Sep. 12, 2011 at 7:55 AM ET
By Avram Piltch
Never has so much been at stake for Microsoft in a single product release. After the successful launch of Windows 7 in 2009, the company continues to rule the desktop, but has faltered in the emerging tablet space. The next version of its popular operating system, codenamed Windows 8, is designed to bridge the gap between PCs and slates, but will it be enough to help the world’s leading software company catch up to its competitors in the mobile space when it launches sometime in 2012?
Just as important, will Windows 8 have the kind of compelling features that made Windows 7 a must-have upgrade for consumers and businesses alike? We’ve gathered together the top 8 announced or rumored features of Microsoft’s upcoming OS so you can decide for yourself. (Msnbc.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)
Touch-friendly user interface
Say goodbye to the Start Menu, at least when it comes to the main desktop. Microsoft has demoed a flashy new user interface filled with touch-friendly live tiles that show everything from the news to your social media updates. Windows 8 also supports full-screen HTML 5 applications on the desktop and the ability to switch between apps with a single swipe to the left or right.
“Tiles are better than icons,” Jensen Harris, director of PM: Windows User Experience, said in a demo video. “They have a little more space for the app to show its personality. Like the weather app can just show you the temperature without you having to open it.”
Despite the slickness of the new OS, Microsoft may have a hard time convincing users that an interface that looks more like Windows Phone 7 than Windows 7 will work well on non-touch devices.
"On a PC where you are still using a keyboard and mouse, or a laptop, where you don’t necessarily want to touch your screen, or only rely on a touch pad, I think it’s a harder sell,” said ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley. “I just can’t see myself — the way I work, and the way that I know a lot of other people work — having to click through those tiled boxes on the screen in order to find a program."
Fortunately, a traditional-style Windows desktop will be available for apps that require it. However, it's not clear whether users will be able to disable tile mode entirely.
Snap for multi-tasking
By default, Windows 8 won't even have traditional windows as native apps will run full screen without title bars or minimize/maximize widgets. To see more than one program at a time, you'll be able to "snap" one app to the left while another sits on the right. You can then adjust the dividing line between the programs to show more or less of each. Microsoft's Harris demoed Snap in this Microsoft video.
Improved file copy feature
Windows' obtuse file copying function has been a minor annoyance for years. Every copy operation has its own dialog box that shows you a single progress bar which may or may not provide an accurate estimate of how long the operation will take to complete.
With Windows 8, Microsoft puts all current copy operations into a single dialog box where you can check their progress and pause/resume them. You'll also have access to a more detailed report that shows the filetransfer rate of each file copy and a more transparent warning when you try to copy one version of a file over another.
Unfortunately, the estimates won't be more precise. In a blog post, Microsoft says that "estimating the time remaining to complete a copy is nearly impossible to do with any precision because there are many unpredictable and uncontrollable variables involved."
ARM processor support
Windows 8 will be the first Microsoft operatingsystem to run on ARM-based processors in addition to traditional x86 chips from Intel and AMD. ARM processors such as Nvidia’s Tegra, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and TI’s OMAP have dominated the smartphone and tablet space because they’re great at low-power, connected computing.
Windows 8 for ARM will support a new mode called “always on, always connected” that allows any device to act like a phone, remaining in standby mode for hours without disconnecting from the Internet, then waking instantly the minute you need them to.
At Computex Taipei, Microsoft VP of Windows Planning Mike Angiulo showed that both an ARM device and a standard x86 PCcould run the same piano playing application. He also demoed a notebook based Nvidia’s quad core Kal El CPU that could run Microsoft Office and print documents to a standard printer
Web apps on the desktop
However, we don’t know exactly how developers using Microsoft’s .NET framework and other popular programming languages will be able to build apps that work on both the ARM and x86 flavors of Windows 8. Will they be able to code once, run everywhere?
“At the highest level, people hear, oh it’s just the same code and it can run in both places, but we don’t really know that that is true,” ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley said. “And in fact, some of the things Microsoft said about having to rework office so that it works on Windows on ARM make me think it isn’t true.”
Windows 8 app store
With Apple adding a Mac App Store for to OS X and everyone from Amazon to Lenovo getting into the app store game on mobile, a Windows 8 app store seems like a no-brainer. We don't know much about the look, feel, pricing or selection of the store because Microsoft's only official word on it comes in a blog post from Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky where he simple lists "App Store" as one of the many teams working on Windows 8.
However, in April, Chinese site CnBeta posted the picture above, claiming that it came from a leaked build of Windows 8. Given the windowed appearance of this picture, we can only guess that this is either a fake, an early version or a version designed for Windows 7 users. We suspect that the final Windows 8 app store will have the same kind of tiled interface as other native Win 8 apps.
Native USB 3.0 support
With speeds up to 10 times as fast as USB 2.0 and the ability to carry more voltage for charging, USB 3.0 offers a whole new world of speed and convenience. Though USB 3.0 controllers and devices will work under Windows 7 with third-party drivers, Microsoft is building native drivers into Windows 8 and developing an efficient new USB software stack. Your blazing fast external SSD should work better than ever!
Kinect gesture control and other input methods
Microsoft hasn't announced support for Kinect-style gesture control, but long-time observers feel confident that when Windows 8 launches in 2012, it will be there. Given Kinect's popularity on Xbox, we tend to agree.
Windows Supersite's Paul Thurott told us he expects Microsoft to not only support gestures but all kinds of new input methods, including voice control and facial recognition.
"This doesn’t get a lot of press, but one of the big advantages, one of the big deals about kinect, even now in this early version is the voice-control stuff," he said. "People stand there and they wave their arms around in the air, and it’s interesting and it makes for a good demo, but the truth is, when you’re watching TV, it’s actually kind of nice to control the playback and the navigation with your voice."
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