By Woody Leonhard
After months of speculation, we're now seeing some credible leaks showing parts of the next Windows.
Invitations are going out now for Microsoft's Windows Technical Preview debut, scheduled for Sept. 30 in San Francisco; here's what the current tea leaves portend.
Will a rose by any other name smell sweeter?
There's one fundamental problem with talking about the next version of Windows. It seems, at this time, that no one knows what it'll be called. Inside Microsoft, some developers refer to the next Windows as "Threshold." But that label might apply to an entire wave of Microsoft product changes — not all of which are specific to Windows. Most of us call it Windows 9 simply because it's a reasonable name that everyone understands. To keep things simple, I'll stick with "Windows 9" for the rest of this discussion.
You can bet your last shekel that Microsoft won't burden the next Windows with any reference to Version 8. In other words, the chances of a "Windows 8.2" run less than zero. I'm confident Microsoft wants to distance itself from the Windows 8 disaster as quickly and cleanly as possible. Who could blame them?
Also unlikely to reappear is any version of Windows with "RT" attached (just the label; the platform will remain and prosper). It's a name I've hated and railed against since day one.
There's one other Windows-naming camp I tend to side with. It predicts the successor to Win8 will be called simply Windows. That doesn't mean version numbers will go away — we'll always need some way to refer to the precise release. But it does mean that "Windows" on a phone, "Windows" on a tablet, "Windows" on a PC, and "Windows" on a server can be thought of as the same operating system — though with some necessary differences both to the interface and under the hood. Or at least the versions will be marketed that way, regardless of the technical sleight-of-hand involved.
With a single "Windows" label, Microsoft might also give up its archaic attempts to wring more money out of customers by releasing different editions of a particular Windows version — i.e., Windows Home, Windows Pro, Windows Enterprise, etc. I hope that comes to pass. Who knows, we might even see the end of 32-bit versions of the OS.
Microsoft has had success selling its subscription-based version of Office. So it's not inconceivable that the company will release a "rented" edition of Windows — call it Windows 365. (If there is a Win365 in the works, it probably won't be in place when Microsoft releases Windows Technical Preview, which should ship around the end of September.
Windows build 9834 sources — and their reticence
During development of a new Windows version, Microsoft normally sends out early builds to its partners — companies that need parts of the new OS to make their own products work. Those early releases are supposed to be kept secret, but leaks inevitably happen.
The leaked information below is based on some early Win9 builds, which means you must keep the following in mind. Leading up to Windows Technical Preview, early Windows builds are often branches of the mainstream Windows development. In other words, they're key parts of the new OS but not the entire final product — not by a country mile. And the builds can be months old by the time they're leaked.
Right now, the latest credible leaks of Win9 are based on build 9834 of the Windows Technical Preview branch. ("Credible" means I'm convinced they're legitimate.) If you want to catch up on what's been posted about Win9, here's the short list:
- On Sept. 11, two German sites, ComputerBase and WinFuture, simultaneously released the same 21 screen shots of what appears to be build 9834. Someone then anonymously reposted those shots on the English-language Imgur site. If you want to read about each slide individually, Paul Thurrott posted a two-part review on his WinSuperSite — see Part 1. And I published some additional notes in my Sept. 11 InfoWorld Tech Watch story. (Remember, at this stage, there's no guarantee that any new feature shown in the leaked screen shots will make it into the final Win9.)
- WinFuture followed up on that leak with a sponsored (though obviously not by Microsoft) video showing the new Start menu "in Aktion."
- Next, WinFuture posted a YouTube video that shows a possible multiple-desktop feature in Windows 9. That's not a leap in technology; Windows has supported multiple desktops since Windows XP, and there are dozens of third-party apps that implement multiple desktops in Windows 7 and 8. In fact, Microsoft publishes Sysinternals Desktops (site), which looks a lot like the "new" virtual desktops in Windows 9.
- On Sept. 13, WinFuture released yet another video (again, apparently of build 9834) that shows how an updated notification center might work.
WinFuture might be leading the pack in published Win9 leaks and apparently made significant cash doing so, given the Peugeot ads, but it's certainly not the only source. For example, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley remains well connected, posting revelations that read a lot like Microsoft press releases. Paul Thurrott (winsupersite.com) is similarly tied into "unofficial" leaks that sure sound "official."
There are numerous other rogue and semi-official sites discussing Win9. Russia-based WZorNET comes up with tidbits from time to time; venerable leaker FaiKee keeps up with all the news in Chinese; and Neowin's Brad Sams seems to have access to many of the latest builds — although he's cagey about releasing information. The Verge's Tom Warren seems similarly familiar with recent builds, but he, too, comments rarely.
Many potential sources are afraid of losing or outing their contacts inside the Windows development team. Microsoft is playing the can't-catch-me game, with threats of hellfire and brimstone rained down on any employee that speaks out of school. Of course, that doesn't include those "insider" leaks that sound suspiciously like stealth marketing releases.
What the photos reveal: The Start menu returns
Like a billion or so other mouse-wielding Windows users on the planet, I was immediately drawn to the return of the desktop-based Start menu (as opposed to the Win8 Start screen). It's bellwether evidence that Microsoft's new Windows team is listening to its customers.
The leaked screenshots and video show a Start menu that includes a Windows 7–style cascading menu on the left and Metro/Modern tiles pinned on the right. You can even remove all the Metro tiles from the Start menu by right-clicking and deleting them, one by one.
There are lots of options for pinning, deleting, and drag-and-dropping menu items — you can even turn the Start menu off. (After turning the Start menu on or off, you have to sign out of Windows and sign back in.)
Not shown: Live Metro tiles in the Start menu — for example, a Music tile that lets you fast-forward or change the volume. That capability will probably show up in a later build, no doubt touted as a revolutionary step forward. I've since learned that MS will call them "interactive" Metro tiles — I think.
Current Win8 users shouldn't forget that Windows honcho Terry Myerson promised in his Build 2014 conference keynote presentation that Microsoft "would be making those [Start menu] features available to all Windows 8.1 users as an update."
So far, we don't know whether the Start menu will appear automatically on machines with mice and trackpads — though I expect that will be the case. My assumption is that Windows will look at the system's hardware during boot. If it doesn't find a mouse or trackpad, it'll revert to the Win8-style Start screen. With some luck, it'll be easy to set a default and have Windows stick with it, even if you forgot to plug in your mouse.
In short, the new Start menu revealed in the leaked screenshots looks great. I have a problem with all the Metro apps dumped alphabetically into the Start menu's All Apps list, plus a few other minor quibbles. I predict that the final Win9 Start menu — if it's at all close to what's been leaked — will convince 80 percent of all Win8 users to upgrade. Maybe more!
A new, long-overdue notification center
If you've ever used a reasonably modern mobile phone, you know all about notification centers, a place where those fleeting alerts are stored so you can actually look at them. I'm amazed a notification center was never included in Windows 8. As with earlier Windows versions, Win8 spits alerts up on the screen, where they sit for a few seconds and then disappear, never to be seen again.
In the new Win9 implementation, a window in the lower-right corner of the screen pops up notifications as they occur. To go back to a recent alert, you simply click the notification icon in the task bar and a list of recent events pops up. Golly, that's almost as good as the original 2007 iPhone — or every version of Android since 2008. Nice to see Windows catching up.
Bottom line: The Win9 notification center shown in the leaked video is hardly revolutionary, but it's at least usable.
Metro might become mainstream — or maybe not
Microsoft has never come up with a concise and descriptive name for its tile-based interface. The official "Modern" just doesn't cut it. Perhaps the company will come up with something better for Win9, but for now most of us stick with the officially abandoned "Metro" for clarity.
That said, based on the leaked videos, the support system for Metro apps will change enormously.
As widely predicted, Metro apps will run in resizable windows on the desktop — where they should've been in the first place. Heck, third-party products such as Stardock's ModernMix (site) already let you run Metro apps in a desktop window. (Speaking of start-menu replacements, they essentially saved Windows 8 in the minds of many Win8 users. I wonder whether Microsoft will crush those products with Win9?)
Those resizable windows will have maximize, minimize, and close icons in the upper-right corner, just where they've been since time immemorial. They'll also have right-click context menus that might include an anemic settings list plus functions such as Search, Sharing, Play, Print, Project on a projector, and/or Switch to full screen.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Microsoft seems to be toying with the idea of ditching the Charms bar. You remember the Charms bar: those slide-out icons on the right of the screen that mostly just get in the way?
Removing the Charms bar might make some Metro app developers unhappy — those who actually used the Charms bar for something useful such as for searches or for printing. (Almost nobody has made use of the Share function, but that's another story.)
It's a dilemma for Microsoft. If it completely kills the Charms bar, third-party developers who actually took advantage of it will have to retrain their customers to use the right-click context menu. That's actually a bigger change than it might seem, especially on a touch-screen device.
Expect the Charms bar debate to rage on, right up until Win9's release to manufacturing (RTM).
The screenshots and videos suggest that not much has changed on the Metro/Modern side of Windows. That's no doubt a temporary state of affairs; expect Windows 9's Modern interface to look a lot more like Windows …, Windows …, uh, the next version of Windows for phones. (Microsoft is dropping the name "Windows Phone.") On the mobile side, there are many changes coming down the road. But we probably won't see them until the new phone software and ARM-based software get a good shake-out.
Cortana and other worthwhile new features
The one feature everyone's expecting, Microsoft's voice-activated assistant Cortana, seems buried at this point. None of the screen shots or videos shows Cortana at all. But you can bet that Cortana will be a huge selling point for Windows 9. After all, Microsoft has to catch up to Siri and "OK, Google!" — even on the desktop.
There are lesser features floating in the shadows. For example, Storage Sense is a mobile-device feature that maps out your storage — how much is taken up by programs and how much by photos, music, videos, digital lint, and other user data. It will likely find its way into Windows 9. (Never mind that dozens of third-party apps already fill that gap.)
It's a near certainty that Win9 will ship with Internet Explorer 12, though nobody outside Microsoft has seen the new browser yet. IE 12 most likely won't show up in the forthcoming Win9 Technical Preview.
I've not heard about other new features, but Win9 will probably have stronger ties to OneDrive in an attempt to make Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and the like less attractive. And Microsoft will no doubt add more incentives for using a Microsoft Account. It's also likely that Win9 will have better support for higher-resolution screens and multiple monitors — and possibly better compatibility with docking stations, making for easier transitions from strictly mobile to slightly tethered.
What's the next development step for Windows 9?
There have been sightings of builds 9835 and 9836 detected on the Web but no screenshots or other leaks that I've seen. Given the information spilled by WinFuture and the past release history of new versions of Windows, you'd expect to see leaked builds from one of Microsoft's partners. That hasn't happened, but it probably will soon.
Keep in mind that even the official Windows Technical Preview is not completely representative of the final, shipping Windows. Some features will be added just before RTM, and others will be left on the cutting-room floor. We saw that with Windows 8's Developer Preview and RTM — the bits that shipped in the Developer Preview, particularly the user interface, had changed significantly by the time Windows 8 shipped.
This much I know for sure: I'm going to like Windows 9 — or whatever it's eventually called — one heck of a lot more than I liked Win8. I know that's faint praise, but Windows 9 has "winner" written all over it.
At this point, anyway.