Peering Ahead to Windows 8

By now, you may have heard rumblings of Microsoft's next big bet, Windows 8. The follow-up OS to the widely successful Windows 7 currently has far more rumors surrounding it than sound, factual data, but we know enough to glean that Microsoft is actively targeting Windows 8 at developers. Redmond's intentions appear to skew toward mobile developers, what with Windows 8 on ARM being demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2011 and a Windows application store being noted in public planning documentation. But what about non-mobile developers? What can you expect in the next version of Windows?

Microsoft hasn't committed to a public delivery schedule, but Mary Jo Foley, who writes the Foley on Microsoft column for VSM sister publication Redmond magazine, wrote on her All About Microsoft blog that Windows 8 could enter public beta in September and ship by mid-2012.

It's clear that Microsoft is thinking about professional developers with Windows 8. The aforementioned OS documentation includes a Venn diagram that details the developer markets Microsoft aims to address. It displays the approximate size of three developer segments: hobbyist/non-professional at 104 million developers, STEM-D (science, technology, engineering and math developers) at 39 million, and professional at 8.6 million. The diagram shows Windows 8 embracing the entire professional market, versus only a fraction of the hobbyist and STEM-D sectors.

Public postings from Microsoft employees are revealing. One employee notes on his LinkedIn profile that he's working on an "app-development framework for Windows 8." Another writes that his team is "chartered with reinvigorating the Windows developer ecosystem by building substantial improvements into the Windows platform (APIs, tools and the underlying infrastructure)." That same employee writes that additional details are confidential, but the commitment to developer issues is apparent.

The Big Picture
There are changes to the OS that could have pervasive impact. The new UI, for one, may drastically change the user experience for those who opt to employ it. With Microsoft reportedly keen on adding touch- and speech-based UI enhancements, desktops, notebooks and netbooks will likely acquire new hardware such as touch-capable screens, accelerometers and other sensors. Windows 8 may be an important steppingstone for making touch, speech and other inputs a core part of the computing experience. Should your applications follow suit?

Windows 8 is also poised to introduce changes in how users get help and support. What does that have to do with you? Well, don't be surprised if Microsoft makes help and support in Windows 8 more like a platform containing an API for devs to integrate with their applications. That may be a far-reaching conclusion, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility -- especially with the Device Stage and Device Experience Development Kit that Microsoft created for developers with Windows 7.

Anyone who's seen the Microsoft "to the cloud" TV campaign won't be surprised to find that Windows 8 is pushing cloud-based thinking to new extremes. The concept of roaming profiles could make Windows more user-centric and less machine-dependent, allowing an individual to access settings, preferences and more on any Windows-based computer simply by logging into a roaming profile.

Now take that concept and apply it to an application you've developed. What would this do for user licensing, where a user is often restricted to one machine install per license? On the other hand, this could create the ability for a user to seamlessly migrate settings for your application from one machine to another.

Finally, Windows 8 will likely rally around Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and Silverlight, as Microsoft utilizes the XAML platforms to develop Windows 8-based components. We don't have a lot of specifics yet, but it appears that WPF and Silverlight are about to become much more front-facing than they've been up to this point.

There will undoubtedly be marked improvement in Windows 8 compared to previous iterations of Windows, where developers are concerned. To what degree, though, is still a big question. The crux of having insight into early planning is that features and targets sometimes get changed or canceled along the way. However, I've heard and seen enough to feel 100 percent confident that the Windows 8 team will unveil an impressive update of the flagship Microsoft OS -- perhaps even the greatest one to date, especially for developers.

About the Author

Stephen Chapman is an investigative blogger who writes for ZDNet and authors the Microsoft enthusiast blog Microsoft Kitchen. He was recently named by Redmond magazine as one of the top 10 influential Microsoft pundits. His coverage of emerging Microsoft technologies affords him a unique perspective and sound insight into the future of products such as Windows, Office, Windows Phone and more.

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