Microsoft Makes Bold Move With Windows 8 Beta Introduction

 
 

 

After months of teasers that Windows 8, Microsoft’s new operating system, would be better than the developer version released last May, Microsoft delivered the goods on Wednesday {2/29/12]: not in Redmond but nearly halfway across the world, in Barcelona, where the company essentially poached the global crowd attending the annual World Mobile Congress to see its latest software.

It was as silky a move as Ichiro stealing second base.  Not only did the crowd attending the show visit the Nokia booth and see the introduction of several new Windows Phones—Nokia being the smartphone manufacturer most invested in the eponymously named mobile phone operating system (OS)—but people could tromp over to a nearby hotel and see Microsoft’s compleat (cq) vision of how all its product pieces fit together in a comprehensive manner that even Apple might envy.  Yes—Apple. 

The reception was loud and mostly positive in the press.  The New York Times’ David Pogue was “excited.”  CNN posed a Wired piece that calls it “actually innovative, and even cool.” 

Mashable’s Peter Pachal was complimentary, but raised a yellow flag [ http://mashable.com/2012/02/29/windows-8-consumer-preview-review/  ] :  “ I’m starting to wonder if the approach of one OS for all devices — desktop, laptop, tablet, touch screen and non — is fundamentally flawed.”  

TheNextWeb website reported that a consumer preview of Windows 8 was downloaded a million times in its first 24 hours.  Here’s a link [ http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-8/download ] if you care to join the early adapters.

We’ll get to Windows 8 itself in a moment, but it’s necessary to understand first what Microsoft is doing to distinguish itself visually and functionally from all competitors.

Its first step has been to pull off a neat trick: shaking up the look and feel of its major products—the Windows OS, Windows Phones and Xbox, as well as software applications—and giving all of them a uniform graphic language dubbed “Metro.”  If you grok (!) the Metro sensibility, you’ll be experiencing the same look and feel whether you’re using a Windows Phone, the Xbox gaming console or the new Windows 8—even though actual functions may be different.  No doubt that when the next iteration of Microsoft Offices comes out, it will reflect a Metro sensibility.

Metro, which owes much to Swiss-influenced print and packaging and transportation hub graphics, started as the new interface of Windows Phones and migrated to becoming the new face of Microsoft.  It has a spare look—a series of multicolored tiles on a one-color background—but the rectangular or square tiles can be portals to other services. The tiles let you see real-time data from applications like email, social media, and instant messaging.  Have 15 emails? Your mail tile with its little envelope symbol shows a number 15.

One tile, for instance can be for “people” and bring together all your social networks.  Another might be “store” which lets you shop for apps, music, movies, games, etc.  A tile can also represent an individual application: Windows Explorer, Evernote and Skype for example.

Each device handles the tiles in different ways: phones and Windows 8 allow tiles to be moved, pasted or sent back to the device’s app library; Xbox looks the same but the content and order are fixed.

While Windows 8 itself is built on Metro, Windows 7 sits right behind it. If you want to use any non-Metro application, an easily accessible menu takes you from Metro to a standard Windows 7 desktop.  Your application comes up looking and operating normally.

Microsoft sees Metro as a way to simplify and speed up the process of helping you do your computing faster and easier, a more seamless approach than anything Microsoft or its competitors have done before.

There’s another less visible side of Windows 8: its ability to mesh seamlessly with the touch capabilities of Windows tablets, once they actually come to market.  As noted by analyst Anurag Agrawal, CEO of Techaisle in Business Week, Windows 8’s primary purpose is to “extend [Windows] capabilities to the ARM child and various movie devices,” not necessarily to change its status in the PC market. 

Given, however, that Microsoft’s hegemony in the business world is being heavily challenged by Apple computers and tablets—a Forrester Research reports indicates that Apple could have a 20 percent share of the business computer hardware market in the next few years—Windows 8 is a key to further staving off iPad encroachment in the enterprise.

Much has been made of Microsoft’s failure to produce a satisfying porting of Windows to ARM chips, which some speculated may have led to Microsoft’s delay in producing a tablet competitive to the iPad and new Android-based systems.

At the Barcelona unveiling of Windows 8, however, Intel may have made the controversy moot.  A tablet running Clover Trail, a new Intel ATOM-based processor, was one of four devices used to demo Windows 8 on tablets.  The other three were ARM-based units from NVISIA, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. 

A writer from the Anandtech website who attended the demo noted, “Of the four supported mobile . . . platforms, only Intel's Clover Trail will offer a full Windows [d]esktop experience as it can run all existing [Intel] applications. The ARM based devices will have a limited Windows [d]esktop experience, although both . . . will support Metro.”

Does the Intel processor mark the end of the ARM tablet dilemma? Stay tuned.

A few warnings if you test-drive Windows 8:  Be sure to pay attention to the compatibility check of your software and accessories that precedes actual installation.

Second, Windows 8 IS different.  It’s intuitive, easy to understand and fun to experiment with, but be prepared to spend some time getting into it.  Or grokking it, as it were.

Remote Control Arrives

Remote Control Arrives

The smart home of 'The Jetsons' still isn’t ubiquitous, but the door is opening wider (after being unlocked by a smartphone from miles away).
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
When Bill Gates visited the Seattle World’s Fair as a 6-year-old in 1962, he claims to have visited every pavilion. At the General Electric Living pavilion, he would have seen a vision of a digitized residence, with home computers, electronic libraries and television programming projected on the interior walls.
 
Fifty-four years later, most of us are still awaiting the arrival of the “smart home” — a place where audio, video, lighting, temperature, window coverings and other features can be centrally controlled or, even better, remotely controlled through a portable device.  There are signs, however, that the smart home market may finally take off, driven by the ubiquity of enabling technologies like Wi-Fi, voice recognition and smartphones. 
 
According to the Consumer Technology Association, smart home technologies are in place in only 6.4 percent of homes nationwide today but are expected to reach 15.5 percent by 2021. Revenue from smart home technologies is expected to grow by more than 25 percent each year, reaching more than $32 billion in 2021.
 
IoT Analytics, a market analysis firm, identifies four primary drivers behind the growing smart- home market.
 
• Energy savings: more efficient use of lighting, heating and cooling through scheduling and sensing the presence of occupants.
• Convenience: centralized control of disparate services.
• Safety and security: Smart door locks, integrated video and motion detectors.
• Social status: Increasing adoption of the latest technologies by Generation Y as they purchase homes.  
 
Silicon Valley is the acknowledged hotbed for smart home device development, but the Seattle region is quickly positioning itself as a leader in smart home technologies, especially for the development of operating systems that control the devices.  
 
Microsoft and Amazon are clearly intent on becoming leaders in the sector.
 
Amazon has been integrating its voice-controlled Echo and Echo Dot devices with a growing array of smart home products to control lighting, thermostats and other home systems. In September, South Korea’s LG Electronics announced that it was partnering with Amazon to integrate its SmartThinQ hub, a device used to connect home appliances over the internet, to work with Echo. Ford Motor Co. said in early October that Echo will be integrated into three of its models — the Focus Electric, Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi — by the end of the year, allowing owners to do such things as adjust the heat in their homes from their cars.  
 
Microsoft is reportedly positioning Windows 10 and Cortana, its voice-activated digital assistant, to be a controller of smart home devices. At a developer’s conference last April, the company announced that it would release protocols in 2017 to allow Windows 10 to work with a wide range of devices and applications allowing users to automate tasks using a PC, a mobile device or an Xbox console. According to the announcement, users will be able to control lights, air conditioning and door locks.  
 
Other companies see opportunities here, too. The Los Angeles-based computer peripherals company Belkin recently moved its R&D office to Seattle, specifically to develop smart home technologies. Belkin’s move, not coincidentally, took place after the company bought Seattle-based Zensi in 2010. Zensi, which was founded by University of Washington Professor Shwetak Patel, focused on energy and water monitoring in the home. At the same time, Patel become Belkin’s chief scientist.
 
“We moved all of R&D to Seattle so it is convenient to the University of Washington,” says Patel, pointing out that the resources of the university and tech companies such as Microsoft and Amazon give the region a huge pool of talent for developing hardware, software and machine learning. “It’s just a better fit.”
 
Derek Richardson, cofounder and CEO of Deako, a Seattle-based manufacturer of smart lighting systems, also established his company in Seattle to gain access to that talent pool. “It’s a tech city,” he says, adding that the mountains and beautiful lakes are a draw, too. “The venture community is growing here, and there are so many successful companies — Amazon, Starbucks, Boeing, and the list goes on and on. It’s a great way to attract talent.”
 
Still, for all the media coverage of smart home technologies during the past half century, the pace of actually integrating those technologies into homes has been slower than some expected. For one thing, while the early generations of smart home technologies were fine for tech-savvy early adopters, they were not user-friendly enough for the average consumer. “How do you get the technology to the average person’s home, and how do you reduce the installation barrier?” asks Patel. “That is one of the big challenges the industry is facing right now.” 
 
Aaron Crandall, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Washington State University, says that for all the advances in technology, expectations have always outpaced reality. About a year and half ago, Crandall and a student licensed technology they had developed for a “smart home in a box” — a system of sensors that detect movement, temperature, doors opening and closing — designed to help caregivers for the elderly, and launched a company to develop and market it.  “We did about a year of pushing the boulder up the hill trying to get it funded,” says Crandall. “It didn’t come together in the soup that needs to make a startup go.”
 
Crandall says the market was not yet ripe for the technology. “The technologies are still there.  It will happen,” he says. “It’s just a question of who is going to make it happen.”
 
Aaron Crandall, associate professor of electircal engineering and computer science at Washington State University, holds a small computer WSU researchers use as the "local brains" in their smart homes. The device collects sensor data and sends the information to WSU's main database for full processing later. Crandall and his team see a future in such devices for the elderly and their caregivers.
 
The market is being primed by specialized businesses taking on the tough and often costly job of integrating technologies to easily control lights, alarms and doorbells. Consumers and builders looking to integrate smart home technologies are turning to specialized system integrators.
 
Digital Home Northwest was launched by Jeffrey Thoren and his wife, Heather, in 2006 after they went through the experience of retrofitting their new home with smart lighting. “We honed a technique after doing a couple of remodels on our own house,” he says. 
 
Most of Digital Home Northwest’s work is retrofitting existing buildings. The consensus among builders has been that they don’t want to spend the money wiring houses for smart devices without knowing if the buyer will want them. But Thoren is trying to push builders to add wires that will later make it easier to install smart home systems. 
 
“If you’re going to build something for a client in a high-tech city, you should be thinking about pre-wiring,” he says. “Adding a couple thousand dollars of wiring and just leaving it in the walls so it can be used really makes sense.”
 
While Wi-Fi capability has become standard in the home, video cameras and motion detectors for security can easily eat up the bandwidth available.
“It’s a bucket,” Thoren says of the basic wireless router, “and the more devices that drink out of the bucket, the less water you have.”
 
Craig Abplanalp, president of Definitive Audio in Bellevue, says he sees increasing demand for smart home technologies. His company has broadened its expertise from audio and video to include systems for controlling operations such as lighting, motorized window coverings, air conditioning and heating. Abplanalp says the company’s work is split between new construction and retrofits.
 
“Right now, there is a lot of new construction,” he observes, “but Seattle is somewhat landlocked [in terms of available land for new construction], so there is also a lot of retrofitting. A lot of the residential work is in a home that in many cases is being torn down to the studs. It’s really a rebuild.”
 
Abplanalp senses a big shift from the early days of the movement toward smart homes.
 
“All of the pioneers in new technology use their early adopters as beta testers,” he says. “A lot of the products were really not ready for mass consumption.”
 
He says that dynamic is changing. Where Definitive Audio’s specialists used to have to do a lot of custom programming to get systems to play nicely together, there are now free vendor apps that handle the tasks. “What the average person will pay for programming is an ever-declining amount,” Abplanalp asserts.
 
Digital Home Northwest's system for a connected home incorporates smartphone linkage (1) to a door station keypad (2), a 10-inch touch screen (3) controlling audio, video, climate and security camera (4). The screen also monitors musical entertainment (5).
 
Industry insiders say that two emerging trends — standardization and modular design — are going to push smart home technologies to adoption by broader markets.  
 
Deako, for example, designed its lighting system to work on standard house wiring, with communications between switches and the user control — a smartphone — taking place via Bluetooth. “Our technology can work in any home as long as it has modern wiring,” says Richardson.  
 
What’s more, the Deako switches are modular, with all the “smartness” contained in the switch. A builder can install either dumb switches or smart switches in the Deako receptacle. This allows the builder, with minimal investment, to give the homebuyer the choice of upgrading to smart lighting.
Just as important, says Patel, is the move toward standardization, which makes it easier for consumers to get devices to work with each other. “There are so many systems out there now and it’s hard to know which one to start with, and they don’t all interoperate,” says Patel. “Consumers are overwhelmed.”
 
Patel expects “a lot more cooperation among companies in the industry to make their stuff more compatible.” He points to a recent collaboration between Amazon and Sonos, a maker of high-end wireless speakers, as an example.
 
Patel says that one more thing is needed: “a killer user experience.” He says devices that let parents know when their kids get home or that remotely lock and unlock doors are the kinds of emerging technologies that will open broader consumer markets.
 
“You have to get people hooked and get them thinking about what the real convenience factor is,” Patel asserts. “I think we’re just getting to that point.” 
 
Heather and Jeff Thoren own Digital Home Northwest in Federal Way.
 
Crandall believes one killer application may already have been created. It’s just that consumers aren’t quite ready for it. Internet-connected smart home sensors and smartphone apps are ideal, he says, for monitoring the health of elderly people and helping them stay in their homes longer, rather than having to move into assisted living or nursing facilities.
 
“But those people who are 70-plus right now own almost no smartphones,” Crandall says, adding that they also often don’t have internet connections in their homes.
 
The demographics, however, are changing. “The largest age group in the United States by about 2030 will be 65-plus,” Crandall says. “We do not have the nurses and physicians to do classic senior care, so we need tools to keep people in their homes longer.”
 
Since the next generation of seniors is more familiar with smartphones, Crandall expects smart home technology, especially as applied to elder care, to finally come into its own.