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Microsoft Windows 8: What we know so far

We know, we know. You just got over the travesty that was Vista, laid out $200 for Windows 7, reinstalled, and got your desktop back to the way you like it. The last thing you really need right now is a new version of Windows. But with Apple hard at work on a radically revamped OS X Lion that draws upon the success of iOS, Linux getting more refined and user-friendly by the month, and Google cracking away on Chrome OS, Microsoft doesn’t have the luxury of sitting still. To compete, Microsoft will need Windows 8.

And it’s already in the hopper. While Microsoft execs have said very little of Windows 8, also known as vNext, a handful of leaks and small comments have helped shape our impression of the next big splash from Microsoft. While it’s too early in the development cycle to say anything for certain, here’s what we’ve learned so far about Microsoft Windows 8.

Coming in 2012

Must have been too many Heinekens. Amidst the celebration of one successful year for Windows 7, Microsoft’s Dutch website accidentally published a paragraph on Sunday that indicated work on Windows 8 was underway, but about two years out from completion, putting it in in late 2012.

It’s big.

When asked what Microsoft’s “riskiest product bet” was, other than cloud computing, Steve Ballmer confidently belted out, “the next version of Windows.” As it should be. Windows 7 may have effectively bandaged Vista’s bleeding, but it could hardly be considered revolutionary. People want new features –not a working version of old ones. The longer timeline for Windows 8 and relative stability of Windows 7 (Microsoft isn’t rushing to put out any fires this time) should allow the company to incubate a much more drastically updated product.

App store

Steam was just the beginning. The days of trips to the store for software boxes that clutter up your shelves and discs you’ll file away and never look at again have come to a close. Every major mobile operating system – including Windows Phone 7 – has already launched an app store for seamless software purchases, and Apple is now leading the charge on the desktop with an app store for OS X promised in the coming months. According to leaked slides from a presentation shown to hardware vendors in April, Windows 8 will follow suit with the “Windows Store.” Partners like HP may get opportunities to develop their own app stores (“HP Store powered by Windows”) and software licenses will roam with users, allowing you to access your familiar software from more than one machine.

Facial recognition

Although software already exists to log users in and out of a computer with facial recognition, Microsoft intends to “eliminate friction” with the technology by building the capability directly into Windows 8. Potentially, facial recognition on an operating system level could even make it easier to replace other passwords with faces, like allowing you to login to your e-mail, bank and social networks all by simply looking at a camera.

Faster bootup

Even with tweaks that dropped Vista’s molasses-slow boot time to under 60 seconds on many of the PCs we review, Windows 7 remains the stumbling old man of the OS world when it comes to getting ready to go. We still hit the coffee pot in the morning after flipping our PCs on. Meanwhile, standard MacBooks can book in the 25-second range, our SSD-equipped iMac did it in 19, and ultra-light Linux installs, including Chrome OS, reduce that to just a few seconds. Leaked slides indicate that Microsoft will shoot for an “instant on, always connected” experience, with better reliability and performance for the sleep function.

128-bit compatibility

Sometimes hints come from the strangest places. Back in November 2009, when Windows 7 was still just a newborn, a Microsoft engineer updated his LinkedIn profile claiming he was trying to get “IA-128 working backwards with full binary compatibility on the existing IA-64 instructions in the hardware simulation to work for Windows 8 and definitely Windows 9.” Translation: Windows 8 could be the first 128-bit OS, and if not, Windows 9 definitely will be. The slow adoption of 64-bit architectures and lack of any 128-bit processors seems to shed some doubt on it arriving in time for Windows 8, but it does seem likely that Windows 8 could be the first version of Windows to drop 32-bit support entirely.

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