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2/28/2013
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Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?

Windows Blue, Microsoft's alleged follow-up to Windows 8, may emerge by June. One prediction: Don't hold your breath for a retreat from the tiled look.

Microsoft Surface Pro: Is It Right For You?
Microsoft Surface Pro: Is It Right For You?
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For months now, Windows Blue has been the software equivalent of Sasquatch -- which is to say, much-discussed, seldom glimpsed and possibly not what everyone assumes. Big Foot has yet to stomp from folklore into reality, but recent leaks suggest that Windows Blue will make its public debut relatively soon, perhaps as early as June. Microsoft has been mostly mum on the alleged Windows 8 update, refusing to officially verify that it exists. Even so, the rumors have begun to converge around common themes. How does Redmond intend to make its new, touch-friendly OS gain momentum?

Speculation began in August, more than two months before Windows 8 hit the market, when ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, citing unnamed sources, wrote that Microsoft was already at work on something called Windows Blue. Whether the new project would be a de facto Windows 9 or a Windows 8 service pack wasn't clear, but Foley asserted that the endeavor would transfer Redmond's upgrade cycle to an annual model, discarding the multi-year spans that have traditionally separated one iteration of Windows from the next. More recently, Foley reported that Windows Blue will encompass a variety of Microsoft platforms, including Windows Phone, SkyDrive and Windows server.

Claims posted in February to Win8China, meanwhile, suggest Windows Blue will become a public preview in June, with general availability slated for August. Other rumors making the rounds: Windows Blue will be built on a new kernel, include Internet Explorer 11 and offer faster computing while consuming less power. Windows Blue could also be a free upgrade intended to bolster adoption.

[ Microsoft has yet to hit its stride with Windows 8. See Windows 8: Microsoft's Progress Debated. ]

Job postings that refer to Windows Blue, meanwhile, have only added fuel to the fire. The most recent developments include sources telling The Verge that the project includes an improved Bing search charm.

The resignation of Windows chief Steve Sinofsky looms behind all the chatter, as it's too early to tell whether Blue will represent an evolution of Microsoft's current strategy or some sort of corrective response to Windows 8's mixed progress.

Reading into the few tea leaves, though, one can divine a few insights into Microsoft's approach. Faster update cycles mean that new features will reach end users more quickly. Windows 8 might be the newest version of a longstanding product, but because it departs so heavily from previous editions, it's essentially a Version 1 release in many respects. To gain market share, Redmond needs to offer a more polished user experience. It will get there much more quickly if it offers iterative enhancements every 12 months, rather than monolithic refreshes every couple of years.

Also significant is the implication that Microsoft is further unifying its Windows family around common code. On the desktop side, Redmond's application offerings lead the class, but the company isn't yet competitive with Apple or Google's respective mobile portfolios. By making it easier for developers to write a single application for all Windows flavors, Microsoft would be addressing one of its glaring weaknesses.

At the same time, the rumors have suggested that UI tweaks will be confined to making the tile-based Modern start screen into a more cohesive experience. Microsoft seems intent on conditioning users to its new platform, so anyone hoping for a major change, such as the reintegration of the Start Menu, is likely to be disappointed.

All Eyes On Mobile Apps

Businesses are curious about Windows 8 but "they were expecting something more," said Paulo Camara, head of mobility services at Ci&T, a Brazilian IT services provider with clients around the world. In an interview, he noted that enterprises have typically waited for a service pack before adopting a new version of Windows. Windows 8 is a bit different, he said, because its advantages over Windows 7 are mostly geared toward mobility, leaving desktop users fewer reasons to upgrade.

He said he expects Windows Blue "not to reinvent things but maybe to tweak them to make them more user-friendly." Certain applications behave differently in Windows 8's Modern interface than they do in the browser's more familiar Explorer mode, for example, and Microsoft would please some customers by simply smoothing over these wrinkles.

According to Michael Cherry, a Windows expert with Directions on Microsoft, Windows Blue is unlikely to change Windows 8's primary philosophy. In an interview, he said Microsoft executives "love to use gambling expressions" such as "we're all in" or "we've bet everything" to describe their newest OS. If Redmond were to back off now, he said, developers would feel discouraged from writing for the newest Windows platforms.

Cherry additionally said that Redmond seems resolved to roll through the early Windows 8 criticism. "Those concerns were raised well before they shipped [Windows 8]. When I look at it, I see no interest or inclination [from Microsoft] in taking that feedback," he stated. "I don't see that anything's changed that, despite Mr. Sinofsky leaving."

Microsoft should dedicate Windows Blue largely to improving the platform's app ecosystem, Cherry said. He noted that Microsoft's pre-installed apps aren't impressive, and that developers might not have the guidance they need. "If Microsoft can't even write compelling apps for it, it's safe to assume it's tough to write apps for that platform," he said.

"Nobody can tell us an app for Windows 8 that they just have to have," Cherry continued, adding that one "can debate whether the UI is right or not" but that killer apps are the key to use cases that will drive adoption. He mentioned that the iPad didn't have an extensive catalogue when it launched either, and that comparisons between iOS and Windows 8 are thus a little unfair. Still, he said, one can argue that it's "Microsoft's fault for not [addressing mobile platforms] years earlier."

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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
3/5/2013 | 2:47:16 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
Thanks for the thoughts, Palpatine. You raise some good points, particularly in terms of how some developers and OEMs are reacting to Microsoft's strategy. Redmond is walking a fine line between advancing its new agenda and alienating some of the users that made Windows so successful, as the divisive reaction to the OS has demonstrated. I think Microsoft can still be okay in the end, as the enterprise refresh cycle bought the company a little breathing room to tweak the new OS. The tweaks will need to support existing use cases while promoting new ones, though, and as you point out, Microsoft faces hurdles in achieving this goal. And though there is time to make adjustments, competitors aren't standing still.

The ChromeOS web share is noteworthy, though the starting point was so small that a 700% increase isn't quite as dramatic as it seems. Sort of like the recent Windows Phone gains, but even more exaggerated. I'm also not sure how big the market currently is for cloud-reliant devices like Chromebooks; the demand for such machines will increase eventually, but I think we're still a few years away from widespread acceptance. Still, with HP, Acer and others experimenting with not only Chrome but also Android, Windows 8 isn't getting an unambiguous vote of confidence from OEMs. If Redmond can mobilize the developer community, a lot could change, of course. The company is making efforts in this regard, but as you point out, Microsoft faces obstacles in fomenting developer enthusiasm. More than the new touch-capable Windows 8 devices hitting the market, the developer angle will probably be the story to watch throughout the spring.
Palpatine
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Palpatine,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/5/2013 | 2:27:35 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
The problem is MS is struggling to kill the business strategies that make it conquer the desktop market AND explode the desktop market as first sector in IT for revenues in '90s and '00s.
Apple and Google did not thrived because of the limited UI and the walled garden stores, they thrived for lack of competition.
Bing is a costly joke, MS tablets and UMPC were killed by Vista, that managed to delay 2-3 years the netbook wave, CE was killed by MS that worsened its crisis nearly breaking compatibility at every Phone iteration, Xbox does small profits if compared to cash needs of MS to stay in business.
MS does not need to deploy a castrated content delivery API (so badly fit for content creation that even the Office team did not managed to create an RT Office for it!) threatening Win32 developers that are everyday called "legacy" (legacy? having a single distribution channel is an improvement for developers? please don't joke, think to what would have been of Mozilla, Chrome, OpenOffice with a single MS-centric distribution Store for the software!).
MS needs to deploy a system as light and simple as iOS, that can keep up the whole working day, or keep up a week if you use it casually, bring Win32 to that system, assure developers it is not trying to kill third party distribution channels, assure OEMs it is not trying to be the next Apple.
If they will not manage this, they need to keep alive at least in desktop market, not with an os calling the desktop "legacy" all the way (again, full screen is not innovative, it is OLDER than multiple windows managers!), but with an OS that can keep up to the professional (and possibly higher profits per unit) market the desktop is becoming as casual users are moving to ultramobile - or shifting parts of the usage hours/day to mobile devices.
Sorry, 8/Metro/Surface/Store/subscription-driven Office is neither a true ultramobile environment, nor an improvement for desktop over previous generation.
BTW ChromeOS web user share exploded by 700% while W8 is already slowing its adoption rate...
J. Nicholas Hoover
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J. Nicholas Hoover,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/5/2013 | 1:30:02 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
Unless Microsoft is seriously unhappy with the progress of Windows 8 sales, it's a head-scratcher to me as to why the company would introduce another operating system so soon. Given what little we know about Microsoft Windows Blue, what speculation is out there, how grand a departure Windows 8 is from previous versions, and the compressed time frame between releases, I imagine that Windows Blue is as much Windows 8 Service Pack 1 as anything else.
Mark532010
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Mark532010,
User Rank: Strategist
3/4/2013 | 5:11:38 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
Whsteffan - The problem with the current iteration of the start screen is not that it doesn't work, but that while it may be great for a no-keyboard touchpad, it works poorly for typical desktop workflow.

John Scalzi (Hugo and Nebula award winning author and current president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) wrote quite a compelling piece about his attempts to fit the start page as it exists now into his workflow and how it made him less productive.

http://whatever.scalzi.com/201...
Mark532010
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Mark532010,
User Rank: Strategist
3/4/2013 | 4:46:32 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
Thanks for the article. I won't get into the start-screen debate too much. I think it is a good concept but could be executed much much better.

I especially liked the comments about the Metro/Modern apps. I know Microsoft apps tend to be lowest-common-denonimator apps (sound recorder, outlook express, disk-burner, etc.) but I am really surprised that they didn't make a big push to release killer apps to try and win over converts.

For example: look how unhappy people currently are with iTunes11, this would have been an awesome time for Microsoft to have had a killer music library app in place...instead we have the poorly implemented generic ad-platform that is the Metro videos app and the unchanged WMC (which is only available to a few) - really Microsoft? Have you actually tried to manage a 250gb music library with WMC? Is that really the best Redmond can do?

I find it quite surprising that, including prerelease, after over 3 years of development, the apps are as lackluster as they are. Either the guys in Redmond are seriously overpaid, or the envronment is a LOT harder to do anything more serious than fruit-ninja then we have been led to believe, or there is a conscious decision by Redmond not to put the effort into releasing anything of quality.

At this point I can't think of one Metro/modern app that I think is better than a comparable desktop one. Either the feature set is missing (try managing your dvd queue in the Metro Netflix app, try checking the print queue in the metro "HP Printer Control" app ) or the waste (in time or display) is amazing (try opening a video on a networked drive from inside of the "videos" app, really-a full screen display just to tell me its raining?????)
dleippe
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dleippe,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/2/2013 | 7:31:38 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
When MS figures out that the 1 billion Windows users out there with non touch screen PCs want the Desktop, Start Button and Start Menu back either by default or as a user option they might get some traction with Windows 8 or its successor.

MS's bread and butter has been the traditional desktop and Explorer Windows with the menus at the top. The ribbon interface is too busy, takes up to much real estate..but at least it can be toggled out of view.
Murnende
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Murnende,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/2/2013 | 10:23:50 AM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
I like your final point, the one regarding built-in apps and guidance for developers. So far, Windows 8 (let's call it) Metro appears to be all about the look, with little thought reserved for functionality. The built-in apps are terrible for the most part (sideways scrolling? Really?), and the lack of functionality is extremely frustrating to say the least. One would assume that these apps are core to the success of the platform, as they represent the model on which third party apps are presumably built; so if these apps are lacklustre, third party apps won't be compelling either.

This particular failure seems to be compounded by Microsoft's marketing failures with Windows 8. The built-in Windows 8 apps seem to value style over substance (while placement and organisation of options and settings is apparently obtuse, to say the least), and the marketing campaign seems to be in the same vein, that is to say it's all about style, and it's somewhat obtuse.

While I am not an expert in marketing, I can say that I often find Apple's advertising superior to most other companies. A recent iPhone commercial illustrates my point nicely: the viewer is shown the bottom of an iPhone with a finger pointing to the microphone. The voiceover states that "this microphone records your voice," while "this microphone . . ." (the finger now points to a second mic next to the camera) ". . . filters out background noise." Was the iPhone the first phone to have this feature? No, but to the uninitiated, it looks groundbreaking and brilliant. Furthermore, it points (pardon the pun) directly to a feature that makes you believe that this phone will offer a better experience than your current phone, assuming of course that your current phone doesn't already do this.

Compare the above to your average Windows 8 commercial. Wow, the little girl can paint on the screen while talking to daddy in the snapped Skype app. Certainly it might make me consider the benefits of a touch screen to my 5 year old, but what new or innovative functionality does it highlight? Running applications side by side in full operating systems is not particularly new or innovative (better than iOS, I suppose), but why would it make me want to upgrade my Windows 7 install (or XP, for that matter)?

Windows 8 has a lot of great ideas and great features, but no one knows about them. Everyone's too busy being turned off by the more publicised shortcomings of the new OS, being frustrated by the lack of a tutorial, or annoyed by the built-in apps when they try them out in the store. Hopefully the release of Windows Blue will address not only some of the shortcomings of the OS and apps, but will also feature a new, benefits focussed marketing campaign.
Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/2/2013 | 3:55:30 AM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
At the rate that we're going, it looks like Microsoft is "getting it right" with every other product release. ME was DOA, XP is still in wide use, Vista is gone (for all intents and purposes), Win7 is in wide use... Win8 which I'm currently testing, provides no compelling reason for me to want to move to it full time as a home user and no compelling reason as to why I would recommend an enterprise running Win7 to move to it either.

One of the other commenters mentioned that Win8 has the same desktop as Win7... functionally, yes, but not from a performance perspective. "Seat of the pants" benchmarking tells me that a brand new Win8 install is visibly slower than my year old, semi-trashed Win7 install was. Don't get me wrong here, there are times where you do need to upgrade hardware in order to run new OS properly (the big leap came when going from 32 to 64-bit), but we're talking 8 Xeon cores, 12 GB of RAM and a SAS mirror+hot spare configuration with 15krpm drives - nothing should run slowly on this system, period.

Does Win8 provide something new for the user experience? Sure. Does it improve functionality or usability of the system? Yes, but is the performance tradeoff worth it? No, not in my case.

And why can't someone in the UI/UX group at Microsoft figure out how to integrate the way that IRIX or OpenLook worked into the new Windows products? Eye candy is great, as long as it doesn't impede system performance - I find that tradeoff wholly unacceptable.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
3/2/2013 | 12:45:10 AM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
Maybe it works fine for you, but the masses disagree....and they did long before Wi8 came out. Microsoft arrogantly ignored the feedback it got from beta testers and now the result shows - and it is not surprising. I has nothing to do with IQ, but simply with good and bad software. And Win8 is nothing else than bad software.
gilly05
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gilly05,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/1/2013 | 8:50:35 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
I think part of the problem is that users/consumers are stupid. I was not the biggest fan of Windows 8 when it released, but I have come around. I now have a non-touch screen desktop with Win8 (multi-monitor), a Dell XPS One touch screen desktop, and a Samsung Ativ tablet all running Win8. I love the touch interface and the desktop is exactly like Win7. The issues I tend to have are with interactions between modern and non-modern apps, along with issues with multi-monitor (where the start screen appears on one monitor, but not the others, etc.... kind of annoying).

If MS could get more consumer apps (i.e., mail, flixter, yelp, facebook, pandora, etc.) they would make some headway. Beyond that, they need to make the interop between modern and non-modern apps better.

But, to be honest, I find it laughable that people complain about the lack of start menu or the Win8 search capability. The actual search in Win8 is better than Win7 and the means of performing a universal search is exactly the same... (1) hit the start button (2) type. That's it. The start button is replaced with a start screen that has guess what... icons. Sure, it sucks when you install an app and the start screen is filled with stupid icons you don't care about. Guess what... you can remove them with a right-click/unpin, same as in Win7.

In a year, people will have gotten used to the new UI, because it really isn't that bad. At the same time, MS will have improved it. That's the way it goes. People, including myself, didn't like a lot of the changes between XP and Vista. But, we got used to it and MS made it better in Win7. The same thing will happen here. The added benefit is that when they get it right, we get it across every device we own... phone, tablet, PC. Try doing that with an Apple device.
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