Looking ahead in 2011, I like what I see so far: The industry is moving inexorably to a cloud computing future that I think makes plenty of sense for Microsoft and its customers; users are craving a new generation of highly mobile and pervasively connected devices; and, best of all, we have another Windows beta on the way. Ah, bliss.
Beta on Horizon
To understand the current schedule for Windows 8, all you need are some elementary math skills. Microsoft has told me that it now plans to ship new versions of Windows every three years, foregoing the previous major-minor release cadence; now, all Windows releases are new versions of Windows, with no major or minor version designation. Windows 7 shipped in October 2009, of course, a bit late for the holiday season and quite late for back-to-school sales, so adjusting for that issue, we can assume that Windows 8 is on the docket for mid-to-late 2012. And this is indeed what my sources have told me is the expected release date.
Backtracking from that date, we can look at how Microsoft released pre-release code for Windows 7 to predict how it will do so for Windows 8. With Windows 7, Microsoft shipped the first and only beta release of the system to a limited technical audience in October 2008, one year before RTM; it then released a broader public beta three months later. With that in mind, I think we can expect a limited beta of Windows 8 by mid-2011 at the latest and a public beta by September 2011.
What this means is that our first hands-on experience with Windows 8 is just months away. There's even a small chance that Microsoft will show off a very early preview of the OS at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). If so, you can expect a Windows 8 update a month after. I'm very curious to see what Microsoft comes up with.
Hand-Wringing Over the iPad
We don't yet have the final tally on Apple iPad sales for 2010, but my estimate is that Apple will sell around 12 to 15 million units for the year—and, had the device been available for the full year, would have sold about 15 to 18 million units. (The iPad became broadly available in April 2010.)
That number, wherever it falls, is nowhere close to the 350+ million PCs that hardware makers will deliver in the same time frame. But it's still important for two reasons. First, Apple has indeed created a new product category, one that Microsoft, Google, RIM, and many others are eager for a share of. And second, if you were to combine Apple's iPad sales with its Mac sales something stunning happens: Apple, suddenly, becomes one of the biggest PC makers in the world.
For Microsoft, this cannot stand, and although the software giant and its hardware partners squandered most of 2010 by not releasing anything that even closely resembles an iPad competitor, 2011 should be quite different. There are those who believe—and I include myself among them—that the real solution to this problem isn't a Windows PC, per se, but rather a more device-like tablet based on Windows Phone OS or even the Windows Embedded 7 OS.
But that's not where Microsoft seems to be heading, and Windows 7, combined perhaps with a simpler front end and some new, battery-efficient Intel hardware, appears to be the plan for the next year. Whatever happens, it should be interesting.
Internet Explorer 9 Anti-Tracking Technologies
Internet Explorer (IE) 9 has been in beta for a long, long time. Microsoft showed off the first pre-release version of the browser in October 2010, released the first platform preview in March 2010, and then the first (and only) beta in September 2010.
For the release candidate (RC) version of IE 9, due in early 2011, Microsoft is adding a feature to the product called Tracking Protection that answers a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposal called "Do Not Track." The idea is that web browser users need some way to prevent sites—malicious or otherwise—from tracking their movements online. It would resemble the "Do Not Call" database, but be implemented in a completely different way.
IE 9’s Do Not Track functionality will be opt-in technology that requires users to find, download, and install tracking lists that will block certain websites from following users online. The company expects various third parties to construct these tracking lists, which is perhaps the weak link in the plan. That said, this facility will be controllable via policy and therefore could become an interesting new layer of defense.
I suspect that competing browser makers will provide their own implementations of Do Not Track, and it's likely that those companies without ties to online advertising—like Mozilla, maker of Firefox—will be more aggressive about protecting their users from site tracking. The final version of IE 9 is due in 2011. I have my money on April, since that’s when the company's annual web developer show, MIX, occurs.