What's next for Microsoft Windows? With Windows 7 now 19 months old, plenty of people are curious about its successor, a product that everybody's calling Windows 8, even though it hasn't been officially named yet. At the moment, all we know for sure is that we hardly know anything at all.
Last month, for instance, the tech blogosphere was aflutter over leaked screenshots of a Windows 8 app store that looked very much like Apple's Mac App Store. Interesting stuff except that the shots turned out to be fakes. Then an executive from chip giant Intel spoke about some of Windows 8's technical aspects at the company's investor meeting only to have Microsoft respond with a statement calling her comments "factually inaccurate and unfortunately misleading."
Even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer seems slightly befuddled. At a developer event in Tokyo this week, he talked up Windows 8, saying it would arrive on a variety of cool PCs, tablets and other devices next year. And then a Microsoft spokesperson said that Ballmer apparently misspoke.
The fog may start to lift next week. That's when Windows honcho Steven Sinofsky is scheduled to take the stage at the Wall Street Journal's swanky D conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Judging by prior behavior from Microsoft execs at conferences, it's reasonable to assume that he'll provide a peek at Windows 8 nothing all-encompassing, but enough to whet the world's appetite for an operating system that's likely to reach PCs in the second half of 2012.
If Sinofsky does show off Windows 8 at D, this may be my last chance to talk about the upgrade in a state of wishful ignorance. Which is kind of fun: I don't know much about where Microsoft thinks Windows should go next, but I happen to be an expert on what I'd like to see. Such as ...
Speed, speed, speed. Oh, and more speed. Google shook up the Web-browser business in 2008 by introducing Chrome, a browser with one defining feature: it was exceptionally zippy. People loved it, and its instant success prompted other browsermakers (including Microsoft) to soup up their software. The legendary misfire known as Windows Vista proved that when a new version of Windows is too sluggish, folks will avoid it in droves. Windows 7 undid the damage, but I'm nervous that Windows 8 could backslide into bloat. And I'd cheerfully trade nearly any new feature Microsoft could come up with for, say, a 50% boost in raw performance.
Pervasive Webbiness. Windows 8 will presumably come bundled either with Internet Explorer 9 easily Microsoft's nicest browser in years or Internet Explorer 10. That's good. But the new era of computing calls for an operating system that blurs the line between software and services in a way you can't accomplish by cramming the entire Internet into a browser. I want to be able to work in Web apps like Gmail and Zoho and Aviary without having to think about the fact that they live on distant servers rather than on my PC. I'd also like all the photos, documents and other files I have salted away around the Web to be as readily accessible as the contents of my hard disk. You can accomplish some of this with IE 9's "pinning" feature and third-party services like SugarSync, but Windows 8 could take the idea way further.
Signs it's been designed for modern PCs. More and more laptops are doing without a DVD burner. Some are also ditching the hard drive in favor of speedy-but-skimpy solid-state disks. Windows 7 comes on a DVD and assumes the presence of vast amounts of storage; I vote for Windows 8 being available in a version that comes on a USB drive and gobbles up as few gigabytes as possible.
Much better backup. Every Mac benefits immensely from Time Machine, Apple's brain-dead-simple backup program. I assumed that Windows 7 would include a Time Machine clone, but it doesn't its data-protection features are still pretty nerdy, and some of them aren't available in all versions of the OS. That gives Windows 8 the opportunity to not only catch up with Time Machine but also surpass it. How about a built-in feature that painlessly backs up everything to my PC's hard disk, a drive elsewhere on my home network or an Internet service along the lines of Mozy or, for safety's sake, to all of the above, all at once?
No pretense that you can rejigger a desktop OS into an iPad alternative. Assuming that Ballmer's "misstatement" this week consisted of speaking the truth a little ahead of schedule, Windows 8 will be designed to run on tablets as well as traditional desktop PCs and notebooks. But I hope that this doesn't simply consist of slapping a few touch-oriented features on top of a user interface that cries out for a physical QWERTY keyboard and mouse. Microsoft spent years trying to make that idea work with Tablet PCs and failed big time.
Microsoft has a history of pitching new versions of Windows as epochal breakthroughs: the 2007 press release announcing the hapless Vista quoted Bill Gates as saying it would "transform the way people work and play" and had Ballmer calling it "amazing" and "spectacular." Really, though, I don't want my life transformed by an amazing operating system. I want operating systems to mostly stay out of my face. Windows 7 is one of the more pleasing Windows editions to date in large part because it's surprisingly low-key and well behaved for a Microsoft product. And if the bottom line on Windows 8 turns out to be that it's like Windows 7 only more so, it could be an upgrade worth getting excited over.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.