This week saw the latest step towards the release of Windows 8, the next major version of Microsoft's operating system that represents one of the biggest changes in the history of the platform.
At its Build conference on Tuesday, Microsoft spent more than two hours on stage. While the software isn't expected to make it into consumer hands until sometime next year, we now have a clearer picture of how Microsoft is positioning it to an industry that's shifted its purchases (and affections) from desktops to notebooks, and now portable devices like tablets and smartphones.
In short, Windows 8 is Microsoft's big answer to that broadening landscape: a product that can power nearly all machines, with an interface that can adapt along the way. That right there is one of the biggest differences between Microsoft's vision of computing and Apple's, which created a separate OS to power its portables, while keeping the desktop OS for its Intel-based machines.
However that separation has led to a massive difference in the way consumers look at operating systems, particularly with how often that software is updated, bringing new features to hardware months and years after a purchase. By splitting up the two OSes, Apple was able to iterate quickly, rolling out major releases on an annual basis, while continuing to offer Mac OS X updates at their usual rate. Now the big question is how that will work with Windows 8 with regards to Metro, Microsoft's touch-friendly UI that's been designed for tablets running Windows 8.
Microsoft has traditionally released a new version of Windows every few years, but tablet users are now accustomed to more frequent feature updates. For proof of that, you can look at the iPad, which launched without multitasking and a number of other features the iPhone had, only to get it later with a software update. Android users face a similar future, with the promise of additional software updates.
Comparatively, Microsoft has saved those big feature updates for major releases, and charged for them too. This has created a cycle where developers in the Apple camp can depend software updates to build on top of: Mac OS X developers have come to expect a major update every few years, with iOS getting updates every year.
What does that mean for Windows 8 though? Will the lucrative tradition of releasing a major update every few years continue, while the Metro interface is left untouched, or does Microsoft intend to update it more often to keep up with the Joneses? Therein lies one of the potential drawback of trying to provide everything in one package. It's also something to watch considering how closely connected Windows 8's Metro interface is tied to Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 software, which so far has followed the speedier update trend.
The major thing Microsoft has going for it with Windows 8 is how much more open it is to letting third-parties make adjustments to the operating system itself. On the non-Metro side of Windows this is unchanged, with backwards compatibility for apps, a bevy of third-party plug-ins, and software that can run behind the scenes to custom-tailor your computing experience. What's unclear is how that will shape up on the Metro side of Windows 8.
During the Build keynote, we saw that users could extend what can be done from within an app based on other applications you had installed. In that case, it was a sharing app letting a user share the Web page they were on in IE10. But how much deeper Microsoft will let third-parties go with that customization? That wasn't shown off at Build.
One other big question that remains is whether Microsoft can woo developers to its platform with the promise of scale. Windows president Steven Sinofsky pitched the 5,000 developers who were at the Build keynote on the merits of building on Windows 8, based on the fact that there "could be 400 million people when this product launches."
Yet, even at 400 million, that could be a splintered group for developers to target. For instance, an application built for touchscreen tablets will only be aimed at those with the newer portables, which represents a smaller group (read: less revenue potential) and one with potentially different buying habits than desktop users (read: they might not pay as much per app). Then there are high-end games, which would be unplayable on the newer tablets for lack of a beefy CPU and graphics card. Yet those two things can sit side by side on Windows 8, Microsoft says.
So what are developers to do? If they want the money, they go with the bigger platform, which is traditional desktop users, or a competitor like Apple or Google. That, or they can bet on the future and hope it takes off, with them being on the ground floor.
To sweeten the deal, Microsoft's tried to remove any barriers to entry. That includes letting apps with different requirements sit side by side in its store, as well as offering developers a way to offer free trials of their software--both things Apple does not. It's also shown off more of its vision about where it wants to be, well ahead of when the actual software is ready for end users.
These bets could very well pay off for both users and developers in the long run, with applications that can tailor themselves to run on just about any hardware, and change the very deepest parts of Windows to a user's exact liking. If Microsoft can deliver that with Windows 8, it will be treading ground that Apple hasn't.