Windows 8: What we hope to learn

Microsoft’s BUILD Windows conference next week will signal the grand reveal of its latest OS, and we have a lot of questions.

We already know a lot about Windows 8. We know it’ll have a new, touch-focused interface and application framework for tablets and touchscreen PCs. We know it will still have a traditional desktop, with enhancements to Explorer (among other features). It will have versions that run natively on ARM-based CPUs in addition to the x86 architectures we’re used to. It will integrate USB 3.0 support and cloud services.

For all we know, there is still a great deal we don't yet have answers to. Next week, Microsoft will hold the BUILD Windows conference, previously known as the Professional Developers Conference (PDC). This will be Windows 8's big unveiling, where the company will finally detail and demonstrate the major features and changes to what it is calling the biggest change in the operating system since Windows 95. Here's what we hope to find out:

1. How will the new Start Screen apps be built and distributed?

The new Start Screen interface, made for touch-first devices like tablets (or touch-enabled all-in-one desktops) is pretty slick. It uses tiles that resemble the "Metro" style prevelant in Windows Phone 7, and may be built with HTML5 and Javascript technologies. Microsoft showed it off in a tantalizing video (below), but we've only seen a glimpse of it. What other languages and tools will be used to build these apps? Will they be distributed only through the built-in App Store, or can other sites and download services distribute them? How does installing, uninstalling, and updating these apps work?

2. What new tools will make developers’ lives easier?

An operating system is only as good as the software that runs on it. To that end, Microsoft needs to make easier, more powerful tools for developers. With Windows 8 support ARM architectures, developers will need an easy way to complie and optimize applications for both x86 and ARM processors. DirectX 11 is a couple years old now, and with perhaps another year before Windows 8's release, it may be time for Microsoft to start talking about its successor. With App Stores all the rage, users expect simpler install and uninstall capabilities as well as the assurance that their applications remain up to date. Will Windows 8 incorporate new feautres to make it easier for developers and publishers to meet these needs?

3. What new hardware will be supported?

Native support for ARM-based processors is a huge undertaking, and the built-in USB 3.0 stack is an important step forward, but what other new hardware will Windows 8 support out of the box? Modern tablets - a key target market for Windows 8 - support a wide array of sensors like accelerometers, cameras, proximity sensors, gyroscopes, GPS, and digital compasses. Will Windows 8 provide APIs to give developers easy access to all these things, or will a fragmented array of drivers and software interfaces have to suffice, as they do today? How about out-of-the-box Blu-ray support? How will Windows 8 enhance support for multiple displays or projectors?

4. What about the built-in apps and utilities?

Many of the built-in applications and utilities in Windows are due for a major overhaul. Windows Defender might as well be replaced with the superior Microsoft Security Essentials. Paint should be completely replaced. The built-in movie making software is similarly out-of-date. We know Internet Explorer 10 will be a part of Windows 8, but we've only seen some examples of how it expands support for HTML5 and boosts hardware acceleration over IE9. What will IE10's interface look like, and what new features will it bring? More advanced features like disk management could use some improvement, too.

5. What’s in it for gamers?

We already know Windows 8’s system requirements are supposed to be no higher than Windows 7's, but this promise of efficiency is not enough to satisfy the tens -- or hundreds -- of millions of Windows gamers out there. They want to know how Windows 8 will make their game-playing experience better, faster, and easier. Will Xbox Live be integrated as a first-class citizen, built right into the desktop?

6. What about the cloud?

Microsoft is said to be integrating cloud services with Windows 8, but we don’t really know exactly what that means. Is it just built-in SkyDrive, or does the integration go deeper than that? There have been rumors that users can, by logging in with their Live account, store their entire desktop setup in the cloud and access it from other Windows 8 computers. If this is the case, it raises all sorts of questions about security and compatibility. Then there are the details: How much online storage to users get? What will the inevitable premium services be and what will they cost? Perhaps most importantly, what happens to users who want to opt out to all of Microsoft’s cloud services – does this seriously compromise the operating system?

7. What do Windows 8 tablets and PCs look like?

We’ll probably see some prototype tablets, ultrabooks, and concept PCs at the conference. Some will be less refined than the actual products that hit the market when Windows 8 goes on sale, others will never see the light of day. Either way, we hope to be impressed by a very forward-looking view of where the PC is going. Will an advanced ARM-based chip find its way into a thin-and-light laptop, or will ARM be found only on tablets?

8. What about the beta?

Will Microsoft release a beta of Windows 8 at the BUILD conference? If it doesn't, will we at least get a date for when the beta is to begin? Will it be as open and broadly accessible as the Windows 7 beta, or will access be limited?

Despite the flood of information we expect to get at the conference next week, there are three bits of data we don’t expect to hear anything about: pricing, versions, and release date. As much as we want to know how many different versions of Windows 8 there will be (we’re hoping fewer than Windows 7), how much they’ll cost, and when we can buy it, it’s probably far too early for Microsoft to start divulging those details.

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Jason Cross

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