I know that many of you NAGlings aren’t on Windows 8. The lack of a Start menu (even though it’s now full-screen) and the extra complexity of merging a touch interface with one driven by a mouse and keyboard does complicate things, I admit. For many, the massive change from a desktop-centric model that Windows has relied on since Windows 95, to one that’s rather alien in appearance is a startling one. I’ve found Windows 8 to work for me so far but those of you still on the fence may be pushed back onto the side you’re most comfortable on after you see the direction Windows Blue is taking the platform.
Firstly, there’s a timeline to consider. Windows XP was launched to much amusement and bemoaning by the I.T. world on the 25th October 2001. Following Service Pack 1’s release in September the following year, the OS gained traction and today commands over 38% of the world’s computers. Windows Vista followed less than seven years later on January 30th. It still commands 5% desktop share (twice that of OS X, strangely) and while it was a general let-down, it improved many things in just enough ways to get a lot of early adopters on board. Vista spurred the hardware industry into a new direction, pushing the requirement for quad-core processors, a native 64-bit operating system and more than 4GB of RAM as standard. That said, it didn’t leave a good impression on everyone.
Windows 7 turned that all around in October 2009 and commands more than 44% of worldwide desktop share, positively dominates the Steam hardware surveys and is considered perfect by many enthusiasts. Windows 8 was a shock to the system for many and it has gained little desktop share since it launched, reaching just over 3% desktop share in late March of this year. Its already ahead of Apple but you’d think that Microsoft would see a failure in those numbers.
But as I said last year, Windows 8 signals a change in the way Microsoft would like to see revenue stream in. It can no longer bank on people buying into their ecosystem every few years, hoping to capture the early adopters and keep their money regardless of what happens (Hey, EA, good to see you’re paying attention to the lesson here!). Both OS X, Linux and even Android are pushing into Microsoft’s territory, especially the new one its entered into – tablets. They need to keep things interesting to make sure people keep buying their software every year. That means giving people freebies and multi-user rights with their subscription to Office 365, it means supporting their phones for slightly longer than the contract duration that most people keep them for and that means making sure both the desktop and mobile markets keep getting one or two treats to make their money seem worth it.
That, in essence, is what Blue is. And its not only just keeping the early adopters satisfied, it’ll probably also be it’s own OS release, giving Microsoft another revenue stream. I fully expect them to continue on with a yearly release schedule, charging what seems like a pittance for upgrades in the same way Apple does. Office 365 already makes loads more sense for a small household than buying individual Home and Student licenses and whatever upgrade price Microsoft will retail Blue for will be cheap. With Windows 8’s release you may recall they offered a $15 and $30 promotion, the former for upgrading from an older OS and the latter for buying Windows 8 on its own, in retail packaging.
The way I see it, that may have been a trial to see how much revenue they could collect with cheaper licenses. Its back to the old, thousand bucks-plus pricing for the “Home” and Professional versions for now, but I don’t think it’ll stay that way for long. During the promotion there were many millions of licenses sold in the first few weeks and I expect that’s something Microsoft can tap into. The bulk of their revenues come from server and Office licensing in any case, so if Office 365 turns into the money-printing machine it’s capable of, Microsoft will eventually fall onto competing with Apple on price. And that’s a good thing.
As Paul Thurrot discovered (I’m still waiting for my download of the Blue Alpha to finish), Blue includes four new applications on the Start screen by default – Alarms, Calculate, a shortcut to the overhauled Sound Recorder and something called Movie Moments. The leaks of Blue out now are basically the standard version of Windows 8 Professional with the extra bits from Blue tacked on. What you’ll see is more or less what you’ve been using for the past few months or, if you’re not a Windows 8 user yet, what you’ve been playing with at Incredible Connection while you figure out the key combination to turn the screen upside-down.
If you do do that, by the way, a million internets to you if you get the salespeople to turn the laptop upside-down to navigate a little better. You may be an evil little bugger, but that’s just far too funny to watch.
The new applications bring more flexibility to Windows 8 and indeed, it points to Microsoft erasing the use of the desktop to the point where it will only be used for Office and File management in the future, just like Windows RT. These four apps replicate functionality you’d find in built-in and downloadable software from Microsoft, but Alarms and Recorder waste a tonne of real estate and just put in the bare minimum. Mind you, these are still in Alpha stage and there’s an expected public beta in June/July. They could change drastically before that time comes. These would be a better fit for a physically smaller screen. There’s some useful functionality in Alarms as well – you can send a wake-up call to your device so long as it’s connected to the internet. Getting your kids annoyed and out of bed while you don’t? That could be a future worth paying for, if you’re a parent.
On the other end of the scale, there are a few changes to the Start screen. Some Modern UI apps will be reconfigured in the coming months to support new Tile sizes and integrate better into the OS. For now, the Desktop tile is the only one that supports it and it’s a little smaller than two regular-sized tiles put together. On a touch-screen the “All Apps” button is now gone and if you use Blue in a virtual machine it will actually pick this up and disable a few new features, like “Slide to shut down” and a new swipe gesture to access the All Apps pane. I’m sure those niggles won’t affect desktop users, but this is certainly catering more for tablet users at this point in time.
Again from Paul Thurrot’s digging, the settings pane for Windows 8 now incorporates more things from control panel inside it, like the default apps selector and some new options for Skydrive integration in the background. This simplifies things a little in terms of where to find them, but making access to these settings a quick and painless process should still be Microsoft’s number one priority. I had to make a God Mode shortcut on my desktop for some of the settings I’m not likely to find easily in control panel or the Modern UI settings and it’s made things more tolerable as well, since I don’t have to use the rather stunted search window. The Skydrive storage isn’t new but there are some improvements to the camera roll – the iCloud-like sharing feature where you can share a photo stream with multiple people and have new pictures pop up on their devices when you take them. You can now configure how much space the cached photos will take up on your drive, as well as the quality (or compression, if you will) of the photos and videos shown in the stream.
Its a good stab at what Apple offers with iCloud but they’ve been ahead in the game for a while. It’ll take at least a year, I bet, for Microsoft to catch up on the basic features list and start to consider matching iCloud’s performance and versatility.
These are a few of the features that leaks of Windows Blue, or officially “Windows 8.1” as it will be called and only time till tell how many more things are changed. Safe to say that Microsoft’s strategy to completely halt reliance on the desktop is still going ahead and we’ll probably see that transition in Windows 9. Because we’re now into number versioning rather than whole figure jumps, that may take a little more time than expected, but at least Microsoft’s intentions are clear – mimic Apple’s strategy for a revenue stream, beat them to the finish line to make the desktop more irrelevant. I don’t know if I’m happy or sad about that prospect.
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