9 features you'll likely see at this week's Windows 10 extravaganza

Here's everything you really need to know before the live stream (hopefully) starts at Wednesday's Windows 10 consumer launch

If you weren't invited to Microsoft's "Windows 10: The next chapter" Lollapalooza in Redmond on Wednesday, have no fear. You can use this marvelous contraption called a "computer" to see what's happening, and you don't need to make the cold, wet trek to Seattle. Think of it as carbon footprint karma.

Here's what you need to know -- with a few insider tips on what may come as a surprise -- to get ready for the fateful day. Put on your fuzzy house shoes, check your Internet connection, crank up the volume, pop a bowl of jalapeno corn, and don't forget the designer brew. The consumer version of Windows 10 -- or at least the January Technical Preview -- is about to make an appearance.

First, the personalities. It will be a stellar assembly: CEO Satya Nadella, Windows honcho Terry Myerson, tech uber-geek Joe Belfiore, and Xbox head Phil "gaming first" Spencer will all appear on stage. With that kind of depth in cloud (Nadella), phone (Myerson, Belfiore), UI (Belfiore), and gaming consoles (Spencer), it's a safe bet that "The next chapter" in Windows 10 will go far beyond Windows 8. The question is how -- and how far.

Early last month, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley predicted that this would be the "consumer preview" of Windows. It's still unclear if this, the January Technical Preview, amounts to a "consumer preview," or if it's just the next beta release of the software that will become Windows 10 -- for consumers, for enterprises, for wondering Windophiles. I don't think we'll see anything formally tagged as "consumer" until the very end of the testing process -- at which point I expect the consumer version of Win10 will be the same as the Enterprise version, minus a couple of features.

The folks at Studio384.be have been accumulating a list of features that are all-but-sure to be included in the January Technical Preview:

1. Continuum -- The big Achilles heel in the refrigerator-and-toaster world of detachable keyboard Windows is how to switch from mouse-centric to touch-centric and back again. Eighteen months ago, in his Windows Red proposal, InfoWorld's Galen Gruman tackled the problem by suggesting a Windows Red Duo version that could easily dual-boot between the mousey desktop and the tappy Metro Start screen. By all accounts, Microsoft has taken that approach, but eliminated the re-boot, likely just re-starting Explorer. It's called Continuum.

Belfiore gave a quick "design motion study" (actually, he ran a canned video) of Continuum in the Windows 10 Tech Preview announcement last Sept. 30. You can see it starting at 31:00 in the YouTube video of the presentation. Expect another demo on Wednesday. If we're lucky we'll see a real live demo, and will be able to judge how quickly the re-boot (er, re-start) happens on a stroked and bored i7 megamachine.

2. Cortana -- Windows Phone 8.1 users (all 10 of you) have been playing with voice assistant Cortana for nearly a year. Belfiore demoed Cortana in his Windows Phone 8.1 video last April, starting at 1:40. The debate rages over whether Apple's Siri, Google's Now, or Microsoft's Cortana is "best," but they're all quite capable, and all point to a voice-first future. Cortana's going to figure prominently in the new Windows 10 desktop and the new Windows browser -- and may well come baked in other places. (Do you know the Cortana backstory?)

3. New UI elements -- It wouldn't be a new Windows release without UI changes. We've seen a lot of details, which I describe in my posts on builds 9860, 9879, and 9901. New Start menu, resizable desktop windows running Metro apps, different kinds of Snaps, multiple desktops, re-oriented Charms bar (which may disappear completely), Task View, and so on. There's even a small chance that Microsoft will bow to the unwashed and uncouth masses, like me, and bring back Aero.

4. Little stuff -- FLAC and MKV support (actually, MKV -- best known for pirate videos -- is already supported in Windows 8.1). We've already seen the improved DOS command box, re-working of the two competing Settings apps, new Calculator, mods to Photos, and Store and Maps. Battery saver. Storage sense. The Lumia camera beta will probably arrive as its own app. Xbox will become a downloadable app in the Store.

OneDrive, as we know it in Windows 8, is dead. There's no way Microsoft will bring it back in the shipping version of Windows 10. Get over it.

All of those changes have already been signaled, some telepathically, from Mt. Microsoft. That leaves a whole lot of anticipation, and not much that's known for sure. Here's what I'll be looking for:

5. Windows everywhere -- It's likely that there will be major announcements about Windows Mobile, the unnatural offspring of Windows Phone and Windows RT. Old name, new incarnation. How does Windows Mobile fit into the mix? Intel only? If so, what happens to ARM devices? Will Windows Mobile apps run on the old Surface and Surface 2? If not, can we get a refund?

And what about the Xbox -- will it be able to stream games onto Win10 machines? Any chance there'll be a WinRT emulator on the Xbox? Will Windows 10 itself run on the Xbox? If so, who would buy such a thing? Many questions, and I hope we hear a few answers.

6. Mods to the Metro side -- There have been precious few leaks about the new Metro Start screen (assuming there is one), or how WinRT-based Metro apps will work in Windows 10. We know that Metro apps will run inside floating windows on the desktop, but beyond that we'll be entering new territory.

7. Unified Windows Store -- We know that's a goal, the big question is how it will work. Yeah, no doubt we'll see plain old Windows apps in the store, reminiscent of the long-dead Windows Marketplace. Will there be Metro apps for Intel processors, separate from apps for ARM? How close will Microsoft get to the ideal, where Intel-based Metro apps can run with few if any changes on the desktop? Any chance ARM apps can do the same? Now that would be a trick.

8. Spartan -- The new Microsoft browser may not ship in the January Technical Preview, but you can bet it'll make an appearance sooner or later. Changes you'll see in IE will be minimal; after all, IE's headed to the formaldehyde jar, to be pressed into backward compatibility duty only when necessary.

9. And if Microsoft doesn't announce a touch-first version of Office, there will be rioting in the streets.

I think it unlikely that we'll see any interesting hardware. Microsoft may cart out other manufacturers' flagship products, but Surface and Lumia aren't likely candidates for announcements this week. My guess is that the Surface line is in for a major re-think, and Microsoft will announce a new flagship phone at some point. The time is not now. Heck, it wouldn't surprise me too much if Microsoft sold off Lumia, but that's another story. There'e one born every minute.

I'll also be watching intently for any hints about packaging, pricing, SKUs, or -- especially -- free upgrades. Don't forget that Myerson promised, near the end of his Build 2014 presentation, that the new Start menu features will be "available to all Windows 8.1 users as an update."

I'll also keep my ear to the ground for any hint that Microsoft is backing off its revised "early fall" RTM schedule.

In spite of what some have said, I'm not expecting to see the January Tech Preview bits on Wednesday. My guess is that they'll hit on Thursday. According to Win10 spokesman Gabe Aul, the new version -- whenever it's released -- will be available through Windows Update, or as a separate ISO download.

If you have an extra Windows 7 or 8 machine that you'd like to toss under the beta bit bus… er, upgrade to Windows 10 January Technical Preview, Microsoft has full instructions. Best to get started now.

You can watch the live stream starting at noon Eastern time on Wednesday. Assuming Microsoft can get the stream to stay up.

Fingers crossed. Pass the popcorn.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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