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.
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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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