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

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What to expect from the Windows 8 user interface

If you've been looking at the Developer Preview, you know all about Windows 8's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde interface(s).

You've seen the touch-oriented Metro interface with tiles in reorganizable groups, where the faces of the tiles change programmatically and you can pinch to zoom out to view all of the tiles at once ("semantic zoom"). In the Consumer Preview, Microsoft promises we'll be able to create and name new groups, drag groups, change the background color and style, turn big tiles into little tiles, and use the mouse (not just our fingers) for all sorts of navigational actions, including semantic zoom. There are several minor changes in the way you swipe and click, particularly with the charms bar (Search, Share, Start, Devices, Settings) on the right. These changes are largely cosmetic, but if you're thinking about deploying a Metro app -- especially a Metro app that has to live in a mouse-friendly world -- they could be crucial.

Also on the Metro side of the fence, the current, reprehensible App Search behavior changes: Instead of Search splatting an alphabetized list of all your applications on the screen, as the Developer Preview does now, the Consumer Preview arranges them by groups. You'll probably want to work with it a bit, try rearranging and renaming groups, and see if your users can live with the new tools at hand.

On a "legacy" Windows 7-based PC (a loathsome term), more changes are in store. It still appears as if all Windows 7 apps and drivers will just work on Windows 8 PCs -- that is, desktops and laptops using Intel or AMD x86 CPUs. That's certainly the goal, anyway. In the Consumer Preview, we'll see a few changes: an improved Task Manager with more details and app startup tweaking; the new Windows Explorer ribbon won't appear by default as it does in the Developer Preview (yes, Explorer will still have the "up one level" button, as well as the Open Command Prompt menu item); a few long-overdue tweaks to the copy and move dialogs. They're all worth a look, though nothing's really compelling.

The big change in the "legacy" PC version is the Start button. In the Developer Preview, clicking on the Start flag (it wasn't really a button) switched you to the Metro interface. Apparently the Consumer Preview does away with the button, but not the behavior. As I explained recently, the overriding problem is that the "legacy" Windows desktop doesn't have a "legacy" Start menu. A small cottage industry has grown up with registry hacks and lightweight programs to bring back the Start menu in the Developer Preview. Will Microsoft make it easy for admins and users to unlock the menu in the Consumer Preview?

What has changed beneath the Win8 covers

When you're going through the Consumer Preview, be sure you check the new features with your current environment -- and sound off if you hit any snags. Here are some potential sticking points.

Virtualized storage -- called Storage Spaces in Windows 8 -- brings fully redundant backup and easily extensible disk pools to any Windows 8 client system with two or more hard disks. It's a brilliant concept, popularized in Windows Home Server's Drive Extender, now adapted for Windows 8 clients. When the Consumer Preview arrives, you should spend time testing it with your corporate data backup routines. Although there shouldn't be any problems, it's a very new way of interacting with clients.

Much has been made of Windows 8's new refresh and reset capabilities -- analogous to a wipe command on a tablet or smartphone. Reset completely erases the client computer and reinstalls Windows. Refresh is supposed to keep personal data and settings, retain Metro apps, and reinstall Windows. It isn't clear at this point precisely which personal data and settings are kept in a refresh -- and whether everything is obliterated in a reset. Make sure your apps survive.

All new PCs with the "Made for Windows 8" sticker must implement Secure Boot, a UEFI option that may bring you grief if you have users who need dual-boot capabilities. Secure Boot enforces electronic signature checking on operating systems before they're loaded. Windows 8 will pass muster, but other OSes may not. Most -- but not necessarily all -- x86/x64 "Made for Windows 8" PCs will have an override capability. WOA devices will be able to boot only into Windows 8 Metro.

The SkyDrive cloud storage service is due for a major makeover in the Consumer Preview, and part of the change involves single sign-on with a Windows Live ID. There are significant security implications as developers can "enable single sign-on and access a user's data on SkyDrive to make your Metro style app more personal -- with the user's consent, of course," as Microsoft puts it. Of course.

The Consumer Preview will give us the first glimpse of Microsoft's Windows Store. There's a particular twist here for the enterprise IT: The only way consumers can put Metro apps on their PCs and devices is through the Windows Store. (The only way WOA owners can put any apps at all -- or drivers -- on their devices is through the Windows Store.) At the Build conference last September, Windows president Steve Sinofsky said that businesses would have a private area in the store, which would dish out corporate apps, but only to authorized machines. We haven't seen any details of exactly how that's going to work -- and it'll be an important question for all corporate developers.

Microsoft has put us on notice that we'll see better and faster connections to Wi-Fi and other mobile networks, more adept power conservation, new and much more touch-friendly picture passwords, Windows to Go for running Windows 8 (presumably x86/x64) from a USB drive. Some of those may apply to your shop. Hyper-V will be available on x86/x64 machines, but it isn't clear whether the Consumer Preview version is in any way different from the Developer Preview version in that regard.

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