The Windows 8 Release Preview was made available on Thursday, and the scramble is on to see how much has changed from previous Consumer and Developer Previews. The short answer -- some tweaks and enhancements, but no major changes.
The Release Preview can be expected to be nearly complete in terms of most features, pending final bug-checking, polishing and testing.
'Do Not Track' By Default
One of the new enhancements, a clear contrast to Apple's iOS, is that Adobe Flash will be part of the Internet Explorer 10 browser, in both the traditional desktop and Metro interfaces that characterize Windows 8. IE10 also becomes the first browser to have "Do Not Track" enabled by default.
The new Release Preview has upgraded its multi-monitor support, including the ability for backgrounds to be displayed across two or more screens, and the Start menu can show up on any of the screens. Mail, Calendar, Photos, and People apps have been updated, and new Bing-powered Travel, News, and Sports apps have been released.
The desktop interface is now looking more like its touchscreen Metro sibling, featuring a blockier style, but Microsoft has indicated that the look and feel for the desktop is still a work in progress.
The Start screen features more personalization options, and there are new Family Safety features. The Release Preview also uses memory more efficiently than previous versions, and now has built-in integration with Microsoft's SkyDrive online storage .
Windows 8 Factors
The emphasis on the touchscreen interface, given that most current Windows computers are not touch-sensitive, has led to criticism of Microsoft's approach. But the company is beginning to answer its critics on many fronts.
For instance, last month on the company's Building Windows 8 blog, Director of Program Management Jensen Harris posted a long description of the evolution of Windows and of the choices that led to Windows 8's dual-headed interface.
He said that the design choices for 8 were influenced by such factors as the rise of mobile PCs over desktop PCs, a decision to use tiles with live data updates in order to personalize the user experience, and the desire to create an environment "exclusively or primarily suited for touch input" because of the multitude of form factors available to the average user.
Harris wrote that Windows 8 was designed for any computing device a user wanted --
"whether you want a laptop with a permanent keyboard, a tablet with a keyboard you can attach (wired or wireless ), or something in the middle." He noted that "touch works across all of these form factors, and you choose which input method to use when."
We asked Al Hilwa, program director for Application Development at IDC, what caught his attention in the new Release Preview. He pointed in particular to the inclusion of Flash in IE 10, which, he noted, "is really intended to create a distinction with Apple," and he called the default setting of Do Not Track in the browser "a huge move."