Summer is generally quiet in the tech industry as consumer-oriented PC makers gear up for the back-to-school season. But this year is different thanks to a quickening Microsoft release schedule, the maturation of cloud computing, and Apple's decision to pre-announce its major fall product announcements, among other things. I usually spend July working on a book—it's just a dead part of the year, news-wise—but thankfully there’s a lot going on right now.

 

Windows 8 Start Screen Revealed

The biggest ripple, surprisingly, involves the next version of Windows, which Microsoft finally admitted was code-named Windows 8. (Shocker, I know.) We still don't know much about it, but what Microsoft revealed is exciting, and that's true whether you agree with the direction they're taking this product or not. To understand what I mean, let's consider the new UI that Microsoft has revealed. It's called the Windows 8 Start screen, and while it's technically a replacement for the Start Menu, it will also be the default shell in all version of Windows 8. Figure 1 shows what it looks like.

      Reactions to the Start screen have been visceral already, but I think Microsoft's on the right track. What we see here is a user experience, or front end, that works equally well with multi-touch devices (including touch-screen Tablet PCs and iPad-like slates), traditional mouse- and keyboard-driven portable and desktop computers, and remote- and hand controller-based media center PCs or Xbox 360 consoles. In fact, let's take a gander at the new Xbox Dashboard (see Figure 2), which should look familiar.

      This interface isn't just identical to that of Windows 8: It also works with unique Kinect capabilities, including voice control and of course "in the air" hand gestures. And lest we forget, both of these interfaces are derived from the same design work that resulted in the "Metro" UI Microsoft first deployed with Windows Phone 7, which Figure 3 shows.

      One user experience to rule them all? You betcha. The Windows 8 Start screen UI would make for an excellent admin dashboard for servers. Can you imagine that experience decked out with performance monitors, event viewers, admin utilities, and even a color-coded background color (green, yellow, or red) that corresponded to the overall health of your environment? Of course you can.

      The Start screen, however, is controversial. We have this rich tapestry of "live tiles" that provides much more information than a traditional icon or taskbar button, allowing users to see at-a-glance information—weather, stock prices, whether there's a new email, and the next appointment, for example. But Microsoft has so far said that it’s supporting HTML 5, JavaScript, and CSS for the new full screen apps that run off this new Start screen. And that has Silverlight and .NET developers in an uncomfortable bind.

      I'm sure—really, really sure—that Microsoft will still support a new native coding environment in Windows 8, and of course all legacy apps and code will still run in this new OS. It’s Windows, after all. (In fact, you can get to the old desktop if you want, and Luddite admins will be able to disable the Start screen through Group Policy, I bet.) But we'll need to wait until September to learn more, when the software giant hosts a new BUILD conference (a replacement of sorts for WinHEC, PDC, and MIX) where it will bare all.

      So at least give Microsoft some credit for reaching for the stars. In an age in which the company is often criticized for moving too slowly, here is a single UI that’s beautiful, usable, and that scales across virtually every computing usage scenario you can imagine. The possibilities are endless.

      Don't believe me? Consider this: In addition to the server admin dashboard I envisioned earlier, it's also easy to picture how admins could lock down user desktops as needed, presenting a Start screen in which the old Windows desktop is not accessible and the only live tiles that appear are those for the apps they need to get their jobs done. Now all the distractions are gone and the PC becomes a work appliance.

      And for you overworked IT pros and admins who were never going to grok Windows PowerShell, Visual Studio LightSwitch or any other "programming for dummies" tool that Microsoft misguidedly sends your way, think of it this way: HTML 5 and JavaScript are relatively easy by comparison. And my guess—yes, it's only a guess—is that the Start screen will likewise be a simple environment for which to code and control.

      I'm bubbling over with excitement on this one. For more information—much, much, more—please visit the SuperSite for Windows (winsupersite.com).

 

Windows Phone "Mango"

The next major version of Windows for PCs isn't the only major Microsoft OS that's getting a lot of attention this summer: The software giant also unveiled the second major version of Windows Phone. Code-named "Mango," it will likely be marketed as Windows Phone 7.5. Due in late 2011, Mango adds a ton of new features to Windows Phone and fills in some functional gaps. What I've seen so far is impressive and suggests Mango should put Windows Phone on par with, if not ahead of, the iPhone and Android competition from a functional and usability perspective.

      Microsoft says that Mango will include over 500 new features, and while I still question the math behind that claim, there's no doubt that this is a major upgrade. There are core infrastructure changes, including multitasking for third-party apps (along with an excellent UI for app switching), background tasks and file transfers, background audio playback for third-party apps (opening up Windows Phone to Pandora, Skype, and other apps), and a new hardware-accelerated version of the Internet Explorer 9 Mobile web browser that, yes, is based on the desktop version.

      Microsoft is integrating Twitter and LinkedIn with Mango, and bolstering its already-excellent Facebook integration with new features. Bing is getting a major, major update with Bing Audio, Bing Vision (visual search using the device camera), Local Scout, Quick Card, and App Connect functional additions. All of the hubs are being refined and in some cases redesigned, and all the built-in apps are getting updated. SkyDrive and Office 365 are being integrated into the new Office hub. You can group contacts, and communicate with them using Facebook Chat, Windows Live Messenger IM, or SMS and MMS messaging, all from the same centralized UI. And the mail app is getting Conversation View and, a top user request, an integrated Inbox so you can group two or more email accounts together into a single UI.

      Of particular interest to Windows IT Pro readers are the other business-oriented updates. These include a new Lync IM and presence client and, most crucially, an improvement to the system's already solid support for Exchange ActiveSync (EAC) policies: With Mango, Windows Phone will now support complex passwords, including alphanumeric passwords (but not, it appears, device or memory card-based encryption). Mango will also support Microsoft's Information Rights Management (IRM) document protection scheme through its Office hub and mail app.

 

Skype

In mid-May, Microsoft announced its intention to purchase Skype for $8.5 billion, big enough to qualify for the software company's biggest-ever purchase, assuming it’s OK'd by antitrust regulators. The big question, however, is “Why?”

      I believe it boils down to three key things. First, Skype is a great consumer brand, one that would double Microsoft's collection of great consumer brands (the only one Microsoft owns now is Xbox). Second, I think that Microsoft simply wanted to prevent its competitors—Facebook, Google, and Cisco being the most obvious—from getting Skype and getting an instant leg up on Microsoft's own communications solutions.

      Third, and perhaps most crucially, while Microsoft already offers virtually every capability in Skype via products like Lync (for businesses) and Windows Live Messenger (for consumers), there’s one crucial technical difference between these solutions. Where Microsoft utilizes a client-server architecture for its solutions, Skype is based on peer-to-peer technology and may prove more resilient in certain situations.

      I wouldn't worry about Skype right now, given the lengthy governmental approval process. But if things go the way I believe they will, you can expect to see Skype logos in virtually every end-user Microsoft product in the years ahead.

 

Office 365

I've already written about Microsoft's stellar cloud productivity solution, Office 365, which is replacing the similar but less capable Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS). But there's a bit of new news, as it is: Office 365 is launching on June 28, 2011, and will be available for purchase—or for subscription really—by individuals, small businesses, and enterprises. I'll be reviewing Office 365 this summer for the SuperSite for Windows. This is the real deal. I expect this service to trigger a flood of cloud email migrations.

 

Apple Announces Mac OS X "Lion" and iOS 5

At its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June, Apple announced the next versions of Mac OS X and iOS, which will ship in July and later in 2011, respectively. What Apple didn’t announce, for the first time in four years, was a new iPhone. So instead of a mid-summer launch, the next iPhone—which will likely be marketed as the iPhone 5 or iPhone 4S—won't ship until this fall at the earliest.

      Mac OS X "Lion" is another evolutionary update to Apple's aging Mac OS, but at least it's priced right: Just $29, with rights to install the product on as many Macs as you own. Apple is also taking the somewhat bold step of offering Lion only via electronic download from the Mac App Store, which means that everyone who owns a Mac today will need to first install their previous OS X version before re-upgrading to Lion if they wipe out their system in the future. Can you imagine if Microsoft required such a thing?

      From a functional and user experience standpoint, Lion is not as far-reaching as Windows 8. It now supports iOS-like features—full screen apps, an App Store, quick resume, and a "grid of icons" LaunchPad—as well as new trackpad-based navigation gestures and window management tools. Nothing dramatic.

      iOS 5, however, is much more interesting. Apple's mobile OS is basically taking from its competitors' playbooks and implementing the best features from Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone. So iOS 5 devices—iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad—will get a Notification Center based on a similar feature in Android; an iMessages interface that rips off BlackBerry Message Service (BMS); and several Windows Phone features, such as "pocket to picture" camera functionality, Twitter integration, Wi-Fi sync, and more. Microsoft corporate VP Joe Belfiore said he was "flattered" by the copying.