What features would you like to see in Windows 8?

Michael Pietroforte, of the 4sysops blog has teamed up with several prominant blog owners across the ‘net to ask people what features they would like to see in Windows 8, which is expected to ship around 2012.

As the poll is running on several websites (Demonic Talking SkullmsigeekStandalone SysadminTeching It Easy: with WindowsThe Experience BlogThe things that are better left unspokenThe Windows ClubWindowsProWithin Windows7tutorials4sysops) please only vote once!

Guidance for poll questions

  • New user interface: Android and iOS are good examples of operating systems with innovative user interface models. Even more revolutionary will be Windows 7 Phone. These examples show that OS interfaces beyond the Windows Start Menu and the Windows Taskbar are possible.
  • Support for different form factors – Support for different form factors, such as tablets and netbooks, includes the ability to run Windows with minimal hardware requirements and on devices with small screen sizes (as small as 5”). Optimization for touch, the ability to run Windows without mouse and keyboard, and orientation detection are other essential features.
  • More modularity: Linux is a good example of a modular operating system. It allows you to install only those OS components you really need. This would require a package manager that resolves software dependencies. The advantages of more modularity are lower hardware requirements, a reduced attack surface, and simplified patch management.
  • Third-party patch management: Third-party management would allow you to update common Windows applications of third-party vendors through Microsoft’s online update service. Linux has this feature for as long as I can remember.
  • Bare metal hypervisor: A bare metal hypervisor would enable you to run multiple Windows installations simultaneously on a PC. You could move your virtualized Windows installation with all applications to another PC or to a VDI environment by simply copying the virtual system drive.
  • Application virtualization: Virtualized applications run in an isolated environment that ensures no modifications to the OS are made during installation and at runtime. Application virtualization can solve compatibility issues and improves security.
  • Application streaming: Application streaming allows you to launch a Windows application from a remote server, for example, through the web, without the need to install the application manually. Application streaming solutions usually leverage application virtualization. An application streaming Windows API would enable third-party software vendors to offer Windows applications through the web.
  • Windows Store: Like Apple’s App Store, Windows Store would allow you to buy and download third-party applications that have been approved by Microsoft.
  • Windows Restore Button: If you messed up your Windows installation, this feature would enable you to restore Windows to its original state without losing your data and without the need to reinstall all your applications.
  • Cloud APIs: Third-party software vendors could allow you to use cloud APIs to add cloud features to their applications. For instance, a web browser vendor could store your bookmarks, plugins, and browser settings in Microsoft’s cloud or in the cloud of a third-party provider. That way, all your settings and data would automatically be available on every Windows machine you log on to.
  • New authentication methods: Wouldn’t it be cool if you could log on to Windows or an online service with a smile at your web cam (facial recognition), with a friendly “Hi, it’s me” (voice recognition), or by just touching your beloved PC (fingerprint recognition)? Biometrics applications have already been available for a while, but they will only have a fair chance of being adopted in the Windows ecosystem if Microsoft fully integrates these functions into Windows.
  • Instant-On: Instant-On means that Windows wouldn’t have to boot up when you turn on your PC. Considering that computers are becoming more and more an integral part of our daily life, this could be an interesting feature for home users in particular. It is probably a must-have feature for tablets.
  • Malware protection: If Windows were delivered with integrated malware protection, every PC would be protected right after the installation, which would make the whole Internet a safer place. Third-party vendors could offer services such as antivirus signatures and antivirus applications that run on top of the Windows malware scanning engine. This would also reduce notorious compatibility problems with antivirus scanning engines and would even allow you to run multiple antivirus applications at the same time.
  • Better UAC: Compared to Sudo in the Linux world, UAC (User Account Control) is a fairly simple security privilege solution. A UAC with more configuration options could improve security, especially in business environments.
  • Migration from Windows XP: Windows XP is a very popular operating system and it will still probably run on many computers even when Windows 8 is released. These Windows customers would appreciate a seamless migration from Windows XP to Windows 8.
  • Better compatibility: Better compatibility includes better hardware and software compatibility with legacy hardware and software.
  • Better security: If you think that Microsoft should focus on improving the security features of Windows 8, then you should vote for this option.
  • Better performance: Speed is always important. If it matters most in your environment, then you should tell Microsoft now.
  • Less hardware requirements: If you intend to run Windows 8 on old computers, then you need a Windows 8 which requires only minimal hardware.
  • Less bloat: Some people think that Windows already has too many features and would prefer a slim Windows 8.

Windows 8 predictions

Just in case you were wondering if the Windows client has a future after Windows 7 (it does), several Internet news sites are reporting that a Microsoft employee accidentally leaked details of his work on future Windows versions on his LinkedIn profile.  According to Gizmodo, Microsoft Research employee Robert Morgan carelessly left the following details in full public view:

“Working in high security department for research and development involving strategic planning for medium and longterm projects. Research & Development projects including 128bit architecture compatibility with the Windows 8 kernel and Windows 9 project plan. Forming relationships with major partners: Intel, AMD, HP, and IBM.

Robert Morgan is working to get IA-128 working backwards with full binary compatibility on the existing IA-64 instructions in the hardware simulation to work for Windows 8 and definitely Windows 9.”

It’s no secret that there will be a Windows 8 – Microsoft has already publicly committed to a new release in 3 years’ time; however anyone working in a “high security” role would be unwise to leave details of their work on a social networking site!

For what it’s worth (I know nothing at this time… but when I do, I’m sure it will be under NDA so I should write it down now!), I would expect 64-bit computing to be mainstream on the client in the Windows 8 timeframe (and if you’re not considering it for Windows 7, then you should), and would only expect 128-bit to be relevant for high-end server versions (note that the quote above refers to IA-64 and IA-128 – so that’s Itanium rather than some new “x128” desktop hardware).  I’d also expect tighter integration with the cloud, and further developments in the area of boot from VHD, to further decouple the operating system from the hardware.

Of course, all of this is pure speculation on my part.

Getting ready to deploy Windows 7 on the corporate desktop

With Windows 7 (and Server 2008 R2) now released to manufacturing and availability dates published, what does this really mean for companies looking to upgrade their desktop operating system? I’ve previously written about new features in Windows Server 2008 R2 (part 1 and part 2) but now I want to take a look at the Windows client.

Whilst I still maintain that Windows Vista was not as bad as it was made out to be (especially after service pack 1, which contained more driver resolutions and compatibility updates than security fixes), it was a classic case of “mud sticks” and, in the words of one Microsoft representative at a public event this week:

“Windows Vista maybe wasn’t as well received as [Microsoft] had hoped.”

The press was less harsh on Windows Server 2008 (which is closely related to Vista) but, with the new releases (Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2), reaction from the IT press and from industry analysts has been extremely positive. In part, that’s because Windows 7 represents a “minor” update. By this I mean that, whilst Vista had deep changes (which contributed to it’s unpopularity) with new models for security, drivers, deployment and networking, Windows 7 continues with the same underlying architecture (so most software that runs on Vista will run on 7 – the exceptions are products that are deeply integrated with the operating system such as security products – and hardware that runs Vista well will run 7 Windows 7 well).

Indeed, under Steven Sinofsky‘s watch, with Windows 7 Microsoft has followed new approach for development and disclosure including:

  • Increased planning – analysing trends and needs before building features.
  • Providing customers and partners with predictability – a new operating system every 3 years.
  • Working on the ecosystem – with early partner engagement (ISVs and IHVs have plenty of time to get ready – including a program for ISVs to achieve a “green light” for application compatibility – and the other side or the coin, for those of us looking for suitable hardware and software, is the Ready Set 7 site.).

Having said that Windows 7 is a minor update, it does include some major improvements. Indeed, some might say (I believe that Mark Russinovich was one of them) that if you got back to a previous product version and miss the features then it was a major release. In no particular order, here are of some of the features that Microsoft is showing off for Windows 7 (there are many more too):

  • Superbar amalgamates the previous functions of the Taskbar and the Quicklaunch bar and includes larger icons to accommodate touch screen activities (Windows 7 includes multitouch support).
  • Live preview of running applications (not just when task switching but from the superbar too).
  • Jumplists – right click on a superbar icon to pin it to the superbar – even individual files.
  • No more Windows sidebar – gadgets can be anywhere on the desktop and are isolated from one another so if they crash they do not impact the rest of system.
  • Aero user interface improvements: Aero Peek to quickly look at the desktop; Aero Snap to quickly arrange windows such as when comparing and contrast document contents; Aero Shake to minimise all other open windows.
  • The ability to cut and paste from document previews.
  • The ability to deploy a single, hardware agnostic image for all PCs.
  • Group policy improvements to control USB device usage (no more epoxy resin to glue up USB ports!).
  • BitLocker To Go – encrypt the contents of USB sticks, including the ability to read the contents from downlevel operating systems based on a one-time password.
  • Integrated search shows where results come from too (e.g. Programs, OneNote, Outlook, etc.) and only indexes in quiet time. Search Federation extends this to include SharePoint sites and other corporate resources.
  • DirectAccess, point to point authentication for access to corporate resources (e.g. intranet sites) from anywhere including intelligent routing to identify corporate traffic and separate it from Internet-bound traffic avoid sending all traffic across the VPN.
  • BranchCache – locally cache copies of files, and share on a peer-to-peer basis (or, as my colleague Dave Saxon recently described it, “Microsoft’s version of BitTorrent”).
  • AppLocker – create whitelists or blacklists of approved software, including versions.
  • Problem Steps Wizard – record details of problems and send the results for diagnosis, or use to create walkthrough guides, etc.
  • Action Center – one stop shop for PC health.
  • User Access Control (UAC) warnings reduced.

All of this is nice but, faced with the prospect of spending a not-inconsiderable sum of money on an operating system upgrade, features alone are probably not enough! So, why should I deploy a new Windows operating system? Because, for many organisations, the old one (and I mean Windows XP, not Vista) is no longer “good enough”. It’s already on extended support, lacks some features that are required to support modern ways of working, was designed for an era when security was less of a concern and will be retired soon. So, if I’m an IT manager looking at a strategy for the desktop, my choices might include:

  • Do nothing. Possible, but increasingly risky once the operating system stops receiving security updates and manufacturers stop producing drivers for new hardware.
  • Stop using PCs and move to server based computing? This might work in some use cases, but unlikely to be a universal solution for reasons of mobility and application compatibility.
  • Move to a different operating system – maybe Linux or Mac OS X? Both of these have their relative merits but, deep down, Windows, Linux and Mac OS X all provide roughly the same functionality and if moving from XP to Vista was disruptive from an application compatibility standpoint, moving to a Unix-based OS is likely to be more so.
  • Deploy a new version of Windows – either Vista (which is not a bad way to get ready for 7) or 7.
  • Wait a bit longer and deploy Windows 8. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of time to move from XP and the transition is likely to be more complex (jumping forward by three operating system releases).

Assuming I choose to move to Windows 7, there are several versions available but, unlike with Vista, each is a superset of the features in the version below (and Enterprise/Ultimate are identical – just targetted at different markets). For businesses, there are only two versions that are relevant: Professional and Enterprise – and Enterprise is only available as a Software Assurance (SA) benefit. If you don’t have a suitable volume licensing agreement, Professional the only real choice (saving money by buying Home Premium is unlikely to be cost-effective as it lacks functionality like the ability to join a domain, or licensing support for virtualisation – and purchasing Ultimate Edition at full packaged product price is expensive).

There are some Enterprise/Ultimate features that are not available in the Professional Edition, most notably DirectAccess, BranchCache, Search Federation, BitLocker, BitLocker To Go, and AppLocker. Some of these also require a Windows Server 2008 R2 back end (e.g. DirectAccess and BranchCache).

In Europe, things are a little more complicated – thanks to the EU – and we’re still waiting to hear the full details of what that means (e.g. can an organisation deploy a build based on E Edition outside Europe, or deploy a build within the EU based on a “normal” editions sourced from outside Europe and remain supported).

The other variant is 32- or 64-bit. With the exception of some low-end PCs, almost every PC that we buy today is 64-bit capable, 64-bit drivers are available for most devices (I’ve had no problems getting 64-bit drivers for the Windows 7 notebook that I use ever day) and many 32-bit applications will run on a 64-bit platform. Having said that, if all the PCs you buy have between 2 and 4GB of RAM, then there is not a huge advantage. If you are looking to the future, or running applications that can use additional RAM (on hardware that can support it), then 64-bit Windows is now a viable option. Whilst on the subject of hardware, if you are considering Windows XP Mode as a possible application compatibility workaround, then you will also need hardware virtualisation support and hardware DEP. Steve Gibson’s Securable utility is a handy piece of freeware to check that the necessary features are supported on your hardware.

Whilst on the subject of virtualisation, there are four options (from Microsoft – third party solutions are also available):

  • The much-hyped Windows XP Mode. Great for small businesses but lacks the management tools for enterprise deployment and beware that each virtual machine will also require its own antivirus and management agents – which may be potentially expensive if it’s just to run one or two applications that should really be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
  • Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualisation (MED-V). This is the former Kidaro product and appears to be a good solution for running legacy applications isolated at the operating system level but it still involves managing a second operating system instance and is part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimisation Pack (MDOP) so is only available to customers with SA.
  • Microsoft Application Virtualization (App-V). A popular solution for application-level isolation but requires applications to be repackaged (with consequential support implications) and also only available as part of MDOP.
  • Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). Whilst the concept may initially appear attractive, it’s not an inexpensive option (and without careful management may actually increase costs), Microsoft’s desktop broker (Remote Desktop Services) is new in Windows Server 2008 R2 and, crucially for partners, there is no sensible means of licensing this in a managed service context.

The main reason for highlighting virtualisation options in a Windows 7 post is that Windows XP Mode is being held up as a great way to deal with application compatibility issues. It is good but it’s also worth remembering that it’s a sticking plaster solution and the real answer is to look at why the applications don’t work in the first place. Which brings me onto application compatibility.

Even for those of us who are not developers, there are three ways to approach application compatibility in Windows 7:

  • Windows 7’s Program Compatibility wizard can be used to make simple changes to an application’s configuration and make it work (e.g. skip a version check, run in compatibility mode, etc.)
  • Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT) 5.5 contains tools and documentation to evaluate and mitigate application compatibility issues for Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows Update, or Windows Internet Explorer (e.g. shims to resolve known issues) – there are also third party tools from companies like ChangeBASE.
  • Windows XP Mode. For those applications that simply refuse to run on Windows 7 but certainly not a solution for organisations trying to shoehorn Windows 7 onto existing hardware and upgrade at minimal cost.

After deciding what to move to, deployment is a major consideration. The Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) and Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK) have both been updated for Windows 7 and can be used together to deploy a fresh operating system installation together with applications and migrate the user data. There is no in-place upgrade path for Windows XP users (or for Windows 7 customers in Europe) and I was amazed at the number of Microsoft partners in the SMB space who were complaining about this at a recent event but a clean installation is the preferred choice for many organisations, allowing a known state to be achieved and avoiding problems when each PC is slightly different to the next and has its own little nuances.

I think I’ve covered most of the bases here: some of the new features; product editions; hardware and software requirements; application compatibility; virtualisation; deployment. What should be the next steps?

Well, firstly, although the release candidate will work through to June next year, wait a couple of weeks and get hold of the RTM bits. Then test, test, and test again before deploying internally (to a select group of users) and start to build skills in preparation for mass deployment.

As for the future – Microsoft has publicly committed to a new client release every 3 years (it’s not clear whether server releases will remain on a 2 year major/minor schedule) so you should expect to see Windows 8 around this time in 2012.

If Microsoft Windows and Office are no longer relevant then why are #wpc09 and Office 2010 two of the top 10 topics on Twitter right now?

Every now and again, I read somebody claiming that Microsoft is no longer relevant in our increasingly online and connected society and how we’re all moving to a world of cloud computing and device independence where Google and other younger and more agile organisations are going to run our lives. Oh yes and it will also be the year of Linux on the desktop!

Then I spend an afternoon listening to a Microsoft conference keynote, like the PDC ones last Autumn/Fall (announcing Windows Azure and the next generation of client computing), or today’s Worldwide Partner Conference and I realise Microsoft does have a vision and that, under Ray Ozzie’s leadership, they do understand the influence of social networks and other web technologies. That’ll be why, as I’m writing this, the number 6 and 7 topics on Twitter are Office 2010 and #wpc09.

Office 2010 and #WPC09 trending on Twitter

Competition is good (I’m looking forward to seeing how the new Ubuntu Google OS works out and will probably run it on at least one of my machines) but I’m really heartened by some of this afternoon’s announcements (which I’ll write up in another blog post).

Meanwhile, for those who say that Windows 7 will be Microsoft’s last desktop operating system, perhaps this excerpt from a BBC interview with Ray Ozzie will be enough to convince them that the concept of an operating system is not dead… it’s just changing shape:

(Credit is due to Michael Pietroforte at 4sysops for highlighting the existence of this video footage.)

Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 release candidate availability

There’s been a lot of chatter on the ‘net about Windows 7 release dates and new features but a lot of it is based on one or two leaks that then get reported (and sometimes misreported) across a variety of news sites and blogs.

After various reports that we could see a Windows 7 release candidate (RC) earlier in April, and various leaked builds, today’s the day when the Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 RCs will officially be made available to MSDN and TechNet subscribers (the client release candidate was announced last week and the official announcement around the Windows Server 2008 R2 release candidate is due today).

For those who are not TechEd or MSDN subscribers, the RC will be available to the public on/around 5 May.

Whilst the Windows 7 client was already feature complete at the beta, the server version, Windows Server 2008 R2, includes some new functionality – some of which I’ll detail in a separate blog post and some of which will not be announced until TechEd on 11 May 2009.

If you want to know more about the Windows 7 release candidate, then Ed Bott has a Windows 7 release candidate FAQ which is a good place to start. One thing you won’t find in there though is a release date for Windows 7, as Bott quotes one Microsoft executive:

“Those who know, won’t say. Those who say, don’t know.”

As for the future of Windows Mary Jo Foley reported last week that work is underway on “Windows 8” and is suggesting it could be with us as early as 2011/2. If Microsoft continues the 2-year major/minor cycles for the server version and co-develops the Windows client and server releases again, that would fit but, for now, let’s concentrate on Windows 7!

Finally, Microsoft has a new website launching tomorrow (but which has been available for a few days now) aimed at IT professionals in the Windows space. If you find the Engineering Windows 7 blog a little wordy (sometimes I wish they would stick to the Twitter rule of 140 characters!), Talking About Windows is a video blog which provides insight on Windows 7 from the Microsoft engineers who helped build the product, combined with real-world commentary from IT professionals.