Mar 27, 2013 (08:03 AM EDT)
Windows Blue Confirmed But Microsoft Mum On Details

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Microsoft Surface Pro: Is It Right For You?
Microsoft Surface Pro: Is It Right For You?
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Microsoft on Tuesday finally confirmed that it is working on Windows Blue. An update to Windows 8, Windows Blue had been, prior to Microsoft's remarks, one of the tech industry's worst-kept secrets. It has also been controversial; with enhancements seemingly limited to the OS's touch-oriented Modern UI, the upgrade has provoked some to forecast the death of Windows' classic desktop interface.

Microsoft hasn't commented on such speculation, but with Blue now out in the open and several high-profile launches and events on the horizon, the software giant won't be able to remain mum much longer.

The Windows Blue confirmation arrived in a blog post by Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft's VP of corporate communications. "With a remarkable foundation of products in market and a clear view of how we will evolve the company, product leaders across Microsoft are working together on plans to advance our devices and services, a set of plans referred to internally as 'Blue,'" he wrote.

Although Shaw said Microsoft leaders are aligned around firm goals, many would challenge that the company has projected a "clear view" to outsiders. Given Windows 8's disappointing effect on the sputtering PC market and Microsoft's tenuous position in the growing tablet market, many have debated what Windows Blue should offer. Shaw's remarks arrived only days after a recent build of the update leaked online.

[ Confused by the plethora of Windows 8 devices? Join the crowd. Read Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers. ]

The unconfirmed build not only focuses on tablet-centric improvements but also relocates a number of system controls from the desktop side of the OS to the tile-based Modern side. The tweaks have been widely interpreted as an effort to wean users off of traditional systems, and to make the Modern UI a self-contained environment. It's still possible that desktop improvements will be implemented but Microsoft's actions more strongly suggest that Windows Blue spells the beginning of the demise of the classic user interface.

Shaw's post does little to settle this debate. Aside from stating that Windows Blue is an internal title and that the customer-facing version of the update would be called something else, he offered little in the way of concrete new information. He did suggest, however, that Microsoft will be sharing additional Windows Blue details during two June conferences: TechEd, which runs June 3-6 in New Orleans, and BUILD 2013, slated for June 26-28 in San Francisco.

BUILD 2013 was also announced on Tuesday. Microsoft VP Steve Guggenheimer wrote in a blog post that Microsoft will "share updates about what's next for Windows, Windows Server, Windows Azure, Visual Studio and more." Registration begins April 2, and Guggenheimer suggested that users' growing preference for multi-screen experiences will be a topic.

The conferences are significant because Microsoft needs developer support to advance its agenda. Microsoft recently has focused efforts on this front, updating its Windows 8 core apps and offering incentives to developers. Windows 8's app catalogue, however, is still thin compared to leading tablet competitors'.

Compatibility with x86 apps remains one of Windows 8's unique selling points but most consumers haven't yet been interested enough in this feature to purchase new machines. Plus, with Microsoft's evident commitment to the Modern interface, that legacy compatibility is only part of the equation. Live Tiles are here to stay, and Microsoft has been telling customers to get used to the idea. From Microsoft's perspective, forcing users to boot to the Modern Start Screen isn't a design flaw; it was insurance that users would become familiar with the new interface, even if they prefer to spend most of their time in the desktop UI. Windows Blue appears to continue this approach.

This strong-arming will only work, though, if Modern apps deliver a compelling experience that not only competes with iOS and Android offerings but also satisfies the needs of long-time PC users. The June conferences represent an opportunity for Microsoft to encourage developer buy-in, and to tout new hardware based on Intel's Haswell chips, which are expected to endow touch-enabled Windows 8 Ultrabooks with tablet-like battery life.

To succeed, Microsoft will need to candidly address questions and concerns in addition to showing off its latest wares. If developers and partners are dismayed that the desktop could go the way of the command line interface, June will be their chance to push Microsoft for answers.

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