While Microsoft (news, site) tries to get industry converted to the most recent Windows and Office releases, it is steadily beavering away on their revolutionary sucessors. But will there be much a market for them to play in?

Facing an Uncertain Future

A pragmatic view of tech life is that a high percentage of enterprise 2.0 (and 1.0) PC users will still be using their computers, in the same ways they always have, in the next four or five years. So, Microsoft need not worry too much about the value of its stock.

However, having recovered from the Vista debacle and competing firmly with the new Office 2010 and Office 365 beta products, the company still needs something big from its next OS and app iterations. First, it needs to make a noise in a world seemingly obsessed with trendy gadgets and tablets. Second, the market is moving with instant-on, always-ready systems, less desktop and more cloud-based files. Finally, it needs to head off threats from Chrome OS and other emerging competitors.

So, while Microsoft is keeping very tight-lipped about Windows 8 (recently seen in internal milestone 3, provisionally due for release in 2012) and the next Office (going so far as to centralize all running versions and using identifiable markers onscreen to discourage leakers), users are getting rather interested in what's to come. While much of the available information is speculation and rumor, there are some interesting snippets emerging from leaked code bases and screenshots.

What's Out There

Given that Internet Explorer 9 has just launched, it is rather a surprise to hear that Windows 8 may well ship with IE10, a new touch-based browser. But there is some logic here. Not only will this help Microsoft unify its presence across desktop and tablets, but the browser war is back up to full strength and Microsoft can't be seen to be lagging behind again.

Highlighting the cloud-friendly nature of the OS is one story we've heard of users having cloud-based profiles and storage by default. This way, enterprise users could log onto any machine in their company and have access to their email, files and data without needing to lug around a laptop. Leaked screenshots show the user's profile pic in the system tray.

Other visual system improvements include progress meters for activity on the task bar, new themes and other features that would help the OS run better on tablet devices. Talking of which, a leaked Dell document shows a Windows 8 tablet launching in early 2012, which could signal the start of Microsoft's assault on that market.

Will these products be able to make a dent in Apple's estimated 30+ million iPads sold by then, or the 5 to 10 million Android tablets? With Windows 8 known to support ARM processors, it will be in better shape to be price-competitive, but in a world where iPad 3s will be launching, will that be enough?

Office Overload

Office apps can offer users little more than they already do, yet companies have to churn out new versions. So, what could Future Office bring to the party? Some leaked screenshots show large font-size words on the screen in place of icons, to make navigation easier and more like the Windows Phone 7 apps.

Outlook appears to be getting a major overhaul to look more like web mail systems and collaboration and productivity have to be high on the agenda. While it's early days for both the next OS and Office, Microsoft is clearly looking at a multi-pronged future that lets it play on phone, tablet and desktop in a more even manner.

The big changes will only be revealed closer to launch, but all the current changes show Microsoft positioning its most valuable products to play in a more flexible manner in the not too distant future.