While the concept of global warming is misunderstood, let's just say that New England has experienced more of a regional cooling effect than anything this winter, and we surpassed our annual snowfall totals just a few weeks after winter officially started. Which is my way of saying I'm looking forward to spring, with interesting software releases to discuss.

 

Windows 8 News and Rumors

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, Microsoft revealed an interesting change coming with Windows 8, the next version of its venerable client OS. (There will be a corresponding Server version of Windows 8 too, of course.) As was long expected, Microsoft will be porting Windows 8 to the ARM platform, providing a second major hardware platform, next to x86/x64, for this software.

And thanks to numerous sources at Microsoft, I'm also able to report a few rumored changes coming in Windows 8. As it turns out, these developments aren’t entirely unrelated.

First, to what was announced: In addition to supplying the next Windows version on traditional PCs—desktops, laptops, Tablet PCs, netbooks, and so on—Microsoft will also provide this product on so-called System on a Chip (SOC) platforms.

The hardware will come from both x86/x64-based chip makers (like Intel) as well as from ARM suppliers such as NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments.

Which is all very interesting, but what does it mean?

First, it means using a common software platform that will run on virtually every client device type imaginable, from the smallest, low-power phone-type devices all the way up to massive, multicore gaming rigs and workstations. It means software compatibility across these devices as well, and Microsoft showed off a native Office port to ARM to drive home that point.

Second, it means that Microsoft will continue to push a Windows-centric strategy where its most popular platform can continue to thrive in a future where mainstream computing involves smaller, more mobile, connected devices. (Internally, this strategy is called "Windows Everywhere.")

More subtly, it may mean the continuation of Windows and Windows Live Division president Steven Sinofsky's longstanding policy to thwart internal projects and products that compete with the company's first-tier solutions. He did it before by killing a web-based Office competitor called NetDocs. He could be doing it again ... this time to Windows Phone.

Which brings us to the rumor phase of this discussion of Windows 8.

According to sources at the company, Microsoft is going to change the Windows UI in the next version and offer a tiered experience that changes based on the form factor and other considerations. One of the UIs on offer will allegedly be a tile-based UI very similar to that of Windows Phone, which should answer complaints from users who were hoping to see a Windows Phone-based tablet.

My sources also tell me that Windows 8 will include a new application infrastructure that bridges the gap between the proprietary, native Windows apps of today and the web. Code-named "Jupiter," this new infrastructure will support Silverlight applications that are bundled into standalone AppX packages (*.appx) and will be made available to users through a new Windows Marketplace app store.

 When you combine the implications of these two rumors with Microsoft's Windows Everywhere strategy, you can see where Windows Phone, suddenly, looks like it might be living on borrowed time. We'll see whether that's the case, but some transparency from Microsoft would really be welcome at this point.

Either way, we'll know more soon enough: You can expect a first beta release of Windows 8—likely a private beta—in time for the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in September or October, followed by the final release in 2012.

 

Windows Phone 7 Updates in 2011

So Windows Phone may or may not be a short-lived platform, but this much is obvious: Microsoft intends to upgrade this smartphone platform several times in 2011, including a major update that should ship in time for the system's one-year anniversary in October.

Unfortunately for Windows Phone fans, however, Microsoft won’t be providing the equivalent of hotfixes for this system as it does on desktop and server versions of Windows. Instead it will deliver bigger updates, akin to service packs, that aggregate many fixes and build off of each other. Furthermore, each subsequent update will be a superset of the updates that came before.

So what do these updates look like? I've discovered the existence of at least two minor updates and one major update, all of which will ship in 2011.

The first and most eagerly anticipated update, code-named NoDo, could arrive by the time you read this. It will consist of the widely reported copy-and-paste feature everyone seems to be clamoring for, significant performance improvements (especially for application load times), a more granular Marketplace search, and other features and fixes.

The second major update will include CDMA support, enabling Windows Phone on the Verizon and Sprint networks in the US, as well as other changes. This will be delivered by the end of the first half of 2011.

The major update, code-named Mango, is due for "GA + 1" or one year after Windows Phone 7's initial release and could be branded with a new version number (both 7.2 and 7.5 are possible).

This will include sweeping changes to the system and is, in the words of one Microsoftie who discussed the changes with me off the record, what the company wanted to ship initially but simply didn't have the time. I don't have a handle on all major feature changes, but you can expect encryption, better enterprise support, HTML 5 and Silverlight support in a new Internet Explorer version that's based on IE 9, and more.

Of course, one of the big and inevitable questions is whether Windows Phone is worth the effort. After all, credible market leaders like Google Android and Apple iPhone are already out there.

In my opinion, a smartphone is essentially a two-year bet because of the way wireless carriers lock in users. And certainly Windows Phone will grow and improve over the next two years. For users, the big deal in Windows Phone is the user experience, and this is something Microsoft could easily replicate in its tiles-based UI for Windows 8. So even if Sinofsky gets his (presumed) way and Windows Phone is deemphasized for Windows, the UI, at least could prevail.

What won't make its way across, of course, are the individual apps. But then that's the beauty of Windows Phone: Thanks to its integrated services approach, apps aren't as important on this platform as they are on lesser platforms like Android and iPhone.

Update on Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1

I wrote about SP1 for Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 last year, but now that the update is finally available, it's time for a refresher. Microsoft released SP1 to manufacturing (RTM) in early February 2011, about three months later than expected, and it should be available by the time you read this. It comes in different variants for 32-bit (x86, Windows 7) and 64-bit (x64, Windows 7, Server 2008 R2) products.

On Windows 7, SP1 adds a few minor changes besides hotfixes and bug fixes, including an updated version of Remote Desktop Services, better support for third-party federation services that utilize the WS-Federation passive profile protocol, improved HDMI audio device performance, and minor XPS document fixes.

On Server 2008 R2, the picture is quite different. Here, SP1 enables two major features:

Dynamic Memory. This feature enables Hyper-V to dynamically (on the fly) distribute memory between virtual machines (VMs) based on need, without interruption of service. While Hyper-V still has some catching up to do with regards to VMware’s more mature solutions, this addition closes the gap somewhat.

RemoteFX. This remote desktop technology dramatically improves the visual quality and performance of the remote user experience between a Windows 7 SP1 client and a Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1-based Hyper-V VM. It supports hardware-accelerated 3D capabilities for multimedia purposes and USB device redirection. I'll be providing a more detailed write-up about SP1 on the SuperSite for Windows.

 

Internet Explorer 9 Release Candidate

IE 9's improvements include the new feature set, the new hardware-accelerated, standards-based rendering, and more.

The RC version adds a Tracking Protection feature in response to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposal called "Do Not Track"  (which I discussed last month in “What You Need to Know About Windows 8, IE 9 Anti-Tracking, Small Business Server, and Microsoft Office Security,” InstantDoc ID 129298). But it also adds some other new features.

First up is the very latest rendering engine, which is derived from the IE 9 Platform Preview releases Microsoft shipped between the September beta release and the end of 2010. This engine has been dramatically improved, and users will notice the performance difference. (Microsoft reports that the new rendering engine is over 350 percent faster than the version included in the beta.)

Next up is a refined UI. This includes nicely squared off and modern-looking UI elements such as the tabs, new address bar treatments, and other niceties.

The RC will also include a new ActiveX Filtering feature that will let users—and admins, via Group Policy—to control which ActiveX controls can display. This will be integrated with the Tracking Protection feature from a UI perspective. As before, I expect the final release of IE 9 to occur before or during the MIX11 conference, which starts April 12, 2011. See you there.

 

iPhone 4 on Verizon: It's Better to Wait

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least chime in on Apple's decision to sell its nearly-year-old iPhone on Verizon Wireless. Many existing iPhone customers are probably eager to jump ship from AT&T, and many Verizon customers have likely been waiting years for this day.

My advice is simple: Don't do it.

Apple ships new versions of its products on a very transparent schedule, and if you migrate to iPhone 4 on Verizon now, you find yourself on the leading edge of a two-year contract cycle just months before the iPhone 5 (or whatever it's called) is released.

But there are other reasons to wait. The iPhone 4 is buggy hardware, with a defective antenna and proximity sensor and other components, and there's no guarantee these will be adequately fixed until the next device arrives. The iPhone 4 is a 3G phone, and Verizon is currently switching to superior 4G (LTE) technology which won't work on the current device. Verizon, unlike AT&T, doesn't support simultaneous voice and data (on 3G). And Verizon's single iPhone data plan (unlimited for $30) is more expensive than the (admittedly less capable) AT&T data plans, which are $15 per month for 200MB of data and $25 for 2GB, which should be enough for just about anybody.

Long story short, just wait. You can do it.

See more about Windows Phone 7:

Windows Phone: More Than 2 Million Units Sold
Yes, I Still Love Windows Phone

See more about Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2:

Top Ten: Windows 7 Magic Search Commands
Windows Deployment Service in Server 2008 R2

See more about Internet Explorer:

Managing Internet Explorer with Group Policy
Microsoft to Add Anti-Tracking Technologies to IE 9