Eight Windows 8 features that could save Microsoft

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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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