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Blog -> Oskar

Impressions from the Build Windows keynote

Introduction

Tonight Microsoft held their keynote presentation at the Build Windows event - presenting the developer preview of Windows 8. I sat down at a conference hotel in Stockholm with a few hundred other technicians and a surprisingly small amount of developers. Truesec entertained us all for about an hour with a recap of Windows from 3.11 to Windows 7 - which got everyone into the right mood. Then the keynote started and we got to watch the livestream on the big screen.

Developer PC

A bunch of different hardware was showed off to really push the old goal of Windows everywhere, and surprisingly I think it actually made sense. The developer PC was a Samsung tablet with an Intel Core i5 processor, 4 GB of memory, 64 GB SSD, an ~11" IPS panel and a whole lot of sensors including near-field communication capability. This tablet was of course running the developer preview of Windows 8 and it could also dock into a neat little foot that angled the tablet nicely and provided for more connectivity like multiple monitors, keyboard and mouse. The preview was loaded with Visual Studio 11 Express and Expression Blend 5 - in theory enabling true productivity on any Windows device.

Samsung developer PC (tablet)

Metro

So why would anyone run Windows on a tablet? Well, Windows 8 might turn out to be quite a bit more suitable than I initially thought. To begin with, the new Metro user-interface is very slick and touch-friendly. All the good parts from Windows Phone are preserved and served with a lot of trimmings.

Windows 8 start screen

The Metro part was used interchangeably with the traditional desktop during the entire presentation. It looked fluid and non-intrusive and multi-monitor support was enhanced, enabling interesting combinations of new and old user interface workflows.

To use a blunt metaphor, I consider Metro a bit like a windowing system today, and the drop to desktop a bit like dropping to a command prompt today. It's not like I'm annoyed that both exists on Windows of today, on the contrary. A casual user probably won't ever need the command prompt and perhaps the same will be true of the Windows 8 desktop. It certainly looked possible.

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There was a cheap but entertaining joke about the default Metro full-screen Internet Explorer not having any chrome. Immersive apps where the basic premise and the operating system would get out of the way as much as possible.

This might sound extremely stupid to technical people like myself but, I really liked the idea. I want computers to be powerful and easy to use, like in Star Trek. I can envision most users only running Metro but technically inclined enthusiasts and other professionals can drop beneath the surface if they want. But unlike Windows Mobile, there're no gaping holes in this surface.

When it comes to input, Windows 8 supports not only multi-touch for finger-friendly swiping and pressing, but full support for keyboard and mouse navigation as well, even in Metro apps. On top of that we get pen digitizer support that can be used simultaneously with multi-touch. Remember, a pen and a mouse is a precision instrument, a finger is not - so separating and enabling both types at the same time makes some sense - drawing with a pen while swiping with your fingers.

During the presentation, several systems where used exclusively with keyboard and mouse even during Metro demonstrations and precision-demanding context menus then popped up where expected. Interesting.

Software stack

An interesting note is that Expression Blend now also handles HTML5 and not only XAML. This is important because Windows 8 basically has a new software stack called Windows Runtime (WinRT) on which to build Windows 8 apps on. So what programming language did Microsoft enable support for? None and all. Be it C++, C# or Javascript, XAML or HTML - they're all supported by the new API so you get to keep using your favourite, if you want.

Windows 8 Platform

Most demos were made by Javascript/HTML5 apps and there was no obvious performance nor interaction flaws showing. Multitouch worked just fine, and the API looked basically the same as if you were writing apps in C#.

Javascript

Using the new API, all user-interfaces are hardware accelerated across both platforms (ARM and x86/x64) and watching the HTML apps perform at full speed was an eye-opener I've been waiting for for quite a while.

Nobody really likes HTML and Javascript, right? But despite all the flaws, it's the obvious cross-platform user-interface to aim for in my opinion, always was.

App Store

Yes there's an app store, and yes it will contain both new and legacy applications. There's not even a requirement to have your application to be installable or purchasable from the app store if you don't want to - you can link to your own store instead while still getting the app store exposure. It truly looks like the one single place to get Windows software in a convenient way, though only the future will tell. There's a new packaging format and apps are one-click installs.

Performance

While I didn't think it was a very good way to measure resource hogging, we got to see Task Manager's performance tab on Windows 7 compared to Windows 8. The point was basically that it consumed a lot less memory up-front, and also shed a few system processes and finally idling at an ever lower CPU utilization.

In short, Windows 8 should run better than Windows 7 on the same hardware.

To really drive this point into my heart, the hardware section of the presentation started by cold-booting a few different machines, both speed monsters and humble laptops alike. They all spent more time on BIOS/EFI Post than on actual Windows boot. It didn't take more than a second or so to see the Metro start screen.

This still intrigues me and I wonder how much of this is really true in real life. I did read somewhere that Windows 8 always hibernates static system resources and therefore can resume from cold state in a very short time. But it still looked way too much like magic - with the shown cold boot times, there's barely a need of sleep/standby mode! Though that was also improved and was shown as instantaneous on various PCs and devices.

We got to see several ARM tablets running the same preview just as nice and snappy as on higher-end PCs.

Integration

This is where it gets really interesting - logging on to Windows 8 using a Microsoft Live ID. Your user profile can then roam between all your Windows 8 devices, keeping not only basic system and app settings (think email configuration!) but also images, documents, contacts, calendar and so on.

As an example, the file picker dialog integrates with all apps supporting that contract, so you can for example open images from any of your PCs, the camera roll in your phone, Facebook and Flickr.

A few changes to the user interface was made on a desktop system, and then shown propagated to a tablet system with the same id logged on. I've been waiting for this for a long time. And no, it's not the same as if there's an app for this. This is completely integrated into the standard experience and should be dead simple to code your own apps against as well.

Desktop

The standard desktop is still there and has some notable improvements. First, the file Explorer has been upgraded to provide among other things a better file copying dialog. Perhaps I don't have to purchase the next Directory Opus upgrade after all?

The Task Manager is completely redone (or reimagined as Microsoft would call it during this presentation) and now has a very basic simple mode for casual users that only lists active and suspended apps - nothing else. No system processes or services.

The advanced version, available with a simple link, finally gets a few more things right.

New Task Manager

Summary

In the end, I was more positively surprised than I thought I would be. We all knew roughly how the new user interface is suppose to work, and that boot times should be faster.

But that Microsoft was actually brave enough to go this far on all fronts really wasn't something I counted on - I'm actually impressed. I got to see a dockable multi-monitor tablet with workstation performance and a touch-friendly traveling user interface, booting nearly instantly and drawing a lot less power in standby.

It also had the rich development and debugging tools you expect from Microsoft installed - which if you've done any amount of remote debugging on mobile devices will appreciate a lot, at least in theory.

Please watch the keynote - it contains a lot of vital information.

by Oskar Duveborn - 2 revisions
Published 2011-09-14, updated 2011-09-14