Windows Blue: Demise Of The Desktop?

Mar 26, 2013 (05:03 AM EDT)

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Windows 8: 8 Big Benefits For SMBs
Windows 8: 8 Big Benefits For SMBs
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An ostensibly legitimate build of Windows Blue, the much-rumored update to Windows 8, surfaced online over the weekend and is currently being circulated on file-sharing sites. The leak caps a spree of Windows Blue rumors over the last few weeks, including videos in which Microsoft officials casually reference the update and numerous indications that an official release will arrive soon.

The leaked build is incomplete, marked by several non-functional features and placeholders. Nonetheless, observers have already unearthed new insights into Microsoft's strategy to remain dominant as its core PC business cedes ground to the tablet market. Many of these inferences reiterate earlier rumors, such as refinements to Windows 8's touch-oriented Modern user interface. But the build also suggests a tablet-centric mindset that has already seeded new speculation, the boldest of which suggests Microsoft will soon retire one of its most iconic Windows features: the desktop itself.

Microsoft has yet to officially acknowledge that Windows Blue exists, let alone to comment on the update's unscheduled appearance in the wild. With screenshots and videos now documenting the upgraded OS in detail, though, there's now little doubt that rumors have been largely valid, and that the project is in an advanced stage of development. Citing unnamed sources, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, who broke several of the earliest Windows Blue stories, reported that the leak, dubbed Build 9364, is a direct internal engineering build that was current as of last week.

[ Want more on Windows Blue? Read Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve? ]

Many of the enhancements are designed to make the tile-based Modern interface more personalized and fluid. Improvements include the ability to scale Start screen tiles from as little as one-fourth to as much as four times their default size; tools to modify color accents and other aesthetic cues; and, perhaps most notably, support for running Modern apps side-by-side. Desktop-style multitasking would give Windows 8's tablet interface a meaningful advantage over the iPad, and Microsoft's implementation not only permits up to four apps to be open simultaneously but also offers multi-monitor applications.

Other Windows Blue features include new alarm, sound recording, video and calculator apps; support for additional touch gestures; and Internet Explorer 11. For the most part, the new browser isn't obviously different in the leaked build from the current version, but there are indications it will add the unique ability to synch tabs across a user's various devices. When discussing Windows 8, Microsoft representatives often describe online experiences that transition seamlessly from laptops to smartphones to tablets, and the Internet Explorer conjecture certainly squares with this vision. Build 9364's deeper hooks for SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud service, only bolster this notion.

The rogue Windows Blue copy follows a busy week for the Microsoft rumor mill. On March 21, MSFTKitchen released videos in which Eric Rudder, Microsoft's chief technical strategy officer, and other company representatives openly reference Windows Blue while demonstrating an improved version of Windows 8's Fresh Paint app and dramatically faster and more accurate voice recognition technology. In one of the videos, Rudder declares Microsoft's intent to "extend touch in an even more dramatic fashion," although it's not clear what he means beyond Fresh Paint's enhancements and Blue's handful of new gesture controls.

With the ability to resize tiles and otherwise customize the Modern interface, Windows Blues echoes the focus on personalization trumpeted by Windows Phone manager Jon Belfiore and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer when they introduced Windows Phone 8 last fall. The leaked version suggests the personalization theme is only likely to spread, as an MSFTKitchen teardown of Build 9364's system files suggests Windows Blue is coming to virtually all Microsoft platforms. This corroborates early rumors that Windows Blue would unify Microsoft operating systems around common code, presumably to streamline developer efforts and improve synching across devices.

Other recent Windows Blue rumors claim the update will debut, perhaps following a public preview, on ultrabooks and tablets equipped with Intel's Haswell processors, the newest version of the chipmaker's Core family.

Intel has been touting the new silicon as a breakthrough in power management, and Windows Blue is rumored to optimize energy consumption beyond Haswell's base capabilities. If both the OS and processor deliver on their hype, this summer's ultrabooks could offer battery life comparable to ARM-powered tablets such as the iPad or Surface RT while retaining not only compatibility with x86 legacy apps but also the processing firepower of a full-blown laptop.

The nature of that x86 compatibility, however, is suddenly open to more credible debate. Legacy applications such as Microsoft Office are synonymous for many users with the traditional Explorer user interface. However, aside from the fact that Haswell will benefit clamshell-style ultrabooks in addition to tablets and convertibles, little of the Windows Blue enhancements appear directed at the traditional interface. The Modern environment should be more appealing but users are still out of luck if they want to boot straight to the desktop, or if they want the Start button to be reintegrated from exile.

Indeed, earlier reports that Microsoft is offering discounted Windows 8 and Office licensing seem to support not only that it's ramping up for Haswell devices, but also -- given that the biggest price cuts are allegedly reserved for models with smaller screens -- a sense that Microsoft is more concerned with tablets than laptops.

This conjecture would amount to circumstantial evidence if not for the fact that Build 9364's tablet-centricism is so pervasive. It includes not only the aforementioned tweaks but also the ability to modify Control Panel settings -- which previously required that users shift to the desktop side of the OS -- from within the Modern UI. Indeed, with a Modern-flavored File Manager rumored to be in the cards, Microsoft seems keen to translate many legacy activities to its new touch-centered world. The changes can certainly be justified in the name of convenience but they will also wean users off the more familiar Explorer environment by encouraging them to conduct more of their business in the tablet UI.

Due to Microsoft's putative focus on the Modern interface, several commentators are already speculating that Microsoft is preparing to shutter the desktop UI altogether, perhaps with the release of Windows 9. This theory, which has been whispered since Windows 8 was unveiled, is more credible than ever.

Even so, there are several reasons to take it with a grain of salt. Build 9364 isn't a release candidate, and Microsoft could still implement a variety of additional features -- maybe, though it doesn't seem likely, even a Start button. Then again, maybe Microsoft is simply focused on establishing its mobile UI in the near term, with updates that will make it cohere better with the desktop environment slated for later. Windows 7 is a mature product, and Windows 8 is in many ways a more refined, iterative evolution of this solid foundation. Many companies are too invested in Windows 7 to seriously consider a Windows 8 deployment, so with large-scale enterprise sales still months off, Microsoft arguably has some time to sort things out for traditional customers. The longer the company takes to make a serious play against Google and Apple in the mobile space, however, the less likely it becomes that Microsoft will be more than a role player in the market of the future.

To be sure, such a plan could still alienate longtime users if it makes them feel abandoned by a myopic consumer focus. But retiring the Explorer interface is equally likely to incite dismay among the user base, even if Microsoft takes care to be particularly transparent as it ports x86 software into Modern apps. Microsoft faces uncertain ground regardless of which path it follows. Whatever the case, it should only be a few months until users have a chance to judge a sanctioned version of the newest Windows experience for themselves.

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