Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Windows 8 Consumer Preview 101

It’s finally here! Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you have heard the buzz around the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. If you haven’t had the opportunity to grab it and install it, I suggest you browser over to this link now and download your copy! There are many exciting new features, and this post will guide you through a few of them.

It is a Beta After All

There has been much buzz around whether or not the name “Consumer Preview” means it is not a beta and therefore the final release will be delayed. There is a lot of speculation around why the word “beta” is being avoided. Here is an article explaining some of these ideas. When you install the Consumer Preview – in fact, any time it loads or wakes up – you are presented with an image of, well, a Beta.


The Green Stack Isn’t Only Green

A common name for Metro-style applications you may hear is the “green stack.” This is named because the Developer Preview sported a green background. That’s no longer the case. You can now customize the color and design of the background for your Metro experience. I proudly present the Metro palette:


Where is the Start Button?

Twitter, Facebook, and blogs were going crazy over the rumors that the start button was going away. As a few people quickly pointed out, that isn’t really the case. True, there is no long a pervasive Start Button sitting on the corner of your task bar. But do you need it? First, most hardware and keyboards have a Start Button already – new tablets for Windows will feature this, so you can use the version on your device (this is similar to the way Windows Phone comes with hardware Back, Home, and Search buttons).

Even if you think resorting to the hardware is a cop-out, there is hope. Simply swipe your thumb in from the right edge of the screen or move your mouse pointer over to the right edge, and you will be greeted with … well … it’s a button, and I’m pretty sure it takes you to the screen you’re looking for.


Lots of New Tiles

One thing you’re sure to notice immediately is the number of new tiles. Microsoft has been working hard to add additional functionality to the Metro stack and it shows. Just take a look.


Does that look busy or what? This snapshot was from a new install because I didn’t want to share too much personal information, but once you log into the various tools, the tiles will begin to update. I’ll go into some more interesting features below. You can see that instead of Windows Live, you have applications integrated into the platform for things like Mail and Messaging. What else can you see?

  • XBox Live Games – along with all of the fun integration with your account and avatar
  • Bing Maps – yes, it will find your current location and give you driving directions
  • Calendar – once you link your accounts, the Calendar works very similar to the way the Windows Phone does and aggregates your calendars together with a live tile announcing upcoming events
  • XBox Live Companion – yes, you can link to your favorite console and control it from your tablet
  • Store – everyone has a store, right?

These are just some of the highlights. Let’s dive a layer deeper.


Mail is an integrated feature. I like having mail right there, but it feels a bit raw. I was not able to hook into my hosted Exchange (soon to be Office 365) account and once I closed and came back, lost the ability to add a new account. Still, it allows me to browse mails quickly and easily and demonstrates the potential of where the platform can go.


Music and Videos

Ah, now this one was fun! I wondered whether or not I would have to install Zune. When you first pop in, you get some encouraging sections like this:


What? No music? Do I have to go online and grab it? On a whim, I decided to copy over my Zune library from another laptop. This was just a straight file system copy, but guess what? It worked. Once I had the music moved over, it was instantly recognized and available to shuffle, play, and enjoy from my tablet. My tile turned into this:


Previewing just a cross-section of some of the albums I have digitized. As for videos, I have lots of DVDs. Anyone have a good, um, ripper they can recommend?


This is by far my favorite feature. Like mail, it has a lot of work left to be done. The interface is not great and in fact scanning updates is tedious. However, the potential is what excites me the most. I love this feature on my Windows Phone. Basically, add connections to social networks, mail, etc. and all of your contacts meld together into one place. You get tile notifications, seamless history between messages, emails, and phone calls, and updates and notifications all in one place. The potential exists here for the same integration, it just needs to mature more.

Below you can see some of the potential – the cut off portion has contact names and pictures (I don’t think they’d be happy if I shared them here, hence the crop).


Closing Applications

Oh, remember how everyone complained that app swapping was a pain because there was no easy way to close applications? Not any more. There is a new gesture to take care of this. With your finger you can simply swipe downward from the top of the tablet display. This will shrink the current application. From there you can release and have it snap back, or continue to swipe down off the bottom and this action will close the application. Using a mouse? No problem. Hover near the top of the application until the pointer turns into a little hand. Click to grab, then drag it down and toss it off the bottom of your screen to close it.


I think there is a huge step forward between the Developer Preview and the Consumer Preview. It seems Microsoft is working hard and listening to feedback. There is a lot of work to do, however.

Did you install the Consumer Preview? If so, what are your thoughts? Ping back with the comments below.

Friday, February 24, 2012

What are YOU Looking for in the Consumer Preview?

It seems there is quite a bit of anticipation surrounding the imminent release of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. I've read the speculation about what it will actually include, or not include, and if this release really means anything in the larger scheme of things.

The release will coincide with the Mobile World Congress. What I find interesting is that the same week, thousands of Microsoft MVP awardees will descend on Bellevue, Washington (close to the campus in Redmond) for the Global MVP Summit. I know as a Silverlight MVP I am very interested in what I will learn that week — unfortunately it is often NDA so I'm not always able to share. I'll be keeping a close eye on the MWC and the release of the Windows 8 preview.

If you are in Seattle next week, why not drop by our Wintellect tweetup? Use the link to register. I'll be there along with the debugging master John "Bugslayer" Robbins, CLR expert Jeffrey Richter, and fellow MVP Steve Porter. We'll be discusing several topics ranging from Windows 8 to the new look for Visual Studio 11.

My book Designing Silverlight Business Applications is very close to final release. You can pre-order for 42% off at Amazon as of the date of this blog post. I am working on my second book about Windows 8 Metro Applications and am learning more and more how the fundamental skills and concepts we learned for Silverlight apply in this new environment. As I read the buzz about the new version coming out, I wonder how many people are actually hands-on with the Developer Preview bits and what your expectations are for the Consumer Preview that is right around the corner. What are your thoughts? What do you think Microsoft needs to demonstrate with this release? What do you see as the major hurdles they will need to overcome in order to successfully gain a foothold in the consumer market? What is your general feedback from using the current version? Please use the comments below to share your thoughts as this important conversation gains momentum moving into next week.

Jeremy Likness

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Windows 8: The Facts about ARM, Metro, and the Blue Stack

Many eyes will be focused on Barcelona on February 29, 2012 when Microsoft releases the Windows 8 Consumer Preview or what many are calling the beta version of the new platform. You’ve probably heard quite a bit about the Metro interface. It has design roots in Zune, Windows Media Center, and Windows Phone. It presents content-rich tiles and is designed to focus on a touch-first experience. Metro provides a unique experience and involves a specific set of tools and technologies. When you read that Internet Explorer 10 doesn’t support plug-ins, you aren’t getting the full story because it’s really only the Metro version that has this restriction.

Of course, we’ve just learned about the experience for Windows 8 on ARM machines. Probably the most revealing quote for me was this one:

“WOA will not support any type of virtualization or emulation approach, and will not enable existing x86/64 applications to be ported or run.”

There’s quite a bit that can be read into that statement, so let’s break it down for a second. Here’s what I understand:

1. Regular Desktop Applications will NOT run on ARM Machines

I never imagined this would be the case because ARM is simply a different architecture. Fundamentally, the instructions used by the CPU at the lower level are different instructions than the ones on x86 and x64 machines. Microsoft bridged the gap between x86 and x64 somewhat by introducing an emulation layer called WOW64 (Windows on Windows 64-Bit) that enables 32-bit (x86) code to run in the x64 environment. I speculated that a possibility might be that Microsoft would create a similar engine for ARM but that is clearly not the case. So all of those programs compiled to x86 and x64 simply won’t work.

It is possible that some applications may make it over. Microsoft was clear, for example, that they will provide special versions of Microsoft Office 15. This appears to be part of the “blue stack” or desktop mode for ARM, which raises some interesting questions. If I were to try to draw the architecture of the Windows 8 stack based on the latest announcement, it would look something like this. Keep in mind this is a typical “stack” diagram that is not a true architecture and there are some obvious issues (for example, Win32 technically extends beneath the Metro stack but I’ve kept it out to keep it simple). Here’s what I am picturing:


Notice that the entire Metro stack sits on top of the full suite of processors, while there is a definite dividing line between the x86 and x64 sides versus the ARM side. So What does it mean? Here is the first thing I can infer:

2. The .NET Framework will not target ARM devices

Notice there is no CLR layer in the blue stack side for ARM. From what I read I don’t think this is the case because if the framework were available, Microsoft would explain that a whole suite of existing applications should run fine. Ironically, one of the early points about the .NET Framework was that it contained an abstraction layer with MSIL (Microsoft Intermediate Language) that should allow it to target different platforms, including ARM. It doesn’t appear this effort was made. However, this does raise a point of confusion that I look forward to learning more about and clarifying as more information becomes available. Take a look here:


I know that on x86/64 machines, the C# version of Metro applications actually runs on the CLR. It uses the .NET Framework. There is a “core profile” that limits a number of Base Class Libraries (BCL) but it uses this nonetheless. There are also projections of the WinRT API that expose themselves as CLR objects. Since the announcement from Microsoft certainly embraced the fact that ARM realizes the full Metro stack, the implication is that this CLR layer exists. So the question is: do they have a version of the framework available? Did they just provide a smaller stub/trimmed down version like Silverlight that just supports the Metro stack needs? Is there a different mechanism altogether on the ARM platform that is something new? I’m sure these questions will be answered but it does make me curious. If we agree that there is not a general framework version available and we also know that there is no emulation/virtual layer, then I can also safely guess that …

3. .There is No Silverlight on ARM Devices

This is actually not something I’m disappointed about. It makes sense. The Silverlight runtime might not make sense for a number of reasons including the overhead of building a version that targets ARM (this has been done to support Windows Phone 7, but it is a different version) and battery/memory management concerns. I still think writing applications that target the platform specifically makes sense. There is a reason why iPad devices are so popular. They are fluid, the applications are responsive, and they just work. While an x86/x64 tablet has the perfect architecture to host the full desktop experience, ARM is a different architecture specifically targeting the mobile space and should be optimized that way.

This is why I’m fairly sure (and agree with the decision that) the ARM version of Metro won’t run plug-ins. The plug-ins are hosted on Windows machines and are therefore compiled to x86/x64 machine code which is not compatible with ARM. It simply doesn’t make sense for Microsoft to invest in building, what, a special ARM plug-in just for Silverlight?

However, there is a desktop experience and there will be applications released for this mode. So what makes me very curious is this:


So this is just my educated guess but from the post it is obvious there are desktop experiences like Explorer and applications like Office 15 that will target ARM. So what is the platform for building these? Will Microsoft make this available for us to use, so we can do blue-stack development on ARM machines, or will it only host some exclusive products? Is the engine they are using a C++ based engine or do they have a full suite of language options available that can target this area of the platform? Again, right now I can only speculate but it will be interesting to learn.

At this point you might wonder why I’m so calm saying Silverlight on ARM is not a good choice when I just finished a book about Silverlight business applications. The answer is simple. Too many people assume that WinRT is the future for Microsoft and anything that isn’t supported by the Metro stack is going to become extinct. I disagree. In fact, I’ll say …

4. WinRT is NOT the Future for Microsoft

Don’t get me wrong. WinRT isn’t going away and is a major part of Microsoft’s future. I just meant it is not THE future for Microsoft. Contrary to speculation, Microsoft is not putting their eggs all in one basket and are not just focusing on Metro for Windows 8. I am still confident we’ll see traditional WPF and Silverlight development on existing Windows 7 machines and Windows 8 machines for the desktop side moving forward. Do you really think ALL complex user interfaces will go away? That certain people will stop doing CRUD data entry applications, or authors will suddenly be happy using the pen tool to write novels when they can type 15 times faster?

I doubt it.

There will still be a need for devices that run a powerful OS capable of building software and allowing us to use big Excel spreadsheets as well as pop open Word to write a document or PowerPoint to prepare a presentation. I don’t think that blue stack is going away any time soon. I also believe if you do find yourself doing Metro development, you’ll be using many of the same skills you are familiar with in Silverlight.

Don’t take my word for the fact that Windows 8 is not just about Metro. Let’s take a quick look at the evidence for the tale of two stacks.There has been plenty of talk about the jarring experience of falling back to the desktop mode. This mode is backwards compatible for applications that are written for previous versions of Windows and I’ve confirmed this by installing applications like Microsoft Office, Amazon Kindle, and several Silverlight-based touch applications including ones I’ve previously helped write. As my current book Designing Silverlight Business Applications goes into print, it’s comforting this paradigm is still fully supported on the new platform. So what is the evidence that the desktop mode is not just a mere fallback to Windows 7 that hides behind the Metro stack?

Here are a few announcements from Microsoft and changes with the desktop mode for x86/x64 targets that really stand out:

Fast Boot and Reduced Memory Footprint

Windows 8 boots fast. It’s not an illusion either. On an SSD machine you can shut down, press power for a cold boot and be working in your next application within seconds. This is a huge benefit – how many times have you actually delayed firing up your laptop because you dreaded the long boot time? That completely goes away with the new boot.Read about delivering fast boot times in Windows 8. Learn more about how these features also reduce the memory footprint.

Graphical UEFI Boot

The boot is not only faster. The boot supports the UEFI standard and is graphical. Remember those old text-based menus we used to have to navigate when dual-booting? Those are a thing of the past. Not only do you get a nice graphical boot interface, you also benefit from features like touch support so you can use your tablet to navigate the boot options. You can see screenshots of the experience and learn more about it in this link. This is not just an illusion, it works and it works with your Windows 7 applications.

Windows 8 on a Stick

This is a phenomenal feature that I haven’t seen covered much. It refers to the capability to install your Windows instance on a thumb drive so it can travel with you from work to home. This special version of the OS is capable of recognizing the device/hardware configuration and hosting the instance based on the environment you boot to. Imagine being able to install your favorite applications and configurations, then be able to take them and use them on your work desktop as easily as your personal laptop. You can learn more about this feature here.

New Explorer Experience and Features

The Windows Explorer experience has been completely revamped.While remaining familiar to users of the legacy version, it provides more functionality through the expanded ribbon interface. When you manipulate files from within Explorer, you will immediately experience the improved file management basics. Operations such as mounting VHD drives or ISO images have been completely integrated out of the box.The new concept of Storage Spaces allows you to organize pools of storage and virtual disks that behave like physical disks. Disk support has been extended to allow for larger disks with large sectors. This is a completely new file system experience that remains compatible with the legacy features you are familiar with.

Enhanced Task Manager

Microsoft took a new look at the task manager and completely refreshed its capabilities.This is substantial because it wasn’t just extended to support the new Metro platform. It now has a simple view for killing applications that does it quickly and efficiently. The grid was enhanced to help diagnose performance issues by providing heat maps and lighting up resource usage. It also groups like processes together.

There are actually many other features that address the non-Metro space for Windows 8 but I’ve gone on far enough in this post. I’m again very excited about Windows 8 on ARM and commend Microsoft for taking a non-compromise approach to making it the best experience possible. Although WinRT and the Metro platform is definitely the future for mobile and touch-based devices with Windows 8, I encourage you to keep pace with the desktop-based enhancements and remember there is an entirely different stack available for line of business applications that might not make sense in the Metro paradigm.

As a developer with XAML and C# skills you are well positioned to navigate both stacks as you build applications and have the freedom to choose what makes the most sense for your end user. Of course, I’m not assuming those are the only languages my readers know – and now there is a first class space for C++ development as well. No, I didn’t forget our HTML5 and JavaScript developers, but to be honest, that is the one block in the stack that I’ve spent the least amount of time in. I’m currently writing my next book on “Building Windows 8 Metro Applications with XAML and C#”. I believe there will be a huge benefit for existing Silverlight developers to work in both worlds. Look for more details from Addison-Wesley soon on that new title.

What are your thoughts about the recent announcements? Are you going to try to be first in line to download the next version when it becomes available?