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Windows Blue: What We Know

Will Windows Blue, Windows 8's successor, be a nail in the coffin of traditional PCs? Here are 5 key facts that have emerged.

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NCAA basketball players aren't the only ones who've been sprinting for the last week; Microsoft gossips have been running the fast break too. Between a copy of Windows Blue, the much-rumored Windows 8 update, leaking to the Internet and Redmond finally acknowledging that the project exists, Microsoft-related speculation has spiked.

As the world's biggest software company, Microsoft makes a lot of news--but even by Redmond's standards, Windows Blue involves big stakes: the future of computing as a whole.

Consider just this change from the last week: one day, Windows 8's more optimistic critics were hoping that Windows Blue might throw a bone to legacy users, perhaps by allowing them to boot straight to the desktop; the next day, those users were digesting not only the reality that Live Tiles are Microsoft's UI of the future but also the disquieting possibility that the desktop interface might be killed off altogether.

[ Touch interfaces haven't charmed everyone yet. See "Tell Me Again: Why Rush Into Windows 8?" ]

Despite the leak, it's too early to indulge "death of the traditional PC" histrionics just yet. Even so, Windows Blue is shaping up to be the next big step in what Microsoft has termed its "new normal": a continuous development cycle in which new features are delivered not through the monolithic updates of the past but via ongoing refinements. Will this philosophy affect the way you use your PC? Here are five facts to consider.

1. Get used to the Modern UI, like it or not.

Though the company hasn't said so this bluntly, Microsoft is determined to force all Windows 8 users -- even those who don't care about touch screens -- to get used to the Modern UI. The fact that Windows Blue does not yet allow users to boot directly to the desktop all but confirms this fact; Microsoft's decision to funnel desktop users though the Live Tiles Start screen might have been unpopular, but it also appears to be an unwavering part of the plan.

Indeed, Windows Blue's visible enhancements are limited almost entirely to the Modern interface. Most of the changes, such as the ability to more granularly personalize the homepage, are evolutionary, but some, such as a function that syncs browser tabs across devices, suggest the broad strokes of a fluid ecosystem. Cohesive multi-device experiences were a big theme at the Windows Phone 8 launch, and with Windows Blue, which is expected to unify all Windows platforms, Microsoft appears to be further developing this goal.

Even so, none of the tweaks is so jaw-droppingly awesome that iPad users will be tossing their hardware in the streets. If you like Windows 8, Windows Blue should offer a meaningfully more polished and usable evolution of the same concept. If you don't like Windows 8, Microsoft seems to believe that it's only a matter of time (and updates).

That said, the desktop UI isn't entirely ignored by Blue. Much to the chagrin of some users, though, the leaked build doesn't enhance the traditional interface so much as relieve it of longtime possibilities. Current Windows 8 users have to use the desktop to access the Control Panel, for example, but in Windows Blue, these tools have been implemented on the Modern side. The widely held interpretation is that Microsoft wants the Modern UI to be a standalone environment -- that is, a fully functional OS in its own right, without the desktop's support.

2. The desktop isn't necessarily dead.

Because Microsoft is doing its best to make the desktop UI optional, many have speculated that the familiar Explorer interface will soon be phased out. Given Blue's development trajectory, this possibility, once seen as unlikely, has never been harder to ignore.

Still, even if Redmond eventually makes Live Tiles mandatory, the company is years of transitional work away from nixing the desktop. With so many customers so invested in the old x86 world, millions of pieces of software will need to be ported for Modern use. That kind of effort will take time, so don't write up the desktop's obituary just yet.

What's more, it remains to be seen if all desktop processes can even be translated to a touch-centric world. Sure, some legacy apps might be simple ports that run in the Metro environment but look and behave like their Explorer antecedents. This possibility could certainly speed things up. But even if Microsoft is moving away from the desktop, the ultimate transition isn't coming with Windows Blue, and it probably won't be a part of whatever color-coded update comes after that.

Though it's unlikely, Microsoft could even surprise everyone by implementing desktop improvements before Blue finally launches. Redmond has suggested it will elaborate on its Windows strategy at its upcoming BUILD 2013 conference, which will be June 26-28 in San Francisco.

3. Microsoft Office will also receive a Blue-like upgrade.

ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley recently reported that Microsoft Office will be undergoing a Blue-like transformation of its own, codenamed Gemini. According to her tipsters, Gemini describes a series of updates to be delivered over the next two years. The first wave is expected to coincide with Windows Blue and could bring Modern-optimized versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. OneNote and Lync are the only members of the Office stable that have already been given the Live Tile treatment.

In a sense, Modern-styled Office apps reinforce the notion that the desktop UI's days are numbered. Office is the legacy app to end all legacy apps, after all.

Then again, Kurt DelBene, president of Microsoft's Office division, suggested that Modern Office apps will complement, rather than supplant, the existing versions--a strong indication that the desktop UI's imminent demise has been exaggerated. Indeed, DelBene said a Modern-optimized Word or Excel must give the user value not already available in the desktop version, implying that Microsoft is less interested in replicating the current Office experience in the Live Tiles UI than in exploring new ways to implement touch and voice into the document-creation process.

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User Rank: Apprentice
3/31/2013 | 7:36:00 AM
re: Windows Blue: What We Know
Microsoft Windows 8 designers are ignoring what their *PAYING* customers are asking for - and that's a catastrophic mistake. If I'm going to have to learn a new OS from the ground up, I'm going to learn a free one. My next new computer will be Chrome, Droid, or Linux (most likely Linux). I will always prefer a well-organized drill-down menu or filestructure to the nonintuitive chaos of the windows 8 start screen.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/30/2013 | 11:34:07 PM
re: Windows Blue: What We Know
I'm Not even a tech person, But from the point of view of an Indie Musician and artist, the whole win 8 shroud of whatever is extremely frustrating. I tried the pre-release versions, and was completely unimpressed. I have no interest in touch interfaces, until they improve the accuracy or something. I'll stick to analog or even a mouse for operating faders in DAWs. I'm stuck though, I need a new computer. I can't even begin to afford any Apple anything, and Although I like the Linux ethos, environment etc. Hardware support and music production apps are sorely lacking, for a non-coder, the inherent flexibility though is very cool. the customization is also another factor.. But for me I'm used to using a PC with a desktop, because all of the major Production apps, are oriented toward that setup, they wok even better when you have 2+desktops, it's the old analog console layout style. My point to Misanthroposoft is that You've gained a massive market share, from indie producers, and hobbyists. XP (which I'm Using right now) was the catalyst. iPad and touch to me seems a bit hokey for serious stuff for now, A recent console maker designed a digital console from the ground up, designing their own touch surface interfaces because the major producers couldn't produce one with accuracy that is necessary. I wonder if the trend in music studios and home based studios, being a hybrid of Analog and digital isn't a result of some of this stuff. The Manufacturers of Vacuum tubes, solid State components, germanium transistors are having a field day. and Us Musicians are loving it as well, being able to afford the equipment that The Beatles recorded on, now within reach. But The emphasis on touch and You're gonna use it or else,could be a detriment. I already see it as an obsticle in upgrading my studio and my fast aging equipment. Thank god that the manufacturers of Magnetic tape, have quadrupled their output and opened more factories, now we need to get the Open reel machine manufacturers back on board.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/30/2013 | 7:24:55 PM
re: Windows Blue: What We Know
Modern UI is the future, some say that GUI is like a toy, not mature etc. but if you think so, then stay with xp, vista or 7.
the whole os someday is going to be all Modern UI replacing the traditional desktop. of course microsoft needs more time to polish, finish it, and complete it.
and please, microsoft make it one or 2 os's only, with 64 bit only (with 32 bit capability). ie Modern UI needs a zoom button.
make a version for america with the most common languages in the continent: spanish, english, portuguese. thats my recomendations for them.
im a windows user since 3.1.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/30/2013 | 6:54:00 PM
re: Windows Blue: What We Know
This only reinforces once again how arrogant MSFT is. Why care what users want?? We are hanging on to XP and Win7 as long as we can. If MSFT refuses to keep the "modern" (fisher price) interface optional, we will be looking for alternatives.
Terabyte Net
Terabyte Net,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/30/2013 | 3:39:59 PM
re: Windows Blue: What We Know
All the hoopla around the traditional desktop is moot. Just hop over and download Classic Shell and bingo, no more Metro garbage, fully functional Start button, and a nice :P stuck out to MS over their garbage GUI. As long as Classic Shell works who cares what MS does to the GUI. As a stockholder if they don't start selling a boat load more copies of Windows I'm betting there are going to be changes at MS whether Balmer and Co. like it or not.
User Rank: Strategist
3/30/2013 | 2:26:41 PM
re: Windows Blue: What We Know
I've already loaded Linux as a dual boot. It is clear Microsoft and I are headed down different paths. Once I find acceptable replacements for my photo applications (Adobe Lightroom, mostly), I'm done.

Even so, Microsoft COULD try to explain why my concerns are irrelevant. Their assumption that I will do whatever they want is kind of demeaning and irritating.
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