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Microsoft clears some fog over its new ecosystem

With today's announcement of Windows Phone 8, Microsoft shows off what the future of Windows will be. Still clouded in mystery is whether people will actually want it, so vote in our poll here and let us know what you think.

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Microsoft has shed some serious light on the future of Windows, with Windows Phone 8 and Surface tablet revelations this week burning away much of the uncertainty surrounding Windows and devices.

As expected, Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 will have tight integration with Windows 8. The intent is obvious, and frankly, a good idea: make it as easy as possible for you to move from one Microsoft device to another, no matter if you've got a phone, a tablet, a laptop, or a desktop.

For one thing, Internet Explorer 10 will be present on the new Windows Phones as well as Windows 8 and Windows RT. You may scoff at the idea of IE being a decent browser, but there's little doubt among people who pay close attention to browsers that Internet Explorer 10 is the most standards-compliant version of the browser yet, with competitive page-load times and expansive HTML5 support. Microsoft is also attempting to position IE10 on the side of the end-user by setting its Do No Track header to on by default, something no other browser maker has done yet. While it's true that there are defensible reasons for not doing it, it is unusual for Microsoft to take such an aggressive stance.

Microsoft plans to port IE10's strong security features to the phone version of the browser. Today, the company demonstrated that IE's online phishing detector and SmartScreen Filter will block many threats from reaching you, with notifications on the phone that look and feel like their desktop counterparts. As more people browse from a mobile device and expect the Web to behave the same on mobile as on a desktop, Web security on devices will take on much more significance.

Windows Phone and Windows 8 also sport matching wardrobes with their Start screens. They share those quadrilateral live tiles, instead of having traditional icons. Whether you resize them as squares or rectangles, the Start screen on Windows 8 will closely match the Start screen on Windows Phone 8.

There's a lot shared under the hood, too. Native code will be shared between Windows and Windows Phone 8. Networking stack, security model, media management, file system, graphics code, and more will be identical, thus streamlining app development among other benefits.

As the operating systems blur and merge, so goes the new hardware that's been designed to showcase Windows and Windows Phone. We haven't seen much for either, but we do know that the Surface line of tablets, especially the heftier Windows 8 one powered by an Intel chip, will be much closer to an Ultrabook than current tablets are. We've seen hinged, ultrathin touch screen laptops at Computex that look like they could do serious business as tablets.

Microsoft is pushing manufacturers with stringent baseline specs and its own aggressive hardware designs in Surface to think differently about hardware, if you'll forgive the reference.

As with all things involving the word Windows and the number eight, these events answered some questions but left others hanging. One big question about Windows RT can now be asked of Windows Phone 8: What does this mean for third-party browsers? Will Android be the only mobile phone operating system that allows for full third-party browser integration?

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Asa Dotzler, director of Firefox for Mozilla, was reluctant to speculate on Windows Phone 8 and browsers. "Microsoft has not yet shared specific details on what Windows Phone 8's 'shared core' will offer for Windows developers," he said.

The issue of apps looms large, too. We know how the operating system itself will look and function. In the case of Windows 8, we've gotten hands-on time with it for months. It's made impressive strides since the February debut of the Consumer Preview. But an ecosystem without software or apps that people want to use might as well not exist. We don't know how Microsoft will entice developers to their new playground, and we obviously don't know if developers will find those enticements attractive enough.

So let's say that Microsoft pulls off this hat trick. In the fall, the company unleashes an ecosystem of devices, from desktop laptop to tablet to phone, that seamlessly communicate with each other, that has some killer must-have apps, and it's all competitively priced.

Let's even speculate that critics will like it. Maybe not all, but there will be enough critical acclaim that the curious and the die-hards will jump. We're still left with the biggest question of all: what will people think? Will they like it? And what happens to Microsoft if it bombs?

The risks associated with the new Windows ecosystem are enormous and serious. In terms of success and public interest, are we looking at another Kin? Or is this more of an Xbox?

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