Eight Windows 8 features that could save Microsoft

Kinect Windows 8

Microsoft is perhaps the most dominant company in the history of computing. It has ruled the PC world for two decades, cementing its Windows operating system as the only game in town outside of the minute marketshare of Apple and indie rumblings of Linux. However, the computing world is at an apex; things are beginning to change in big ways. Windows governs the PC world, but we’re fast entering a post-PC era.

Where the PC was the central hub of all things tech for 20 years, new devices have emerged that are shattering that monopoly. Microsoft, unfortunately, has tried too hard and too long to shove its increasingly bloated PC operating system into an ever-shrinking and changing slate of devices. Though it invented tablet PCs and was early to the smartphone game, users have largely rejected these Windows flavors in favor of newer, leaner platforms (iOS, Android, BB) built without the baggage of 20-plus years of PCs tugging on them.

Waking up from its daze, Microsoft went back to the drawing board a couple years back and created Windows Phone 7, a completely new and reinvented mobile OS, spawned from the company’s Zune line of MP3 players (much like iOS spawned from the iPod). Unfortunately, having a separate mobile OS and a PC platform (Windows 7) has lead to a big interface continuity problem; WP7 and W7 do not look or act alike, at all. And then there’s tablets. Microsoft has opted to push Windows 7 onto tablets, a device type it just isn’t made to run on. To complicate matters, early sales of Windows Phone 7, which launched last November, have been slow.

So where does Microsoft go from here? Does it have a chance in this new post-PC world, or will it thrive only in the diminishing market of non-touch, keyboarded PCs? In an earlier article, I gave five reasons why Windows dominance is coming to an end. Today, I’d like to explore seven bold ways that Windows 8 could help reignite the fire for Windows on all devices.

Three screens

Microsoft knows that Windows 8 must bridge the huge interface gap between Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7. It needs to be an OS that is lean enough to run in some capacity on Nokia’s feature phones (per the new Nokia-Microsoft deal), but powerful enough to scale to smartphones, tablets, laptops, PCs, and televisions of all sizes. It needs to run on every screen — touch, 3D, or other — in a expected and elegant way. Microsoft is already on the right track with Windows Phone, Bing, and Xbox 360 — three creations that wouldn’t exist if Microsoft hadn’t encountered stiff competition in the smartphone, search, and videogame markets. When pushed by tough competition, the company has a remarkable ability to finally get creative and conjure up fantastic and consistent user experiences. They need to take that fear and place it on the PC Windows platform as well.

…and a cloud

Windows 8 needs to work on any size device, but it also should take cloud computing to a new level. While competitors like Google are completely cloud-based, Microsoft’s approach has been to create a dual-use experience, where items can be accessed locally and stored on the Web. This is the right approach. Many are (or will be) wary of storing things on the Web, so strategy that retains local storage but seamlessly allows cloud backup of anything and everything would be a very cool and very valuable service. Recent leaked images show Live ID integration into the taskbar.

windows-8-taskbar-live-id

Imagine if you get a virus, and Microsoft could instantly restore your PC to its former state in minutes after a crisis. All you would need is a Live ID. Pictures, videos, music, documents, and programs would be restored from a secure locker on the Web. Sharing pictures and data would also be much easier with heavy integration of services like Facebook (and other Web services) and a general blurring between offline and online services. Taking it a step further, imagine taking a picture on your Windows Phone and having it instantly appear in your pictures folder on your home desktop, netbook, or tablet. Theoretically, your whole family could share music and data between one another via a simple linking of online profiles. And I’m not even scratching the surface. Microsoft has shown that it understands cloud services with Windows Phone and earlier devices like the Kin line of phones. Hopefully the company’s engineers have much cooler ideas than I do.

Keep it simple, Steve

To move forward, Microsoft is going to have to move back and shed some of its baggage. Windows 7 nearly perfects the PC interface MS began with Windows 95, but since the mid 80s, Microsoft has tried to make Windows something for everyone. There are a thousand ways to do anything in Windows — some easy, some convoluted. In this respect, Windows needs to take a cue from iOS and Android (to a lesser degree). Say what you will about Apple, but Steve Jobs is willing to kill what doesn’t work. Microsoft has strived to make Windows the OS for everything, but that goal is precisely what has bogged it down in recent years and prevented the company from more quickly adapting to the changing computing market. Hell, even Bill Gates complained about his own OS some years back. Windows 8 must, by default, rid itself of the clutter of options and icons that have filled Windows the last 15 years. Some users will be irritated, but sometimes to jump a canyon, you gotta drop your pack. In the end, a better product will spur the masses to change.

Windows 8 should take the best elements of Windows Phone, Xbox, and Windows 7 and roll them into one complete package. Hopefully the end result will have more Windows Phone than anything else. It is Microsoft’s most beautiful and simple OS to date.

Keeping it simple extends to OS versions as well. Microsoft launched six versions of Windows 7: Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate. A seventh version, Thin PC, will soon be available. Without a chart, I challenge anyone to explain the differences between them all. Windows 8 needs to be much simpler than this. Microsoft isn’t going to give up its enterprise profits, but at most there should be two versions of Windows 8: Home and Business (and Embedded for odd devices). There can be two versions of Office as well.

Kinect built into every Windows machine

At CES this year, Steve Ballmer showed off new ways to use the Xbox 360 Kinect camera peripheral. Using arm gestures and voice commands, players can now use applications on the Xbox and play media. The demonstration shows only a fraction of what Kinect-like interfaces will be capable of in a few years. While it is an Xbox exclusive at the moment, why not integrate Kinect technology into all Windows devices? Imagine being able to gesture or tell your laptop to open up different apps and control many onscreen actions directly with your hands. It could finally give laptops and desktops an interface that could compete with the direct-touch interfaces of tablets and smartphones. And on touch devices, enhanced gestures and voice commands would also come in handy in many ways. Kinect with its infrared camera is a huge potential advantage for Microsoft should they choose to liberate it from the Xbox.

Live tiles and new proactive interfaces

Kinect offers a lot of opportunities, but so does Windows Phone. Rumor has it that Microsoft is already adding Windows Phone Live Tiles to Windows 8, with the option to turn them off. This is a great idea and I hope Live Tiles are used for tablet devices as well. However, I’d like to see the team in Redmond take it a few steps further. Microsoft has been experimenting with some cool new bubble-like interfaces (seen below) that attempt to predict and make the computing experience far more proactive than it currently is. For example, if you’ve booked a flight and the weather has gotten bad, maybe Windows would proactively notify you that things aren’t looking so good for that flight on Tuesday. Or perhaps your computer or smartphone Cloud account may remember that you always participate in March Madness and notify you of unique opportunities.

A new Explorer for a new age

Understanding navigation and storage is also something many Windows users don’t get. They know what a My Documents is, but 20 years into the concept of folders and a significant number of users don’t understand directories and how they work. Manipulating directories is the key to knowing how to fiddle around in Windows. I’m not sure if Microsoft needs to eliminate folders entirely, but people need to know where their files are. The differentiation between the Desktop homescreen, My Documents, and C:\ Drive is too complicated for many users to understand. It should be better explained, or the Explorer should be replaced with a system that is more effective. Microsoft’s Ray Ozzie hinted at this in his farewell letter last October. With the Mac App Store, Apple has already begun to better hide directories from the end user’s view.

Windows Surface

Our own Rob Enderle mentioned how great Microsoft’s Surface technology is back in his Imagining Windows 8 article in January. I agree. Surface employs a new technology called “Pixel Sense” that lets a touchscreen actually see the items that are touching it and download files from other digital devices. In a demonstration at CES this year, Microsoft showed how the Surface technology could actually see a black and white version of items that are places on it. Using shape recognition software, a number of amazing new possibilities could open up for interface design and gaming. Currently, Surface is only being sold as a gimmicky product for businesses to use to attract attention, but the potential is there for a whole lot more. If it’s financially feasible, Surface technology would be ideal for almost any touch device.

Windows Marketplace with Xbox

Apple made the first move when it launched its Mac App Store, a brazen first attempt at bringing the App ecosystem of iOS back to Mac computers. With Android Honeycomb, Google has upgraded its app store to also serve tablet devices. Microsoft should take it one step further, allowing apps across all platforms with UI that automatically modifies, depending on device type. The days of the CD are ending. While I don’t hope for a day when I can’t load a program outside of an app store, the stores bring a lot of simplicity and convenience to application installation, updating, and deletion.

While some criticized Google for allowing malware onto its Android Market last week, thanks to the control the app store process allows, Google was able to delete the infected apps, remotely remove them from infected machines, notify all of the 200,000 some users infected, and push out a patch that eliminated the virus. This entire chain of fixes is impossible under the free-reigning PC ecosystem of the last 20 years, and we’ve paid the price for it.

In addition, Microsoft has already begun leveraging its successful Xbox brand, integrating avatars and other Xbox features into Windows Phone 7. This is a great line of thought. There’s no reason why Microsoft shouldn’t be investing significantly in high quality video game Xbox software for Windows 8 using Surface, motion, and Kinect technologies in creative new ways.

2012 isn’t far away

Windows 8 is rumored to be released in the later half of 2012, about three years after the release of Windows 7. This means that the first private betas may start in late 2011. It is a scary time for Microsoft. Tablets will be a couple years old by the time Windows supports them in any meaningful way and the smartphone market continues to slip away from the Redmond giant. However, for the time being, PCs are still vital to daily living, which means Microsoft can take its time. However, the game is changing. The Windows dynasty will not last forever (not even in the business market) if Microsoft isn’t able to recapture some market share in smartphones, tablets, and whatever new devices crop up next. Ballmer and Co. need to get a lot nimbler if they hope to compete with today’s emerging platforms.

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