Opening new Windows: The Windows 8 Ecosystem
Windows 8 is a game changer, an expansion and merger of the different platforms within the Microsoft brand. Its release is more than just getting a shiny new touchy-feely operating system out into the market place. Windows 8 is a creation of a new ecosystem, an ecosystem where we see Microsoft’s three screens start to interact with and follow each other with expansion of the Xbox brand and the introduction of Microsoft’s new design language into Windows. Touch input is rising to join the keyboard and mouse as first class citizens. Windows 8 was even stated to be Microsoft’s riskiest move yet. This risk they are taking isn’t their promotion of touch, but more so around their new approach to the ecosystem. So what has Microsoft actually released?.
The software manufacturer is going through a process of changing its identity, expanding into new areas and Windows is smack bang in the centre. The release of Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and recent refreshes and updates to the Xbox platform have introduced a new design language that spans all platforms and amongst other things a SmartGlass that helps tie the different platforms together. All these changes are too big to cover in a single article that gives enough details to do them all justice. As a result I’m only going to provide a brief overview of the new Windows ecosystem and focus primarily on the areas related closest to Windows 8, as in the new PC operating system.
I should be upfront and clear, this is not a review. This is more like the highlights reel; a teaser of what Microsoft has brought to the table and hopefully an opener to discussing new opportunities and why Windows may very well be worth investing in development again for companies, or individuals, interested in technology.
Windows 8, Windows RT… say what?
The release of Windows 8 didn’t just see a single shiny new operating system come into the market. Microsoft effectively gave the world two systems: Windows 8 and Windows RT, although Window RT is also described as just another edition of Windows 8 . Confused? Let’s try and clear up this murky water.
First off, I’ll cover what is common, what makes them both Windows 8, then we’ll dive into a little more detail of what separates the two and effectively makes them their own systems.
Windows Store and the Windows 8 UI:
What makes them family The new Windows 8 user interface is what makes Windows 8 and Windows RT family and how they can both be referred to as editions of Windows 8. The interface is based on Microsoft’s new design language, previously known as the “Metro UI”, and is what you are first presented with on the new Windows 8 start screen.
This new Windows 8 start screen is effectively a new environment that allows you to install and run apps that are available from the Windows Store known as Windows Store apps. These apps are designed to be touch-friendly and full-screen. As a result of the apps being built for Windows 8 new environment are not compatible with previous version of Windows and are only available through the Windows Store. The Windows Store apps run on all editions of Windows 8. In fact the Microsoft account that was used to purchase the app allows for it to be installed on up to 5 Windows 8 or Windows RT machines.
The Windows Store is an app store, similar in concept to what is available on the Windows Phone and other platforms. Microsoft is the curator of the Windows Store, and requires developers to be registered and submit their applications for review before they are made available for general consumption.
Windows 8 still has a desktop, presented like an app tile within the new Windows 8 start screen. It is important to know that although you can run apps in either environment, the two environments are walled off from each other and apps built for one environment won’t work in the other. It is with how these two environments are treated, amongst others, that the Windows RT edition shows signs of effectively being its own OS.
Windows 8: The true successor of the PC OS
Windows 8 is designed to run on Intel-compatible systems. In this manner it is the true successor to Microsoft’s Windows 7 OS.
The desktop environment in Windows 8 works in much the same was as Windows 7. This is where legacy Windows applications will run, and will be the most familiar to existing Windows users. The biggest visual difference here is that the traditional Start Button is gone and is replaced by hot-spots in the corners of the screen(s).
Applications can be installed within the desktop environment in the same manner as previous versions of Windows. Here Windows remains as open as it has ever been.
Applications can be installed into the new Windows 8 start screen environment through the Windows Store only. The start screen, acting as the Start Bar replacement, will display icons for the applications installed within the Windows desktop environment.
In summary, Windows 8:
- is built for Intel-compatible systems (IA-32 and x86-64 architectures)
- has legacy support
- desktop: as open as Windows has ever been
- start screen: a walled-garden allowing access to Windows Store applications.
Windows RT: The new baby brother
Windows RT is designed to run on systems with Arm processors (the same type of processes found in mobile phones) and not classified as a phone. Only device manufacturers have access to install Windows RT.
The desktop environment here is pretty much only present for Microsoft applications, as the only way to install applications on a Windows RT device is through the Windows Store, or have it come with the OS. In this manner it brings some parallels to Apple’s iOS and could be seen as more of a competitor to other tablet devices built with Arm processors.
In summary, Windows RT:
- is built for Arm processors
- has no legacy support
- desktop: only for Microsoft apps (IE, Office and the like).
- only install apps through Windows Store
- is a closed system, much like Apple’s iOS
One of the biggest concepts that Microsoft was trying to drill into developers at TechEd 2012 is to "Only write the code only you can write". This is a concept that the Windows 8 ecosystem is taking to heart and one area in which this evident is with the Windows 8 Charms Bar.
The search and share features available from the Charms Bar can be harnessed by applications, providing users with a method common within the OS to access and use the application’s content. The application just needs to implement the interface and make use of the API resulting in there being no real need to embed a Twitter client, or search bar within the application. The user’s preferred sharing or search application can be used.
Out of the box Windows 8 provides a wide variety of features that are there to encourage feature reuse and help to ensure the user has a common experience for interacting with media, location data and other sensors, devices and inputs.
Windows 8 is about providing a common experience for the users, allowing them to go about their day using the tools they choose to use.
The Cloud, a fancy name for services
"The Cloud” is one of those buzz words going around at the moment that is really a fancy term for hosted services. I’m not going to go into detail about “the cloud”, except to mention that as part of the Windows 8 ecosystem Microsoft is introducing a heavy reliance on the cloud.
The OS has integrated with Microsoft’s SkyDrive and accesses other data associated with your Microsoft Account. When I installed Windows 8 to take a look, I associated my Microsoft Account with the machine. Because I had already set the account on my Windows Phone my email, calendar and images, SkyDrive instantly became available on my Windows 8 device. I can now take a photo on my phone, have it uploaded to my SkyDrive and it is then available on my computer. This alone isn’t a new concept, but it is something new to have baked into a Windows operating system.
Windows 8 can also be configured so your Microsoft account is used to log into the device.
Microsoft’s cloud services and their integration into the base of the Windows operating system is just one example of how Microsoft is bridging the gap between their different platforms to create a single ecosystem.
Xbox and Windows have traditionally been two separate brands from Microsoft, providing a clear distinction between a device for work and one for play. With Windows 8 we see the two worlds start to come together.
Microsoft is pushing Xbox as their entertainment brand and as such is integrating its services within Windows 8. This includes integrating Xbox music and Xbox games.
An Xbox Games app is available that provides access to the Xbox Live system within Windows 8 and also serves as an access point to games installed on your machine. In a way it acts as the Games for Windows Live, or Game Explorer replacement from Windows 7 and Vista.
Adding Xbox services to Windows isn’t the only change that Microsoft has made in order to bring Xbox into the Windows ecosystem. SmartGlass is a new product Microsoft has released that gives control of the Xbox to Windows 8 devices, amongst others.
Bringing the Xbox branding into the Windows ecosystem isn’t necessarily of direct benefit for enterprise applications, but it does have the potential of enticing users into the Windows 8 ecosystem and consequentially increasing the Windows 8 user-base.
The new windows
Windows 8 is a huge leap forward for Microsoft, their riskiest release yet. They are effectively creating a new platform for users to adopt and only time will tell if their efforts will pay off or if they manage to botch the whole thing up.
The biggest “window” of opportunity opened here is with the new Windows Store. The store is in its infancy and getting on board now with a killer app will help to set its place in Windows history.
Developing an app and releasing it on the Windows Store can potentially increase its exposure. Windows Store is part of every edition of Windows 8. All editions of Windows 8 will run the new Windows Store applications.
The merger or inclusion of Microsoft’s other platforms and services into the Windows ecosystem act as a drawcard to entice users to adopt the platform. This is a strong card Microsoft is playing to help ensure its success.
Now that I’ve set the stage of what this new Windows ecosystem is that Microsoft has unleashed on us, I look forward to going on the journey with you to explore in greater detail how we can take advantage of it as a community.