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The more we learn about Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 operating system, the more mysterious it becomes. From the signals coming out of Redmond, Silicon Valley and beyond, it appears that Windows 8 may actually surprise everyone.
Will it be a "tweak" of Windows 7, or a radical overhaul? Will it be small and light, or massive and bloated? Will the interface be more like Windows 7, or Windows Phone 7? Will it come with Skype?
Of all the unknown unknowns, to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, here are the 5 biggest questions:
1. How compatible will Windows 8 be?
An Intel x86 compatible version called "Windows 8 traditional" (the software equivalent of "Coke Classic," apparently) will run existing Windows applications but only in a "Windows 7 mode." And of course it will also run shiny new Windows 8 applications yet to be created.
Four additional versions will support four distinct types of ARMdevices, including tablets, phones and other devices. These ARM versions will neither run Windows applications, nor offer any sort of "Windows 7 mode" that would enable the use of existing applications. Not only will Windows 8 ARM apps not run on Windows 8 Intel devices, apps written for one of the four ARM variants will not even run on the other three, according to James.
While some ARM-based phones and tablets will be incompatible with other versions of Windows 8, James assured investors that Intel-based phones and tablets would be highly compatible.
However, it's reasonable to assume that phone and tablet versions of both Intel and ARM versions of Windows 8 will have interfaces similar to Windows Phone 7's Metro UI, which means applications could or should be written to take advantage of these interface elements. Touch and swipe requires very different elements from point and click.
What we don't know is whether or not regular Windows 8 applications will run on the Intel-based phone and tablet versions. For example, will people who have both a Windows 8 desktop and Windows 8 tablet be required to buy two separate versions of their applications?
Yet another possibility is that those Intel-based mobile devices will be able to run regular Windows 7 and Windows 8 applications, and also be offered Metro-specific versions as optional alternatives.
2. How many versions will Microsoft ship?
It's possible that Windows 8 will ship in a standard desktop version, plus two Intel-based mobile versions (one each for phones and tablets), plus four more versions for ARM variants. Given Microsoft's history, there could be "Ultimate," "Premium" and "Enterprise" versions as well. That's 10 versions of Windows 8 -- the same number of versions that Windows Vista came out in, a fact that drew criticism in some quarters.
On the other hand, it's possible that there could be very few versions offered to buyers as a choice. For example, you probably won't be able to buy any of the ARM versions or even the Intel versions slated for mobile devices. You'll buy device, and Windows 8 will already be on it. Consumers looking to upgrade could be offered the choice of only one version, which could install features as requested -- and paid for -- by the user.
3. Will the Windows version modes be visible to the user?
James said that users running Windows 8 on Intel machines "will be able to run either Windows 7 mode or Windows 8 mode." But it's not clear if users will be aware of these modes.
The worst-case scenario would be if users were forced to switch back and forth between modes as they use their applications. The best case scenario is that the difference will be hidden from users, who will simply be able to use new and old applications without having to worry about modes.
4. Will Windows 8 compete on "simplicity"?
Appleis doing very well in the market these days in large part because it has mastered the art of product simplicity. There's only one current version of OS X, and one version each of the iOS. Nobody is confused.
From what we know or think we know about Windows 8, Microsoft could be intending to compete against competitive desktop platforms and new computing paradigms alike by matching them all, feature for feature. For example, there will be a Windows 8 App Store inspired by Apple's App Store. They'll be strong support for cloud computing, possibly inspired by Google's Chromium OS and Chromebook. Windows 8 could have Skype built-in as a response to Apple's FaceTime feature. The next Windows is rumored to have something called "History Vault," a feature similar to Apple's Time Machine. And so on.
Microsoft has always been obsessed with adding features. That worked in the ‘90s when everyone was starved for new capabilities. But now, the public is overwhelmed and wants simplicity.
On the other hand, Microsoft may have seen the writing on the wall, and may have decided to impose simplicity at least on the mobile versions, including the incompatible ARM versions James talked about.
5. Will Windows 8 help Microsoft hold off the new computing paradigms?
Microsoft finds itself competing not only against comparable operating systems like Apple's OS X, but also totally new and alternative types of platforms.
For example, Google this month unveiled its Chromebookproduct, which the company specifically promotes as an alternative to what Google cofounder Sergey Brin called Microsoft's "failed" model of computing. The Chromebook executes all applications inside a browser, and both software and data reside "in the cloud." Google is targeting both business and consumer customers.
And, of course, there's the iPad, the only major consumer electronics product I can think of that has been on the market for more than a year without a single significant competitor.
HP's PC sales dropped 23% in the last quarter, and Dell's consumer sales decreased by 7.5%. Overall PC sales, and especially sales of notebooks and netbooks, are way below expectations. Many analysts are blaming the iPad. Apple is expected to sell 70 million iPads this year and 246 million in three years, according to one report. (Already Apple's net income is surpassing Microsoft's.)
The iPad's effect on the Windows PC market is murky and controversial. My belief is that it's harming PC sales in three ways. First, some Windows users are buying iPads as alternatives to Windows laptops and netbooks. Second, the elegance and simplicity of the iPad is re-setting user expectations about how a mobile device should function, which is creating hesitation about buying a Windows-based device. And third, it's creating FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that is paralyzing users from buying anything yet.
A successful Windows 8 launch could turn the tide on iPad inroads, but only if Microsoft and its partners offer compelling alternatives.
Everybody thought Windows 8 would be a boring, "tweak" upgrade to Windows 7. But the more we learn, the more mysterious and interesting it becomes.