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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.

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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,
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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.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
3/1/2013 | 4:23:53 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
Thanks for reading, whsteffan. For what it's worth, I don't have strong feelings about the Start button, and I actually like the Surface Pro. But many people to whom I've spoken find the missing Start button to be a deterrent. They also dislike that some applications behave differently in the Modern UI than they do in the Explorer UI. Analysts I speak to say they hear the same things from clients. Commenters on this site have expressed similar sentiments. When I mention UI dissatisfaction, it's not to make Windows 8 look bad; it's to present the information that's been conveyed to me.

It appears you enjoy Windows 8, though-- and if so, please feel encouraged to share why. You seem passionate about it, so maybe you'll change some minds.
- Michael Endler, IW Associate Editor
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
3/1/2013 | 4:05:22 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
Thanks for the comment, ePractical. Interesting perspective, especially in light of the rumor that Windows Blue will be a free upgrade.
- Michael Endler, IW Associate Editor
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
3/1/2013 | 4:02:36 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
Thanks for the comment. Interesting you bring up Adobe, which is attempting to use a subscription model for its Creative Suite that is somewhat similar to what Microsoft is doing with Office. I know of mac users who've gone over to Windows because they're dissatisfied with Apple's Pro Apps--e.g. Final Cut X, Aperture, Motion, etc. Adobe's Creative Suite is pretty fantastic, and Apple hasn't updated the Mac Pro in ages, so some creative professionals, rather than buying an iMac and running Creative Suite on OS X, are building cheap powerhouse PCs from scratch and running Creative Suite on Windows 7. In BYOD stories, a lot's been written about Apple's infiltration of the enterprise. Creative professionals - once one of Cupertino's core focuses, and still, it seems, an interest - might be one of the areas in which Apple has actually lost workplace market share. I haven't heard if there was a rebound after the Retina display MacBook Pros came out, though.

Anyhow, thanks for the thought. Hearing a bit more about Unbutu lately; I haven't heard it posed as a Microsoft concern, but it seems like it's gaining fans.
- Michael Endler, IW Associate Editor
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
3/1/2013 | 3:54:35 PM
re: Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve?
Hi GBARRINGTON196,

Thanks for the message. It's a provocative point, and you're not the first one to raise it.

Still, I'd be surprised if it goes that far. Microsoft gets a lot of grief, but it's still a company with $60 billion in the bank and a lot of resources. Windows 8 is a big transition, which makes some initial struggles inevitable. I think Microsoft knew that enterprise sales would be soft for at least a year; analysts agreed on as much before the OS launched. Remond certainly hoped for more from consumers, sure, but there are still variables that could turn that around. An analyst recently told me that though Microsoft would have been thrilled with a bigger splash, the company's nowhere near panicked about its progress. I can buy that argument.

A lot of narratives are still being written. I think a few things have to happen before the outlook turns apocalyptic.

If Windows Blue (or whatever) comes along without addressing usability issues, that would be disappointing. Even so, I agree that apps might be the biggest deal; people will forget about some of their UI dissatisfaction if developers can spin awesome experiences out of the platform. If Redmond can give programmers the right motivation and direction, a lot could change. I've heard some criticism about Microsoft in this regard, but I also see the company making moves with developers in mind.

Other forthcoming factors... New Ultrabooks with better Intel chips, new tablet form factors-- for matters to turn truly bleak, those developments would have to fall flat through the rest of the year, and adoption rates would have to continue flat-lining over the same period. There are also companies experimenting with limited Windows 8 deployments right now. If productive use cases emerge and more compelling devices hit the market, the OS could pick up steam. If companies revert to iPads after testing out Windows 8, that'll be a different story. There's also the success or failure of Chromebooks, as well as whatever Apple, Samsung and Google come up with. It's one thing for Microsoft to catch up with, say, the current version of iOS, which is in an incremental upgrade phase. It's another thing if Apple somehow has anther revolution waiting in the wings. Plus, there's all the revenue Microsoft generates that isn't tied to the future of Windows 8.

So I don't think Microsoft is on the fast track to ruin. The bigger concern, I think, is that its best days might be behind it. I don't think Windows 8's slow progress is a sign of doom; most experts agree that adoption will gradually pick up, and the experts have been pretty accurate on Windows 8 so far. But a lot of the work we'll do in the future will involve interfaces that look more like iOS than Windows 7. Microsoft needs a presence in both worlds, and the longer it takes for its mobile plan to gain traction, the more entrenched people become in their current workflows.

But we'll see. A lot of people initially got the iPhone and iPad wrong; thanks to the consumerization trend, this stuff can turn quickly.
--Michael Endler, IW Associate Editor
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