The technological world is split into two separate but inexorably-linked worlds: hardware and software. In fact, almost everything in life has a hard, physical manifestation, and a soft, less-tangible control system counterpart. Cars, and on-board controllers. Computers, and operating systems. Human physiology, and brains. The fact is, hardware without software is meaningless, and likewise, a piece of hardware — a tool, a device, a weapon — is only as powerful as the software that controls it.
One day, computers will be so small that you’ll be be stitched into your clothing, or perhaps wired straight into your brainstem. If you’re on the move, you’ll use some kind of head-up display that’s projected onto your eyeballs (or a direct input into your visual cortex), and when you’re in the office you might jack into a large display. This is all hardware, and without the necessary software this sci-fi future will never come to pass.
Fortunately, the software already exists, and better yet: almost every computer user and web surfer already uses it. I am talking about single sign-on; a single name and password that logs you into multiple services. Facebook Connect, Windows Live ID, and even Mozilla’s upcoming Browser ID are prime examples of single sign-on.
You see, assuming (hoping?) the future Earth is not run by a single Facebook or Google megacorporation, we will need to regularly jump between a plethora of applications and systems. If you use more than one computer on a daily basis — a PC, a smartphone, and a tablet, for example — you will know what a jarring experience this currently is: not only do you have to remember your passwords (which can be hard if they’re burned into muscle memory) but you have to type it on a touchscreen keyboard… while someone on the train looks over your shoulder. Some services can alleviate the pain of moving between devices — iCloud sync and Firefox’s tab and bookmark syncing between PC and Android/iOS, for instance — but for the most part, every computer you own and every app you use is a disparate, discrete, and independent entity.
This isn’t because of the hardware; it’s because the current crop of software operating systems and applications were designed before the concept and overarching potential of cloud computing really gripped society. For the last few years, we have been strapping cloud-backed functionality to operating systems via a series of patches. Dropbox, SkyDrive, iCloud; they’re all great, but they’re just stopgap solutions. What we really need is an operating system based on and underpinned by a single sign-on system, and an application programming interface (API) that enables all of your apps to use the same single sign-on.
Single sign-on, single sign-on, single sign-on!
Enter Windows 8, which will let you use your Windows Live ID to log into the system. You can use the same Windows Live ID to log into a Windows 8 laptop, desktop, tablet, or any number of embedded, internet-connected devices that end up running Windows 8. As soon as you log into Windows 8 with your Live ID, the operating system has access to all of your Sky Drive data, all of your settings and preferences, and any accounts you’ve already linked to your Live ID (Hotmail, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and so on). This means if you’re logged onto Facebook on your desktop, you’ll automatically logged in when you pick up your tablet and head to work.
Furthermore, Windows 8 and Live ID will also save the state of your currently-running Metro apps. In other words, when you look up a movie on IMDb, that application — Internet Explorer — will store its current state in the Microsoft cloud. Then, when you log into another Windows 8 machine — any internet-connected Windows 8 computer — IMDb will pop up with the exact same page that you were looking at. The same will happen with movies, music, and even games, as long as the apps use the new, Metro-style interface.
Before you know it, you really will be logging into a public terminal in a coffee shop or airport with just a single name and password; Windows and the cloud will do the rest. The terminal, thanks to Windows 8 Refresh/Reset will be completely secure, too. With such a single sign-on system in place, we wouldn’t even have to go down the wearable computer path; we’d just have to make sure that the internet backbone and residential/corporatate connections are ready for the onslaught. Realistically, though, a small computer (like a smartphone) with flash storage is going to be faster than a network connection — and it’s also a good idea to give people the option of keeping data securely and privately on a local device, rather than in the Federally-mandated cloud.
Whether Microsoft intentionally designed its next-gen OS to be quite so futuristic is anyone’s guess — and there are certainly a few potholes to fill in before Windows 8′s release at the end of 2012 — but when compared to the latest iterations of OS X, iOS, or Android, I can’t help but smile at what the next few years might hold. No other OS comes close to the developer, enterprise, and vendor support that Microsoft has; Android only runs on mobile devices; and Apple simply doesn’t have the user base (or price point) to pull off something as omnipresent and ubiquitous as this. Windows 8 is shaping up to be a first-class tablet OS, will have thousands of apps when it launches, and it will retain the Desktop experience and its 20-odd years of backwards, legacy app compatibility. Intentional or not, Windows 8 is a stroke of perfectly-timed genius.