesting that Microsoft implement a “high-performance mode for gaming that turns off unnecessary BS services and tasks with a simple click.” Agreed. We took this sentiment a step further and began to contemplate the possibilities of combining hardware-accelerated virtualization with cloud-based gaming services. Imagine a service like OnLive that uses virtualization, but also provides unfettered, no-latency access to your PC’s hardware layer.
Virtualization could also be utilized to enhance remote connectivity and interoperability between mobile devices and Windows. It’s not too big a reach imagining Microsoft coming up with an application that leverages the company’s VirtualPC technology to allow users to fully and automatically connect to and use their mobile device within the Windows OS. Virtualization could be used to duplicate and host such an environment, which we’ll dub the “Windows Teleporter.” This would be easy to accomplish with the Windows Mobile OS, but would obviously require more complicated (and conflict-laden) solutions with BlackBerry, Android, and iOS.
Windows 7 included support for the Trim function, which allows the operating system to communicate with a solid-state drive about which sectors are OK for garbage collecting, and made consumer use of solid-state drives practical. However, SSD space is limited, and is best used for applications, not documents. Windows 7’s Library feature made it easy to set default libraries to link to external drives, but to truly offload all documents meant fiddling with symbolic linking to fool programs that save to the C:\ drive no matter where they’re stored. As such, we expect Windows 8 to include greater separation between apps and data (like Linux), and allow for total dissociation between the OS partition and document and data storage—or at least include a wizard for moving the Documents folder.
On the other end of the spectrum, expect support for bootable partitions greater than 2TB. This is supported in 64-bit versions of Windows since Vista, but they need UEFI bootloaders and GPT partitions. Windows 8 and the hunger for bigger storage will drive UEFI adoption.
One final thought: We’re betting that Windows 8 spells the end of the Windows Media Center layer as well as the Windows Media Player itself. The direction Microsoft has pursued with Xbox Live makes us think Zune will become the foundation for all Windows-oriented media in the same manner that iTunes is for Apple.
TV and Home Theater is one category where Microsoft has strong offerings, but attaching an entire OS to an HDTV or even to a low-end all-in-one PC doesn’t make sense. One request we heard repeatedly from our experts was for a version of Windows that is “smaller and has lower specs for low-cost appliances such as HDTV, but with the full Windows shell and GUI,” as one boutique systems manufacturer put it.
So, when will Windows 8 make its debut? One of the slides in the leaked discussion presentation indicates a beta release in the summer of 2012, with a full release at the end of the year. This would be a greatly accelerated release schedule for Microsoft, which has previously released new versions of Windows every five years or so.
This said, we’re betting that the release of Windows 7 marks a development-cycle shift for Microsoft from five-year cycles to two-year cycles. Why? Apple does it, and Android does, too. In today’s rapidly changing environment, five years is too long to wait for even a minor iteration of a major operating system. We’re calling late 2012 on this one.
Next Page: The 10 Most Important Moments in Microsoft's OS »
Released on November 20, 1985, the original Windows was better known by its more formal name: MS-DOS Executive. The OS environment/GUI included a calendar, clipboard, calculator, and more. Unfortunately, the windows in this 1.0 release couldn’t overlap. The patent for that feature was owned by Apple at the time.
Released two years later in October 1987, this version featured overlapping windows like the Apple OS, albeit in a chunkier, more DOS-y looking way. The end result was an Apple lawsuit that lasted for almost 10 years. It’s worth noting that both Windows 1.0 and 2.0 were more GUI than OS—DOS still handled all file-system services and data requests. In defense of the GUI, it was paired with a fairly flexible virtual memory system, which allowed for multitasking functionality that was ahead of its time.
Microsoft capitalized on the explosion of desktop sales in homes and offices, selling millions of copies of Windows 3.0 in its first year. This version made major UI changes and took even more advantage of virtual memory and virtual device drivers. It wasn’t the most stable OS, however, and Microsoft quickly scrambled to release a 3.1 version in 1992 that enhanced stability. This iteration of Windows also introduced Protected Mode, which granted applications access to additional megabytes of memory.
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when even Microsoft believed that Windows wouldn’t last more than five years. The company’s open collaboration with IBM on OS/2 (Operating System 2) was important for two reasons. First, it helped Microsoft realize the true potential of a protected-mode, multitasking environment. Second, the failed partnership with IBM—which wanted to use OS/2 exclusively to drive sales of its own hardware—reinforced Microsoft’s decision to keep Windows an open-architecture operating system with support for lots of different hardware configurations.
The first release of Windows NT 3.1 was in 1993, and was a ground-breaking moment because it marked the debut of the NT kernel that has been the foundation of every version of Windows from Windows XP on.
A new interface, support for 32-bit applications, and native support for PC games compliments of Direct X were the high points of Windows 95, which debuted 15 years ago in August 1995. It was unanimously hailed as a significant step forward in terms of performance and gaming.
This marked the debut of the Windows Mobile OS. It looked and functioned like Windows 95, and featured built-in support for Word, Excel, and Outlook.
It was fairly stable and it lasted long enough that it became ubiquitous. ’Nuff said.
Released in July 2007, WHS represented Microsoft’s important initial foray into providing a network framework for homes as opposed to enterprise environments. It remains fairly underground, but power users have found Home Server stable, easy to use, and extremely configurable.
Talk about rebounds. After listening to all the chatter about how badly it had screwed up Windows Vista—which was mired in production delays and bugs—Microsoft saved the day with a stable and easy-to-get-into OS that shattered all previous sales records.
Next Page: Windows Home Server V2 »
Extended hands-on time with Microsoft's new home server OS reveals some interesting and powerful new features
We dig Windows Home Server, Microsoft’s home-oriented server operating system. It’s provided us with an easy-to-use and relatively bullet-proof means of backing up our multiple PCs, made it easy to access important files over the web, protected our shared libraries through automatic file duplication, and so much more.
But Windows Home Sever Version 1 has never been pretty to look at—we’ve long since replaced its weak media server with a third-party application, and its 32-bit code base (based on Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003) makes client restoration more awkward than it should be. While we’ve had to speculate as to the features that might be included in Windows 8, Microsoft’s follow-up to Windows Home Server has been in beta since last April.
The new Windows Home Server Launchpad runs on client machines and can start third-party apps as well as the server's Dashboard.
Here’s a high-level look at the new operating system, based on an interview with Microsoft Senior Product Manager Michael Leworthy and some quality time we’ve spent using the beta. Microsoft has not announced a target ship date, but we’re guessing WHS Version 2 (which is based on Windows Server 2008 R2) will ship in the second or perhaps third quarter of 2011.
As with Windows Home Server Version 1, Microsoft expects most consumers will buy Version 2 (the beta version’s full name is Windows Home Server Code Name “Vail”) pre-installed on a headless computer. We expect most of our readers, however, will buy the system-builder version of the OS and install it on a cast-off machine. Either way, the minimum hardware requirements are a 1.4GHz x64 processor, 2GB of RAM, and at least one 160GB, NTFS-formatted hard drive. The server must be hardwired to your router, and a UPnP-certified router—while not required—will deliver the best experience.
Where WHS Version 1 supported a maximum of five hard drives, Vail will support up to 10 (internal SATA, eSATA, USB, or FireWire). The system disk (the one on which the OS is installed) can reside outside Vail’s Drive Extender storage pool. If you’re not familiar with Microsoft’s Drive Extender technology, it’s a file-replication system that provides multi-disk redundancy to protect you from data loss in the event of a catastrophic disk failure. The system duplicates shared folders to different drives, so there’s always a backup copy. Unlike a RAID configuration, however, a Drive Extender storage pool can consist of different-size drives. And unlike a JBOD array, there are no drive letters; the capacity of all the drives is aggregated into a single pool.
As does the current version, Vail will support a maximum of 10 users or 10 computer clients (running any combination of Windows XP SP3, Vista SP2, or Windows 7. The 64-bit version of Windows XP is not supported). The release version of Vail will support Macintosh clients out of the box, too. Client machines will run a taskbar app called Launchpad, which provides an easy way to log onto the server, access shared folders on the server, initiate manual backups, access the server’s remote website, or start the server’s Dashboard app. Launchpad will also be able to start third-party server-oriented applications.
Dashboard is a replacement for the Windows Home Server console used in WHS Version 1. It’s the primary user interface for configuring your server’s settings as well as the backup settings for each of its client machines. It’s not much different from the Windows Home Server console from a functional standpoint, but it’s a whole lot prettier.
The OS will automatically perform block-based backups of its clients (Version 1 performed file-based backups); and for the first time, you’ll be able to back up the server, shared folders, and your client backups to an external hard drive for offsite storage. The OS has hooks for backing up to the cloud, too, but Microsoft’s Leworthy tells us the company has not decided whether or how it might expose that capability.
WHS Version 1 is capable of restoring individual files and folders, but since it’s a 32-bit OS, it’s rather clumsy when it comes to performing a bare-metal restore of a 64-bit system—since it can’t automatically restore a system’s 64-bit device drivers, you must locate them manually and copy them to a USB memory device. Vail features 64-bit code and will be able to perform a full restore using a bootable USB drive (Version 1 requires a bootable system-restore disc for each client).
A Vail server will be able to join a Windows 7 HomeGroup, so everyone who belongs to the same home group will have access to the same shared folders. The system administrator, however, will be empowered to assign permissions to each user. Mom and Dad might have read/write access to shared photos and videos folders, for example, while the rugrats are limited to read-only access. The system administrator will also be able to monitor the health of client machines and will have the power to push Windows updates and new antivirus definitions out to them.
The original Windows Home Server is a relatively weak media server right out of the box, needing a third-party add-on such as Twonky’s TwonkyServer or PlayOn’s PlayOn Digital Media Server to reach its full potential. Leworthy promises Vail will be different: It will not only be DLNA 1.5–compliant, it will use Microsoft’s Silverlight software to stream DRM-free media to clients on your local network and to clients on the Internet—including mobile devices.
Silverlight will also improve Windows Home Server’s remote-access feature, enabling friends and family to whom you grant access to view shared content on your server in a friendly, browser-like environment. Real-time video transcoding is fully supported, which is essential for streaming HD video to handheld devices, but not so for streaming to more powerful clients. You’ll need a relatively strong CPU in your server to pull off that trick, though—an Atom isn’t going to cut it.
Vail promises to deliver a much stronger, easier to use, more feature-packed home-server OS than ever, but there’s one feature that we’re disappointed to report won’t make it: any implementation of Windows Media Center. Imagine installing Ceton’s InfiniTV CableCARD tuner into a Windows Home Server box and connecting it to your cable TV service: You’d have the ultimate DVR with the ability to stream recorded TV programs—including video from premium channels such as HBO and Showtime—to wherever you happen to be. Sadly, we don’t expect that will happen anytime in the near future, simply because the Windows Server 2008 code base lacks any of the DRM hooks that are present in Windows 7.
But when all is said and done, we can’t wait to build a new Vail-based server—and we’re even more excited to see what OEM builders and add-on developers will do with the new OS.
Next Page: What We Want & What You Want in Windows 8 »
I really want greater cloud integration. There’s no reason Windows 8 shouldn’t be able to integrate something like Dropbox to keep documents synced. Hell, just allowing us to map Windows Live SkyDrive as a network drive would do it. This should extend to mobile devices like Windows 7 phones or (if you wanna be really cool) Android phones, too. Faster boot times would be great, and coming back from sleep faster would be nice. This is one thing Apple does really well—closing the lid of a MacBook puts the computer to sleep, and opening the lid wakes it up quickly. Why can’t we have that?
A couple of things come to mind, having just dealt with a virus attack. I want Microsoft to offer third-party patch management, so I can update all of my apps through Microsoft Update. I’m also intrigued by rumors that Windows 8 might include a restore button that lets you reinstall the OS without losing any data or having to reinstall applications—too often, System Restore is itself a target for malware.
I think a 3D desktop interface like you can find in Linux would be really cool, and also practical. That way, you could customize each part of this vitrual cube's OS desktop, selecting a different desktop depending on the task at hand.
When you look at the properties of a file, show the damned time it was accessed/modified/created down to the seconds! This went away with Windows Vista and it’s a pain now to get that information. Can we please also have a pause button added to the file-copy dialog?
Um, I honestly really (really) like Windows 7 so far, and I have no reason to be greedy. So, I’ll dream big: I want Windows 8 to make me coffee in the morning.
What I would love to see is a focus lock—a way to keep focus locked on a program—like when I am going through my email on Outlook and clicking links that I want to load and look at later when I am done clearing out my email. I would like in this instance for Outlook to keep the focus until I say, “I’m done” and I unlock focus. This would also be great in many other things that tend to pop up into your focus and distract you when you don’t want them to.
A low-level kernel OS to power basic functions, running any/multiple Windows OS in a virtual/protected environment, communicating seamlessly between all without performance degradation. Windows should store various settings/functions in the cloud or on a LAN without having to set up complicated domain server architecture. It should also facilitate info-sharing between designated WinPads, desktops, laptops, and phones. Finally, you should be able to drag or fling a file or open window to another device vis-à-vis Windows Surface.
I want to see fully integrated virtual desktops like the PowerToy for XP. I was hoping 7 would have it. The cube effect in Linux would be nice for organizing my workflow. I would also like to see MS buy RocketDock and fully integrate it into Windows 8. If they combined the two, with the ability to have different docks on each desktop, as well as different wallpapers, visually it would blow Mac out of the water.
I would like better multi-monitor support. I would also like to run dual monitors with separate instances of a desktop (similar to the Mac function), allowing essentially two separate computers to be run off of one processor, with seamless transitions between the two.
For all the features they keep adding to Windows, it still sucks at basic things like networking. Is it really necessary to hang the whole damn OS while it searches for something on the network that is no longer there? Oh, and WinFS would be cool.