Yesterday evening, Microsoft took to the stage to demo the future of Windows. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this fancy new Windows 8 thing was merely Microsoft’s foray into the tablet world, given the WP7-esque design philosophy and the decidedly touch-centric interface. You’d be wrong, though, to make such cavalier assumptions, my friend. Windows 8 is for desktops, too. This in addition to being for the ARM architecture as well as x86. Welcome to the new world.
To start things off, Microsoft shows off the new “Start screen”. Goodbye Start button! A panel of live tiles (which Microsoft insists are “better than icons”) splatters the screen with so much colored paint. The interface is largely the same as WP7: you’ve got tiles that function as hybrids of icons and widgets, and you stack them together. Frankly, the interface looks much more suited to a tablet than it does a phone, allowing plenty of room to see and interact with more than four-ish things at once.
Then there’s the multitasking interface elements. Swiping from the left of the screen will allow you to cycle through your running apps, which feels like a proper Alt-Tab for the 21st century. Perhaps a little slower, but certainly not lacking in flair. Additionally, beginning a swipe from the left side of the screen, but pausing before release, will allow you to create a second panel with an app inside, thus allowing you—for the first time on a tablet!*—to view multiple apps at once. What’s even cooler is that it seems you can slide the divider around the tablet to resize your screen paritions and doing so will automatically remap the apps to take advantage of whatever amount of space you give them. Think of it like Android’s Fragments API, which redraws an app’s UI based on what size device it’s on, except totally dynamic on a single device. It’s really clever!
Now, if you’ve been freaking out this whole time, worried about that whole “Windows 8 is for desktops” thing….well, frankly, hold on to that feeling for a while longer, but hear us out. Hidden beneath the Metro UI-ified Windows 8 is what appears to be Windows 7 as we all know and love it. Um…hello again Start button? Microsoft makes it very clear that this is still a touch-based UI we’re looking at. However it’s also a mouse-and-keyboard based UI. It’s Windows 7. But it’s also Windows 8. It’s on ARM, but it’s also on x86. It’s a little unclear whether or not you’ll be able to simple use Windows 8 in the way you still use Windows 7 and bypass the new tile-based interface altogether. Though, it seems that would be a crucial, if a little old-hat feature. Windows is simply used by too many businesses, elderly consumers, and curmudgeons to simply throw a whole new interface at them every couple of years. When Vista came out, that alone was enough to throw tons of people for a loop. Imagine if Windows didn’t have windows anymore.
Still, all in all, Microsoft is taking some bold new steps here. Quite possibly more bold than when they flat out dropped WinMo in favor of Windows Phone. These are some seriously user-alienating steps here if they go wrong, yet there doesn’t seem to be much of an option for Microsoft.
As we talked about yesterday, there’s a dramatic shift coming in the tech world, but it’s not an overly-simplistic move towards tablets. This is a more thorough revolution. A shift to a world where you can choose your preferred OS and have that OS on all of your devices. And a consistent experience across those devices at that! These OSes will both be touch-friendly, as well as have support for mice and keyboards where you want it and form factor will be your choice (and if things like the Atrix or Transformer are any indication, not even all that static). Apps will transfer across devices and all your data will show up everywhere at once. Sounds like tech nirvana!
This move for Windows 8 is somewhat confusing and certainly going to piss a lot of people off. However, it’s also the strongest evidence we’ve seen yet that Microsoft knows what they’re doing. WP7 has been a bit of a gambit these last few months. Average-to-mediocre sales combined with strong competition in the marketplace have left many wondering if WP7 has what it takes to compete. That answer still isn’t quite answered, but one thing has now become certain: Microsoft has a vision. It’s a pretty bold one, and perhaps one the world isn’t ready for yet, but it’s there. The consistent experience across their product line is finally starting to find its center. The Xbox dashboard, WP7, and now Windows 8 all have that same Metro look and feel. This is a huge change from Microsoft’s former strategy of “everybody just do whatever” that’s resulted in some pretty fragmented UI schemes and feature sets in the past.
Windows 8 is still a pretty long ways away, and Microsoft has far more to do than Apple or Google to get the ball rolling, since they’ve got basically the whole world to accommodate here. If this demo is any indication, though, this new platform war is going to be really friggin’ exciting.
*– Technically the Notion Ink Adam did include similar functionality, but that particularly tablet seems to not be taking off. And anything pre-iPad is irrelevant now.