A recent Windows Blue build is in the wild, sporting a more polished tablet experience. Does this also foretell retirement for traditional desktop computing?
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An ostensibly legitimate build of Windows Blue, the much-rumored update to Windows 8, surfaced online over the weekend and is currently being circulated on file-sharing sites. The leak caps a spree of Windows Blue rumors over the last few weeks, including videos in which Microsoft officials casually reference the update and numerous indications that an official release will arrive soon.
The leaked build is incomplete, marked by several non-functional features and placeholders. Nonetheless, observers have already unearthed new insights into Microsoft's strategy to remain dominant as its core PC business cedes ground to the tablet market. Many of these inferences reiterate earlier rumors, such as refinements to Windows 8's touch-oriented Modern user interface. But the build also suggests a tablet-centric mindset that has already seeded new speculation, the boldest of which suggests Microsoft will soon retire one of its most iconic Windows features: the desktop itself.
Microsoft has yet to officially acknowledge that Windows Blue exists, let alone to comment on the update's unscheduled appearance in the wild. With screenshots and videos now documenting the upgraded OS in detail, though, there's now little doubt that rumors have been largely valid, and that the project is in an advanced stage of development. Citing unnamed sources, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, who broke several of the earliest Windows Blue stories, reported that the leak, dubbed Build 9364, is a direct internal engineering build that was current as of last week.
Many of the enhancements are designed to make the tile-based Modern interface more personalized and fluid. Improvements include the ability to scale Start screen tiles from as little as one-fourth to as much as four times their default size; tools to modify color accents and other aesthetic cues; and, perhaps most notably, support for running Modern apps side-by-side. Desktop-style multitasking would give Windows 8's tablet interface a meaningful advantage over the iPad, and Microsoft's implementation not only permits up to four apps to be open simultaneously but also offers multi-monitor applications.
Other Windows Blue features include new alarm, sound recording, video and calculator apps; support for additional touch gestures; and Internet Explorer 11. For the most part, the new browser isn't obviously different in the leaked build from the current version, but there are indications it will add the unique ability to synch tabs across a user's various devices. When discussing Windows 8, Microsoft representatives often describe online experiences that transition seamlessly from laptops to smartphones to tablets, and the Internet Explorer conjecture certainly squares with this vision. Build 9364's deeper hooks for SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud service, only bolster this notion.
The rogue Windows Blue copy follows a busy week for the Microsoft rumor mill. On March 21, MSFTKitchen released videos in which Eric Rudder, Microsoft's chief technical strategy officer, and other company representatives openly reference Windows Blue while demonstrating an improved version of Windows 8's Fresh Paint app and dramatically faster and more accurate voice recognition technology. In one of the videos, Rudder declares Microsoft's intent to "extend touch in an even more dramatic fashion," although it's not clear what he means beyond Fresh Paint's enhancements and Blue's handful of new gesture controls.
With the ability to resize tiles and otherwise customize the Modern interface, Windows Blues echoes the focus on personalization trumpeted by Windows Phone manager Jon Belfiore and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer when they introduced Windows Phone 8 last fall. The leaked version suggests the personalization theme is only likely to spread, as an MSFTKitchen teardown of Build 9364's system files suggests Windows Blue is coming to virtually all Microsoft platforms. This corroborates early rumors that Windows Blue would unify Microsoft operating systems around common code, presumably to streamline developer efforts and improve synching across devices.