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What Windows 8 Wants: Kinect And Cloud

nicholaskolakowski
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The next version of Windows will have an App Store, cloud integration and a Kinect-based UI, says Nicholas Kolakowski

Microsoft released Windows 7 in 2009, accompanied by a hard marketing push and the hope that its latest operating system would wash out the bad taste of Windows Vista, which never managed to overcome its bug-filled reputation. But time rolls on, and from all indications the company is already hard at work on the next version of Windows, dubbed “Windows 8” by media and pundits.

Rumours suggest that Microsoft will release Windows 8 sometime in 2012. Features of a supposed early build have leaked online, suggesting the company is considering everything from a built-in PDF reader to an Office-style ribbon for managing drive assets and manipulating images. Whether such features appear in the final version of the software, though, Microsoft could — and perhaps should — be considering some of the following development paths, as it seeks to build a Windows capable of beating back challenges from Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Google.

Communication

Although Microsoft remains tight-lipped about any features of the upcoming Windows, the company has revealed it will support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from companies such as Qualcomm and Nvidia. This will give Microsoft the increased ability to port Windows 8 onto tablets and other portable devices powered by ARM offerings.

Bloggers Rafael Rivera and Paul Thurrott, in a series of April postings on Rivera’s Within Windows blog, have dissected various features of what they call an early build of Windows 8. One of those features is a lock screen, featuring an icon for portable-device power management, which suggests Microsoft is indeed designing an operating system capable of running on a multiplicity of devices.

Right now, many of those smaller devices—including tablets and smartphones—are hitting the market with front- and rear-facing cameras for video conferencing. Some tablets have the native ability to make calls, or can be jury-rigged to do so with a VoIP (voice-over-IP) app. But if Windows 8 devices leverage Microsoft’s considerable work in communications software, it could offer a sizable advantage over competitors’ relatively limited offerings: something along the lines of Microsoft Lync, which combines telephony, instant messaging, video and audio conferencing, and application and desktop sharing.

App Store

Leaked screenshots of a “Windows App Store” have appeared on Winrumors and Cnbeta in recent days. Should they prove authentic, and relatively close in particulars to a final software release, those images suggest a digital storefront loaded not only with smaller apps (Angry Birds, Opera 11) but also full-sized software suites such as Office. (Winrumors noted the images are “unverified,” and Microsoft generally declines to comment on anything related to projects in early development.)

A fully stocked app store would allow Microsoft to counter Apple’s Mac App Store, which offers full-screen apps for the company’s PCs, purchasable with one click. On the legal front, Microsoft is also attempting to undermine Apple’s app roadmap by asking the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Trial and Appeal Board to deny its Cupertino, Calif., rival the rights to trademark the term “app store.” Microsoft’s legal counsel has argued in a legal filing that “’app store’ is generic for retail store services featuring apps and unregisterable for ancillary services such as searching for and downloading apps from such stores.”

The leaked screenshots hint that Microsoft’s ultimate aim in denying Apple the trademark is to clear the way for its own branded “app store.” If Microsoft does include an app hub in Windows 8 (backward-compatible with Windows 7), it would serve as a competing offering to storefronts being developed by companies ranging from Hewlett-Packard and Apple to Research In Motion—in other words, something wholly necessary, given the direction of the industry.

Cloud Integration

Microsoft has made no secret of its “all in” cloud strategy, which will see a variety of services offered via online subscription. These include Office 365, which combines Microsoft Office, SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and Lync Online into a unified platform.

Increasing its cloud presence also gives Microsoft a particular opportunity when it comes to Windows 8. Shifting the bulk of user data to the cloud could allow users to access their data on multiple devices simultaneously — whether it be music, games, video, or documents. That sort of versatility could present a competitive advantage, especially since it would allow Microsoft to leverage all the assets in its product portfolio.

Natural User Interface

Xbox Kinect, Microsoft’s hands-free controller, proved a hot seller during the last holiday season. It also represents the beginning of a deeper push into natural user interfaces, according to Microsoft executives. Those plans include integrating touch, gesture and voice-activated technology into products ranging from video games to cameras.

Kinect leverages a 3D camera to transcribe the player’s body movements to their onscreen avatar, and it also includes a substantial voice-activated element: whether shouting commands at a character in an Xbox game, or telling a movie to pause or fast-forward, the spoken word represents a sizable element of the interface.

Meanwhile, some 20 percent of Bing Mobile searches are conducted using voice commands. Ilya Bukshteyn, senior director for marketing for Microsoft Tellme, told eWEEK during a December 2010 meeting that it would likely be “two to three years” before voice became a more ubiquitous factor in both the consumer and enterprise space.

Microsoft also recently acquired Canesta, a maker of 3D-image sensor chips and camera modules that can be embedded in a number of consumer products, including laptops and vehicle dashboards. This raises the possibility that future versions of Windows could leverage natural user interface for commands. Given the popularity of Kinect, and consumers’ increasing interest in voice control, Microsoft is very likely considering how to bake this sort of functionality into Windows 8.