How do you predict the future? It's easy: There's going to be a Windows 9 in a few years. As for what might be inside Microsoft's future operating system, however, that's a whole ‘nother ballgame.
It's not that hard to get caught up in some childlike fantasy when asked to predict the future path of Microsoft's main OS. You know—Windows 9 will allow your desktop to transform into a giant robot, or Windows 9 will be an on-the-fly hybrid OS that transforms into a simpler version of Metro for free-floating tablet devices and the full-fledged Windows 9 when these devices are connected up to a dock/keyboard setup.
Honestly, I kind of like the robot idea.
But let's get serious. What's the likely future direction of Microsoft Windows? Even considering that the general consumer reaction to Windows 8—assuming it's not just a Band-Aid for tablets while Microsoft devotes the core of its resources to a completely revamped version of the OS—will likely play a role in what Microsoft decides to do within its big follow-up.
Since one can't mention Windows 8 without saying something about its Metro UI in the very next breath, here's the first prediction: Metro is just the beginning. The meeting ground, as it were. It feels as if Microsoft's grand goal is to unify its devices under a single operating system, similar to how there's always one story written about Apple every three months that suggests the company is on the verge of combining OSX and iOS.
So what are the benefits of transforming Windows into a hardware agnostic platform? Easy: One look and feel for consumers, whether they're using their next-generation Xbox consoles, PCs, smartphones, or tablets. One development platform and unified APIs would allow apps and features to cross over between devices without demanding a huge chunk of developer resources. And, of course, apps could release faster (if not simultaneously) on all devices – great news for those used to waiting six months for a smartphone version of a new PC program to hit. To borrow a phrase from the late Sun Microsystems: "Write once, run anywhere."
I can't foresee how Microsoft might balance the simplicity of its Metro-style interface against the expansiveness of its classic "Desktop" interface – currently a sore point for those playing with Microsoft's squares for the first time. But I do think their roles will switch.
Microsoft will make Metro (or an equivalent tablet-style UI) the dominant measure of Windows 9, which will force the company to find some way to make a simple interface complex when it's warranted. Perhaps this will involve a tighter integration of Windows Explorer (et al) within Metro, versus the cop-out "switchy interface" treatment of Windows 9's predecessor OS. Perhaps Microsoft will turn over a rock and find a Jonathan Ive of software to make this difficult pairing possible.
Microsoft is going to do everything it can to pull devices together as tightly as possible underneath the Windows 9 umbrella. Your tablet won't just be an independent product, for example. It'll interact with your primary computer's Windows 9 installation as if it was your primary (or secondary) monitor. It'll be your Xbox controller or Wii U-style helper interface. It'll be your remote control – not just for interacting with other Windows 9 products, but the traffic cop for guiding data transfers and/or streams to the other Windows 9 devices you own.
I'm not talking about some souped-up Tricorder fantasy where you can suddenly use your Xbox 720 to turn on your kitchen sink from three miles away. But based on Microsoft's brief experiments with "one screen for many purposes" in Windows 8, it's only fitting that the company extends this philosophy to cover even more scenarios (and more devices) with Windows 9. And maybe the company could even let consumers use their Kinect 2 motion-trackers to shift between screens or send their files flying around different devices.
Hey, if Google can let you turn on your lights with your Android phone, Microsoft can surely let your "central data" work in a similar way on any screen in your house.
Another no-brainer: Windows 9's going to be tied into the cloud. Just how much, though, remains the big question. At the very least, you can count on deeper integration – perhaps even build directly into the file system – of Microsoft's SkyDrive-based hosting.
The time is not far off when cloud-based storage won't be a separate app you load within Windows or a folder you simply drop things into. It'll just be. You'll still be able to keep certain apps and mission-critical files on your desktop (for performance or security), but Windows' default storage mindset will switch from the local to the ethereal.
Plus, this would give Microsoft a way to upsell customers on virtual storage space and permanently tie them into the Windows family forevermore. Ta-da!
Now, how much crazier we get with the cloud is anyone's guess. This includes everything from behind-the-scenes backups of your entire hard drive, to apps that run completely in the cloud and just require a minimal hook within your OS to function, to the real biggie: A cloud-based operating system. In the latter – which would use techniques Microsoft's been busy patenting – you'd download or physically install just a small chunk of data required to actually boot an operating system. Which I suppose could even be stored on a flash drive, if you want to get really fancy.
The bulk of Windows 9 (or 10?) would live in the cloud – your device would be akin to a terminal. Which makes me wonder how we'd approach software like games: Would these run in the cloud as well and just stream an image to one's device? What happens when one's internet connection is slow, jittery, or non-existent? Does that mean your OS goes offline for good? Your video game dude dies?
We can keep our heads in the hardware clouds all day long, if we'd like. But at the very, very least, here's hoping that future incarnations of Windows adopt a Valve-like approach to software.
A "buy once, run anywhere" concept could allow a user to authenticate into Windows 9 on any hardware device, and then just as easily download and run apps he or she has previously purchased via the good ol' Microsoft Store. Given just how app-centric Windows 8's Metro UI has become, it only makes sense to let users download (or stream) a "Microsoft Office" app, or a partner's "Adobe Photoshop" app, for example. The world is going digital distribution: Microsoft should, and will, embrace its conveniences for end users.
And, of course, Windows 9 will allow you to transform your PC into a walking, fighting robot. Separate downloadable content in the form of add-on packs, Microsoft Flight-style, will allow you to train your PC robot to perform common household chores.
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