A first glimpse at Windows 8

Although Windows 7 has been on shelves for less than two years, desktop admins are already gearing up for Windows 8. See what Microsoft has in the works with its upcoming OS.

Windows 8 has been the topic of speculation for many months now, but as was the case with Windows 7, Microsoft is pretty tight-lipped about what's to come in the next version of its flagship operating system. However, early information has emerged over the past few weeks. Here's a rundown of exactly what we know at this point about Windows 8.

Cross-platform operating system 
Microsoft designed Windows NT to run on both x86 systems and Alpha machines -- and later on Itanium. According to industry buzz, this multiplatform trend hasn't diminished. In fact, Windows 8 will run not only on Intel chips, but also on ARM processors, which are popular in tablet devices, smaller netbooks and other portable devices.

New (or improved) user interface 
Windows 7 was widely heralded as a better way to use a computer, much like the positive attention that Mac OS X has received over the past few years. Since then, Microsoft has gone on to develop other interesting user interfaces (UIs) such as Kinect and the Windows Phone 7 operating system's Metro UI, which has also drawn positive reviews. Expect to see enhancements and flashes of those two UIs, along with iterative improvements that will be native to the final builds of Windows 8 as they become more mature.

Internet Explorer 10 
Although Internet Explorer 9 was just released a couple of months ago, the IE team is hard at work on the next version of Microsoft's browser, one of the cornerstones of Windows 8. IE10 is expected to have increased support for the HTML 5 standard and enhanced compatibility for key Cascading Style Sheets and properties, such as gradients and a flexible box layout. A touch interface will also be included, since most features in Windows 8 will have multi-touch capability.

Enhanced security 
Each version of the Windows operating system has included improved protection from both local and remote attacks, and it looks like Windows 8 will be no exception. SmartScreen -- the intelligent file filter in Internet Explorer 8 and 9 -- makes it directly to the Windows file system, protecting users from launching potentially dangerous files.

History Vault 
Similar to Apple's Time Machine feature is Microsoft's History Vault. Apple introduced Time Machine in 2007 to enable its OS to automatically make copies of important data files at regular intervals and make them available for easy restoration. History Vault in Windows 8 lets users back up to external drives or to inexpensive, home-oriented network-attached storage (NAS) drives.

Operating system application store 
Microsoft is following the example of the newer Mac App Store and the somewhat older iOS App Store from Apple by making software purchases and downloads possible from directly within the Windows user interface.

A grab bag of additional features
In addition to the major Windows 8's highlights so far, the following minor features might grab end-user attention:

  • Quicker installation
  • Built-in PDF reader
  • Ability to mount ISO files directory to the file system
  • "Restore factory settings" function to revert to a clean slate
  • Integrating Microsoft Kinect directly with Windows (and not just Xbox)
  • Integration with Windows Live ID service

For now, Microsoft is still in the development stage with Windows 8, but the expected release date is rumored to be sometime next year.

Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker residing in Charlotte, N.C. His books include RADIUS, Hardening Windows and, most recently, Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual.

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