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Microsoft showcases Windows 8 features at TechEd Europe 2012

Embedded in the cavernous Amsterdam RAI arena this morning, it was difficult to be sure that the previous evening’s revelry had ended, the bright lights and pounding techno music synonymous with nights in Holland’s best known metropolis having been transferred to the Herculean conference and exhibition centre to greet a small, slightly bleary eyed pack of British journalists. But far from a seedy identikit street in the city’s Red Light District, it was actually ITProPortal in attendance at the keynote speech of Microsoft’s TechEd Europe 2012 and the beginning of a day which thereafter saw us jet across town to the Exploring Windows 8 event.

Antoine Leblond, Corporate Vice President of Windows Web Services, used the initial platform to outline and demo a number of the main features of Windows 8. Cross-device functionality was central to his address. Using a Samsung Series 7 tablet, Leblond showed off key navigational functions of the new Windows 8 multi-touch touch screen, Metro-style user interface like app scrolling techniques and semantic zooming, an obvious improvement on optical zooming in that it not only alters the parameters of the graphical representation but restructures the data being displayed.

It becomes immediately noticeable that Windows 8 is a minimalist operating system in the extreme and one that really shines on tablet devices. Gone are toolbars, Start menus, and even alphanumerical passwords if you want – logging on can now be achieved by swiping a photo in a pre-programmed pattern – in favour of an immersive, full-screen interface that prioritises content over chrome.

“There’s no menus, no toolbars, nothing like that. We like to think of Windows as fading into the background,” Leblond says.

Mid-morning, the day shifts from the nerve centre of TechEd 2012 to a specialist, in-depth workshop on the new Microsoft software held nearby. Here, Chaitanya Sareen, Principal Program Manager with the Windows 8 User Experience team, offers more detailed demos of the next generation OS and highlights its compatibility with desktop and notebook devices.

Traditionalists can revert to the customary desktop mode, but those wishing to adopt the Metro-style UI can scroll across screens by rolling their mouse, or running their finger across the touchpad of a laptop and using it as a mini-touch screen. Keyboard shortcuts are another way of navigating the new-look OS.

“Who wants to touch a button? That’s so old school. We want your PC experience to be fast and fluid. It’s just you, the consumer, and awesome content from the developer,” Sareen says.

He adds that the generational refresh will improve the Windows experience across all devices and platforms: “If you’re one of those people who live on the desktop, you’re going to have a better experience on Windows 8.”

“Fast and fluid” is a phrase regurgitated in nearly every presentation, and none of the speakers appear to be wrong. A couple of minor, temporary desktop-based scroll and zoom fails aside it’s a slick OS that really succeeds in doing away with a lot of the clutter associated with the average desktop. Organisation is more instinctive, with folders replaced by app groups resulting in a dashboard-like display, and the Start menu supplanted by the ‘Charm Bar.’

Charm Bar is the new universal toolbar of Windows 8 and features Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings icons. Search functions as before with a new avatar, but the new prominence given to the Devices hub is telling and hints at the inter-device connectivity potential of the OS. Once tucked away behind several clicks, users can now immediately project media externally to an Xbox or television, or enable a multi-monitor work set-up. The Share button similarly reflects the realities of the tech world in 2012, with information able to be shared with immediacy via email or social networks, though the feature is unavailable in the desktop setting. Relationships can also be built in via apps, so that Word content is associated with native cloud service SkyDrive and photos with popular sites like Facebook.

With ease of use clearly a priority, the Windows 8 team is at constant pains to highlight the software’s enterprise uses. Leblond ventures that “the lines between home and enterprise are being blurred” and that the days of devoted work/play device distinction are rapidly evaporating. As such, Windows 8 is “enterprise ready by design.” For one, the lock screen displays crucial information like unread emails and upcoming appointments – a feature that is more inherently useful to decision makers and employees than to consumers.

Additionally, the scope for custom-building apps for enterprise solutions is greater than ever, with businesses able to do things like manage their expenses via programs currently available on the Release Preview. Account integration is another big selling point, as user accounts are no longer localised with Windows 8 but rather linked together via a central Microsoft account, meaning that users can access their files and enjoy their customised settings across any device running the OS.

Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualisation software is also integrated into client versions of the OS for the first time – previously it was only offered in Windows Server. This means that IT admins can remotely manage employees’ apps, and also makes setting up test environments easier in line with Leblond’s general assertion that Windows 8 is a “really, really easy” OS that “does so much of the work for you.”

But perhaps the most important new feature from an enterprise perspective is security related. With Secure Boot, Windows 8 now has a core-level approach to combatting malware. The public key infrastructure allows firmware images to validate prior to execution, creating the kind of architecturally neutral platform necessary to fight sophisticated viruses.

Microsoft also made quite a big deal out of developer empowerment today, with code popping up in detail on a number of occasions. Though it’s not irrational to worry about the pace of Microsoft’s adoption of an open source toolkit – crucial to the long-term success of its development community - Windows 8 does make some clear strides.

Not least, it introduces an entirely new development platform based on HTML5 and JavaScript and heralds the arrival of the Windows Store. The former translates all apps developed – whether the code is C#, MFC or JavaScript - into the WinRT application programming interface, while the latter gives devs a much needed platform to exhibit and sell their work.

Windows Store Partner Director Ted Dworkin called it “the most significant developer opportunity in the world,” and while it’s always possible to pick apart his superlative proclamation, there’s no question that the potential to earn up to an 80 per cent profit share – 70 per cent is standard - is a fair deal and that a unique sales environment for Metro-style apps is an exciting prospect for devs, while the built-in Certification Kit is part of a “transparent process” that aims to ensure a high-standard of quality control.

“We reward developers for creating great apps [and] maximise [their] economic opportunities,” Dworkin added earlier.

Listening to the various members of the Windows 8 team extoll the virtues of their new OS, it becomes increasingly obvious that much of the beauty of this particular piece of software is in its finer points. That said, even the more fundamental performance features impress, with one of the day’s highlight reel moments coming when Fundamentals teams Principal Group Program Manager Bill Karagounis showcased the depth of Windows 8’s optimisation by demoing an eight second boot time on an average Asus notebook running Intel's last generation Sandy Bridge platform.

Wednesday’s other ‘WOW’ moment came courtesy of the Windows To Go enterprise feature. Windows To Go enables users to create a bootable USB Flash drive – a Live USB – running Windows 8 and including the user’s programs, settings, and files; a fully managed, portable IT workstation for wherever and whenever. It also boasts an automatic pause function if the stick is removed, with Group Program Manager (XAML team) Joe Stegman successfully demonstrating its ability to seamlessly resume if reinserted within a minute, much to the delight of the gathered press.

While Amsterdam may not have contained any big surprises in regards to Windows 8 - no, since you’re wondering, they didn’t talk, demo, or give away anything Surface related - Microsoft did pretty seamlessly show off its new flagship software. As many people have noted, it really is more of a computing ecosystem than a traditional OS and has the potential to emerge as a market frontrunner.

Adoption rates – of both existing Windows users and users of other operating systems – may be unclear, but there will always be those who contend that Microsoft acts with as much aspiration for innovation as Apple. Now, there will also be those claim it is being even more ambitious. Indeed, with the Xbox, Microsoft has the one piece of hardware Apple is still developing – a television portal – and while the Cupertino firm is bogged down with lawsuits, Microsoft has been riding a wave of positive momentum recently. Exploring Windows 8 – given the location, let’s call it a slow striptease of the new operating system’s features – comes on the back of the frenzy-inducing announcement of the Surface tablet range, the launch of the Windows Phone 8 Apollo, and Monday’s confirmation of the Yammer buyout.

Equally, it’s easy to side with those who see the shape of Windows 8 as being ultimately dictated by Microsoft’s chief rival. There are elements of truth in both views. How the OS fares outside of the tech community remains to be seen and will rely as much on Microsoft continuing to shed its slightly sterile image, borne out of the predictability of some of its previous marketing campaigns. Windows 8 thus marks not only a reinvention of a hugely successful operating system, but is potentially part of the company’s wholesale reinvention of itself as a more dynamic, more mobile-relevant brand.

As an eco-system and an OS, Windows 8 simply has a lot going for it. The desktop mode may be less flashy and take a bit more getting used to for less flexible computing types, but the core realities remain. It is rich in design and boasts easy content movement and acquisition. It does away with unwanted file clutter and offers enhanced personalisation options. It prioritises communication, sharing, and inter-device connectivity, and even has a native cloud service via SkyDrive. It is hugely consumer friendly, but also contains a number of features aimed at modern enterprises.The fact is, even if you eschew the new Metro-style UI entirely – you shouldn’t, by the way - and use it solely in traditional desktop mode, Windows 8 still represents a significant improvement.

Leblond summarises the Windows 8 evolution aptly.

“Windows 7 has been an amazing product for us. But it’s really rooted in the last generation change of Windows, and that’s Windows 95. Things like the architecture, the app platform, the UI come to us from Windows 95. It’s a long time period and technology changes like crazy,” he says.

“Five years ago we had very few devices that had touch screens. A lot of people thought they were just going to be niche products, that very few people were going to be able to use these on screen keyboards efficiently. [Now] touch is coming to PCs,” he continues.

The OS and its current Release Preview incarnation isn’t ultimately about a showy, demo-heavy day in Amsterdam, but about setting up Microsoft for the next 10-15 years and the post-PC era. Uttering the now ubiquitous ‘chipset to experience’ catch phrase, Leblond rightly points out that Windows 8 is a product and a platform for the future.

We’ve basically reimagined the way we use technology, from the chipset to the experience. We’ve designed Windows 8 for the billion people who use PCs today, and for the next billion people who will use them in the future.”

Other than the fact that Ted Dworkin started playing some Justin Beiber before lunch – he tried to redeem himself by putting on White Stripes, but the secret’s well and truly out, T-Dwo – this was an impressive spectacle that has me itching to get back to the hotel to download it and start fiddling around. But there’s the small matter of cocktails first.