What you can expect from Windows 8

Early insights into Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 Consumer Preview should give IT a lot to chew on when the bits arrive

With the Windows 8 Consumer Preview beta edition just around the corner, now is a good time to examine what we know and don't know about Microsoft's forthcoming OS, and what IT should look for when the Consumer Preview hits as expected on Feb. 29.

Windows 8 rates as Microsoft's latest bet-your-company move, with the computer industry rapidly adopting mobile platforms. For Windows 8 to thrive in the corporate environment, however, it has to not only add important new capabilities to today's Windows 7 desktop but also morph into a touch-enabled, highly portable, secure OS that IT can tolerate and users will love.

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Can Windows 8 make it as both a floor wax and a dessert topping? Let's take a look.

Putting Windows 8 Consumer Preview into perspective

No doubt you've already banged around the Windows 8 Developer Preview, and your clicking finger is poised to get the Consumer Preview bits as soon as they appear. But it's worthwhile to step back and take a look at what will, and won't, be happening at the end of the month.

Microsoft isn't trying to convince you to upgrade all of your Windows PCs to Windows 8. Quite the contrary -- last week, Microsoft's general manager of investor relations, Bill Koefoed, gave a short talk at the Stifel Nicolaus Technology & Telecom Conference (video and transcript), where he said, "One-third of businesses have upgraded to Windows 7. ... For the enterprise, the path to Windows 8 is through Windows 7." Microsoft is far more interested in getting all of your PCs on Windows 7 than they are on pushing your PC users to Windows 8. I have a feeling that's going to come through loud and clear in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

"Consumer preview" is a bit of a misnomer anyway. This is a reasonably stable, mostly feature-complete build of Windows x86/x64, where the user interface isn't locked in concrete, and that's it. Microsoft is way beyond the point where substantive changes can be made. Online comments and extensive eavesdropping -- "telemetry" in Microsoft parlance -- may lead to some interface changes. But the plumbing is already in and won't be altered.

The version of Windows 8 that has gotten the most recent buzz, Windows on ARM (WOA) will go out to a very select few; there isn't even a hint of when we unwashed masses will get to see them. We do know that Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Texas Instruments are working on WOA devices -- likely tablets but perhaps touchscreen netbooks as well.

WOA won't have the Windows 7 "desktop" part of Windows 8, so it won't run the familiar Windows Explorer or existing (Win32s) Windows apps. It just runs the Metro UI, a touch-oriented operating environment for lightweight applications, and apps designed specifically for Metro -- sort of like how Apple's iOS is the separate-but-related, light counterpart its Mac OS X. Of course, x86-based PCs get both the Windows 7-derived "desktop" and Metro, whereas Macs can run Mac OS X but not iOS.

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