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An early look at Windows 8 and Server 2012

Windows 8 is about to become widely available to great fanfare, while Windows Server 2012 was quietly released recently “into the wild,” which is the discouraging way many Microsoft product development teams characterize the real world environments where their products run. Third-party developers have had access to the final RTM (Release-to-Manufacturing) versions of the Windows 8 release for several months now.

Here at DemandTech, we have been testing Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 in the lab, making sure our software is compatible, etc. We have been running Windows 8 on virtual machines exclusively, not the dedicated hardware (tablets, mainy) it was designed to showcase.

The most noticeable change in Win 8 is the new UI. There is also a new kind of Win 8 app that when it runs, takes over the entire screen. Under the covers, the Windows OS is still multithreaded, but the interaction model is that, in any of the new apps, you are only working on one thing at a time. It is like -- there aren't "windows" anymore. The new apps run full screen, maximized all the time, although you can also snap them to a portion of the screen, once you get the hang of that gesture.

I happen to have a leg up on the new UI mainly because I’ve been using a Windows Phone, which Microsoft was nice enough to buy me when I was still working there back in 2010, and the UI is similar. On a device the size of a phone, the display is too small to view multiple application windows anyway – there just isn’t enough screen real estate to do that. On a traditional desktop machine, the new UI takes some getting used to, but on a phone or a tablet, it all makes sense.
The Windows 7 Phone actually has quite a good UI. My phone is one made by Samsung. I like the UI much better than the Android phone it replaced. The e-mail is excellent – well, it’s effectively Outlook for the Phone, so there is consistency across my devices, and it is synchronized with Exchange mail, calendar, and contacts. The word recognition app when you are typing -- a text message, e-mail, or even a web search – is also very well executed. I had two earlier versions of Windows Phone, and this app is a distinct improvement, and miles better than a similar app on my Android phone. Getting a UI right is a lot of trial and error, and the Windows 7 Phone word recognition app was clearly improved from earlier versions.

The Windows 8 UI is very similar to Windows Phone 7.x, featuring the same large buttons that are like movable tiles on your primary screen. These tiles are big, and their size makes it easy to click on one, using a touch screen. Moving to a tablet that offers me the same functions and features as my old phone, but in a larger, but still convenient, format is an attracxtive option to me. I haven't ordered my Microsoft Surface yet (see below), but there is definitely a device like that in my future.

In Windows 8, this UI that was originally developed for Windows Phone version 7 – which very few people bought – is front and center, the foundation for supporting Windows 8 tablets and phones. The trade-off here is that a touch screen UI that is designed for a tablet PC is not necessarily the best choice for a machine that you access using a mouse and keyboard. In Windows 8, you can get to the traditional Windows desktop easily enough, run all your older apps, and navigate between them the way you are used to working. But the “Start” button is gone, to start a new app you have to revert to the new UI, and you find yourself switching back and forth a bit between the two “desktops” a little more than is probably optimal.

It takes a little getting used to. Reference Paul Allen’s blog for a better and more complete discussion of the new UI, based on his having an opprtunity to use it on one of the new touch screen tablet PCs.

Undoubtedly, Windows 8 is an important release to Microsoft. According to the market research I’ve looked at, the number of smartphones sold will exceed the number of PCs sold for the first time in 2012. Unfortunately, for Microsoft, only about 3% of the smartphones sold so far this year worldwide are Windows Phones. However, even more menacing to Microsoft’s software business over the long haul, the forecast is for PC sales to level off, as more capable tablets start to supplant portable PCs, IMHO, portable tablets replacing portable PCs is something that is as inevitable as portable PCs supplanting desktop models once they became capable enough. Tablets are not quite there yet, but it is still early in the evolution of the hardware.

Apple, with its iPhone, IPad, and even its iMac Intel-based PCs, is starting to penetrate Microsoft’s core business in desktop OS software, which would also put Microsoft's Office franchise in some distinct peril. This is the first time since Windows emerged as the leading PC desktop OS in the late 1980s that there is a credible threat to Microsoft’s market dominance. Meanwhile, Apple has attracted software developers in droves to its iPhone-iPad platform, lured by the sheer number of devices that are in the hands of consumers, the potential size of the next "killer app" such as Angry Birds or Words with Friends.

The major Windows 8 UI changes were designed for tablets, an emerging market where Apple and Google Android devices have a head start, but hardly an insurmountable lead. Windows-based tablets have the potential to impact the emerging market for lightweight tablets. This is mainly due to the capability of current hardware. Tablet PCs can be configured as follows:
  • a powerful, multi-core processor,
  • can be docked to gain access to a wide variety of peripherals,
  • run for at least 8 hours on a single charge,
  • have a form factor that is approximately 8.5” x 11”, which means they slip easily into a briefcase or purse,
  • weighs only about 1.5 lbs, and
  • features a touch screen.
All in all, a very attractive alternative to portable PCs.

The scenario I envision is I plug my Windows tablet into a dock at the office, run Microsoft Office apps (or even Visual Studio) with an attached keyboard, mouse, plug in an extra video monitor (or maybe even two J), and do everything I can do today on my portable PC. At the end of the work day, I hit a key to save my work in progress incrementally to cloud storage, slide my tablet into my backpack and go. At home, I could duplicate my office setup, or just use the tablet “naked” to access e-mail, Skype, or the web. This is Microsoft’s vision for Windows 8, and it is a tempting one.

The reason that Microsoft is in a position to deliver on this vision of mobile computing without compromise comes down to two words – device drivers. Basically, Windows 8 enables connecting any input device – keyboard, mouse, Kinect, Bluetooth headset, graphics drawing pad, docking station, external monitor, camera, speakers, you name it – to your Windows 8 tablet PC. You should be able to plug in any device with a Windows 7 device driver, assuming you have the right plug. There are no breaking changes to the OS device driver model in Windows 8. (There is some minor new stuff necessary to re-package your driver software so that it is compatible with the new App Store.) There will be Windows 8 tablets available on Day One with USB ports.

Where tablets are today, this is big. If you look at the current tablets that are available, including  Apple’s iPad and a variety of devices that run Google’s Android OS (which was derived from Linux), including the Amazon Kindle, they all have limited capabilities. These are fun devices, but for people that use their PCs in their work – content creators of all kinds – these devices cannot substitute for their portable PCs. Just like me, these folks are good prospects for buying a Windows 8 tablet.
The new tablets will use ARM processors, as well as Intel comnpatible CPUs. One of the things that I will talk about it in the next blog entry is the ARM support in Win 8. On the Windows Server 2012 side, what's happening with virtualization and with NUMA support is also quite interesting.

Of course, I also want to talk about some of the new performance counters that are available. And I don't know if I can resist saying at least something about the new runtime, Windows RT, & what it means for the future of .NET development.
More on those topics next time.


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