Big colorful tiles instead of tiny icons. Functions controllable by touch and gestures. Applications that are better designed and better looking than you’ve ever seen before.
If Windows has a future, this is it.
Windows 8, the next version of the world’s most widely used operating system, is probably still a year from release. But Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has begun to bang the drum for it, unveiling it to developers and the media at a conference last week in Southern California.
I’ve been exploring the preview version for a week or so, and am both impressed and intrigued. It may change significantly on its way to your office, home or briefcase, but even at this stage, it is the most radical overhaul of Windows ever.
Microsoft had little choice. The future belongs to mobile devices: Sales of smartphones and tablets -- most of them running software from Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Google Inc. (GOOG) -- are projected to surpass traditional personal computers this year for the first time. Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to lean heavily on the Windows and Office franchises for the bulk of its profits and can’t afford to sit back and watch them wither away.
Two in One
Moreover, even if the PC market is no longer the engine of growth it once was, a huge number of people work on PCs and will continue to for years. So Microsoft is attempting something extraordinarily ambitious: combining a state-of-the-art operating system for tablets and other mobile devices with a traditional desktop environment. Two for the price of one.
The most striking thing about Windows 8 is its new “Metro style” user interface. For a taste of it, try a device running Windows Phone 7. Applications are represented by large tiles that can be resized and can update themselves dynamically -- the mail tile displaying the most recent incoming message, for instance, or the calendar tile showing your next appointment.
One little irony of Windows 8 is that it de-emphasizes windows. When you poke at or click on a tile, a Metro-style program launches full-screen, with nary a toolbar or pull-down menu in sight. The traditional taskbar is replaced by what Microsoft calls “charms,” icons representing basic functions common to all programs that are summoned by a finger swipe from the right-hand edge of the screen (on the prototype Samsung tablet PC handed out to developers last week, that is).
But what happens to the huge body of software written for earlier versions of Windows? Some may be rewritten for Metro -- the developer’s preview includes a Metro-style version of the Internet Explorer 10 browser -- but many won’t be.
Microsoft’s answer is a tile on the new Start screen that launches a traditional desktop similar to what you get when you boot up Windows 7. At the developer conference, Steven Sinofsky, the executive in charge of the operating system, denied that Windows 8 demotes the desktop to the status of a “penalty box,” the place you’re exiled to if you can’t get with the hip new program.
Still, you can’t help but wonder about the potential for confusion. Let’s see: Does my program use the Metro start screen, or the desktop? If I need to look something up on the Web, do I launch Metro-friendly IE 10, or desktop-style IE 10?
Another bunch of questions concern one of Windows 8’s biggest changes, one that will be invisible to the naked eye.
Until now, Windows has always run only on “x86” microprocessors -- the type of electronic brains made by Intel Corp. (INTC) and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.. (AMD) Microsoft says that any machine capable of running Windows 7 will also run Windows 8. But the new operating system also promises to run on the processors being used in tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices. These chips, utilizing technology licensed from ARM Holdings PLC (ARM), tend to be less potent than x86 chips -- but also use less power, generate less heat and allow for longer battery life.
While there was much talk at last week’s session about ARM compatibility, almost everything shown was running on Intel- powered machines. The demonstration tablet had an i5 chip -- the same one that powers many desktop and laptop PCs today, and generates so much heat that the tablet had an internal fan.
An ARM-based Windows 8 device wouldn’t have those issues. But it also, according to Microsoft, will only run newly written Metro-style applications, not the more traditional and familiar desktop software. So here’s another potential layer of complexity and confusion. Will a given program run on a given Windows 8 device?
No one knows what the volatile digital marketplace will look like when Windows 8 reaches consumers. And that must be a little scary for Microsoft. The operating system may provide an important transitional link between computing’s past and future. On the other hand, it could just end up being remembered as a last-ditch effort to squeeze a little more milk from the greatest cash-cow in the history of technology.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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