With all the excitement over Windows 8 last week, one major new feature was almost overlooked.
That would be the arrival of an online sign-in system.
When you first start using a Windows 8 PC — which much of the world likely will do within a few years — you’ll be prompted to sign in with a Microsoft online account, linking your PC to the company’s data centers. By doing so, you’ll be among hundreds of millions of people feeding data to Microsoft’s online business group, which may finally give the scale to seriously compete with Google’s search and advertising business.
You won’t have to sign in this way, and you’ll still be able to operate the PC as you do today.
But if you decline the digital handshake, Windows 8 won’t do some of its cooler tricks, such as the ability to sign in to any Windows 8 computer and have it display and run your settings and applications.
You’ll also miss out on new “Metro” style applications designed for its new tiled interface and file-sharing capabilities.
Microsoft really is boldly re-imagining Windows, and not just for mobile devices that will challenge the iPad.
The company also is pushing Windows — the software that powers most of the world’s personal computers — to become a connected service and portal to applications running through its global network.
I’m not revealing a secret. Microsoft Server and Tools President, Satya Nadella, spelled it out Wednesday in a quote that topped that day’s news release.
“In today’s world of connected devices and continuous services, we are focused on helping developers build the next generation of client applications that are tethered to a back-end cloud,” he said.
This may be a little disconcerting, if you like to think your PC is still personal and your computing is somewhat private.
But a Microsoft manager I talked with said logging in to online services makes Windows 8 more personal because that personalizes the system.
Pulling in your online connections also populates applications and communications features with your friends, family and other contacts.
Microsoft really is just catching up in this regard. It’s also offering more privacy choices than you get with today’s leading devices.
You can’t use Apple’s iPad or Google’s Chrome computers without signing in to an account and linking the devices to those companies’ networks.
Nor do you have much choice about signing in with smartphones. If you want them to be smart, you must create an account with one of the online giants. And they all use information about you to deliver advertising at some point.
Then, there’s the Kindle and upcoming Android tablets from Amazon.com, the grand master of targeted marketing. You can’t use its hardware at all without agreeing to let the company analyze usage, so it can continually tune its merchandising.
People sometimes get upset when they discover they’re being profiled this way.
But almost everyone automatically clicks “agree” when their gadgets and apps ask if they mind sharing digital footprints. Sometimes that’s the only choice to get what you expect from your expensive device.
Few really seem to care anymore that they’re trading personal information for free services such as Web search, email and photo sharing.
It’s more convenient to stay logged in all the time. Consumer websites just seem to work better that way, and you get to do tricks like click to share things through Facebook or see which friends are online and ready to chat.
Windows 8 lights up in all sorts of ways when you sign into Microsoft services.
Thankfully for Luddites and the anti-social, it also works fine if you don’t.
I tried the untethered approach on a Samsung Windows 8 demo tablet, setting it up without signing in to an online account.
I also changed the privacy settings, declining to “allow apps to use my location” and “allow apps to use my name and account picture.”
The desktop still had the new Metro style and most of the app tiles on the home screen worked fine, including the browser and widgets for displaying the weather, stocks and news feeds.
This test proved the system will work for anti-social networkers and others who prefer to use a computer that’s not tethered to Microsoft’s online network. But your homescreen won’t flash images of your Facebook friends and other linked services.
Going this route also hobbles the breezy, simple tool for sharing files, a marquee feature of a system designed for the era of social networking. “Share” is one of the five primary control buttons on its new vertical control panel.
But I’m not sure everyone’s ready for this much sharing.
Given the trend toward devices that are bound to commerce systems, it’s refreshing Microsoft’s giving you a choice. This makes a great-looking operating system even more appealing.
So let’s hope by the time Windows 8 computers go on sale next year, and the wave of Metro applications appear, people still feel like it’s a reasonable option to stay untethered.
Here’s the desktop running untethered, after declining to sign-in and turning the “share” features off:
Here’s the desktop running tethered – signed into Windows Live and sharing enabled. It has minimal personalization at this point, mostly just Twitter and Facebook feeds: