Windows 8 is still a couple of years away, but Microsoft is already telling partners what to expect in the next generation operating system. Luckily for the public, Microsoft planning documents shared with HP and other OEM partners were leaked this week, providing a wholly unexpected Windows 8 sneak preview.
Thanks to Win7Vista.com, I was able to download the documents, consisting of more than 15 confidential slide decks Microsoft has shared with partners in the last few months. Some of the details are sparse, and Microsoft's plans are likely to change significantly between now and the actual release of Windows 8. But, based on Microsoft's current planning, here's a look at 8 amazing things you'll be able to do with Windows 8:
Log in to your PC with your face, instead of a password
By 2012 sensors such as microphones, cameras, GPS, accelerometers, and temperature and magnetic sensors will be common in most PCs, allowing Windows 8 to interact with the user's environment in new and interesting ways.
One scenario uses facial recognition software to verify a user's identity.
"Amish walks into his home office," Microsoft writes in one of many fictional scenarios outlined in the Windows 8 slide decks. "The proximity sensor on his PC detects motion, and wakes the PC. By the time Amish sits down, his PC is powered up. It scans his face and logs him in. finally, when Amish gets up and leaves, his PC notices that he's gone and locks itself and powers down."
Windows 8 may also eliminate the need for remembering passwords across multiple websites.
"Password pain has reached a tipping point," Microsoft says. "Windows 8 could include a way to securely store usernames and passwords, simplifying the online experience"
Make Windows 8 follow you across devices
Microsoft wants to make your Windows identity user-centric, rather than machine-centric, meaning your settings and preferences would roam with you as you move from a desktop to a laptop, and to smaller devices like slate machines (read: a Windows 8 version of Apple's iPad).
"Windows accounts could be connected to cloud to make it easy to roam settings and preferences," Microsoft says.
Users of tomorrow may have a laptop for productivity applications, writing e-mail and organizing photos, movies and music, and a slate optimized for web and media consumption, causal gaming, IM and social networking, and reading and sorting e-mail. With the same Windows 8 login across devices, a user might start a game on one machine and then finish it on another.
Importantly, the software license will roam with a user, Microsoft says in one slide.
Use iPad-like touch screens
Microsoft is telling partners it will outdo Apple by building a better touch screen for slate PCs. Windows 8 will also support accelerometers and location-awareness for gaming and other functions, while adjusting the screen brightness to changes in light.
"Users are able to hold their slate/tablet PCs in any orientation and Windows will smoothly and automatically change the screen orientation to accommodate," Microsoft says. "Users never have to think to interact using touch on their slates. Users can type confidently and efficiently on the soft keyboard with touch. The soft keyboard is easily launched, text prediction is more accurate, the UI is more usable, and throughput is increased for everyone. We can adapt to changes in ambient light, so that the display is always easy to see."
Watch HD movies on your wireless TV
Windows 8 will integrate with a variety of technologies to let users pick out TV shows and movies and stream them to any screen. Turn on your laptop, find a movie online or in your hard drive, and with a click of a button you'll be able to watch it on whichever TV screen you choose.
"Users can easily discover and connect to a wide variety of modern displays like wireless televisions and monitors, wireless docking stations, and USB-connected monitors," Microsoft says. "The user can easily light up displays around him with all his content and media, whether it is online or local. Developers can build modern experiences around display devices by leveraging Windows 8 support for premium media experiences, such as stereoscopic 3D and wireless TVs."
Download apps from the Windows App Store
A new app store based on the model made popular by Apple is mentioned in many of Microsoft's Windows 8 slides. While Microsoft insists that users still need an operating system in the age of the Internet, the App Store is one of the ways in which Microsoft is adapting Windows to the web world.
There isn't a lot of information about what types of apps the store will contain, but Microsoft is trying to appeal to developers by letting them create apps in whichever language they prefer. The hope, obviously, is to provide a wide array of applications to rival the offerings of the Apple and Android stores.
Kill a virus, but keep your personal data
Viruses, unfortunately, often force users to restore their machines to the factory settings, a painful process that involves loss of applications and personal data. Microsoft, however, is working on a new reset option that will retain files and personalization settings while giving users an easy way to reinstall applications.
In one of the scenarios detailed in Microsoft slide decks, a user named "Jon" (no relation to me) decides to reset his Windows 8 PC.
"Jon notices that his Windows 8 PC is starting to perform poorly and he can't figure out what to do," the slide deck says. "He presses the reset button and chooses to reset his windows 8 PC. ... knowing that all his stuff is safe. Windows 8 automatically retains files and personalization settings, and migrates the user accounts. Windows is restored to the factory image and restarts. After restarting Jon can launch the App Store to reinstall applications he purchased there and see a list of other applications that he had installed outside of the App Store."
Boot your machine near-instantly
Microsoft seems to be putting a premium on improving the start times in Windows 8. A March 2010 Windows Planning Survey polled 545 customers about 21 user activities, and found that starting the computer tops the list when it comes to "highest importance/lowest satisfaction in terms of speed and performance."
Mean boot times have decreased from 40 seconds to 27 seconds from Windows Vista to Windows 7, according to the slides, but Microsoft wants greater improvement.
"Boot performance is getting better but it is not 'instant on'", as one slide says.
Technologies in development could cut boot time in half, Microsoft's planning slides suggest. Windows 8 may also include a "new off state combining the best of hibernate with a boot/shutdown look and feel."
Take more control over your machine
One goal of Windows 8 is to simplify the user experience, but Microsoft also wants to give the savviest users new ways of interacting with the operating system. The new user interfaces will make it easier for PC owners to understand the resources their machines use, and improve startup times and power efficiency by killing unneeded processes and applications.
"Windows 8 will arm users with an effective set of tools that will both deepen their understanding of the state of their PC and enable them to fine-tune their PC experience," Microsoft says. "Users will be presented with helpful and intuitive views of the system, applications running, resources being used, helpful personal and historical context, along with actionable, timely and pertinent advice and suggestions."
Jon Brodkin writes about Microsoft, Google, browsers, operating systems, PCs, mobile devices, cloud computing, virtualization, open source and a bunch of other tech stuff for Network World. He also cares just a little bit too much about Boston sports teams. Follow Jon on Twitter @jbrodkin.
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