Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has whipped the curtain back from "Windows 8," offering a first-ever glimpse at a radically new user interface.
"This represents a fundamental shift in Windows design that we haven't attempted since the days of Windows 95, presenting huge opportunities for our hardware partners to innovate with new PC designs," Mike Angiulo, corporate vice president of Windows planning, hardware and PC ecosystem, reportedly told the audience during a June 2 demonstration at the 2011 Computex conference in Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Windows and Windows Live President Steven Sinofsky was offering a small Windows 8 walkthrough at the D:All Things Digital Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. "Windows 8" is Microsoft's internal code-name for the operating system, and may change before the as-yet-unannounced release date.
For many years, the succeeding versions of Windows offered users a familiar interface: A desktop loaded with folders and application icons, a bottom file-bar for displaying open applications and system icons, and a Start button with access to the file system. Windows 8, at least in the tablet-centric versions demonstrated at both conferences, offers something new: a user interface centered on large, colorful tiles that display active information. Microsoft has posted a demonstration video of Windows 8 in action on its Website.
At first glance, Windows 8 is heavily reminiscent of Microsoft's Windows Phone, which also features a tile-centric user interface. However, Windows 8 is designed to scale on devices ranging from smaller tablets to full-fledged PCs. If Microsoft's demonstration video is any indication, Windows 8 will support the full version of legacy applications such as Office, multitasking (including the ability to display two apps side-by-side on the screen), access to a "traditional" Windows file system, and Silverlight via an all-new Internet Explorer 10. Users will be able to "snap" applications to one side of the screen, an evolution of the "Aero Snap" feature already present in Windows 7 and Windows Vista, and, with the tablet version, cycle through apps with a swipe of a finger.
Microsoft's demonstrations centered on Windows 8 as a viable tablet OS. The question remains whether power users will find their working lives made easier by the new interface. Despite the time devoted to showing off the touch interface and virtual keyboard, Microsoft is assuring its audience that Windows 8 will work just as well with a mouse and keyboard; that, in combination with the new operating system's backward compatibility with existing applications such as Excel, could be enough to satisfy most desktop jockeys.
In any case, Windows 8 hints at an ambitious roadmap for Microsoft as it seeks to maintain its commanding share of the traditional OS market while also making inroads into mobile. Certainly tablets are a key focus. As far back as January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft was showing off how the next-generation Windows will support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. ARM architecture powers the lion's share of mobile devices on the market today.
Rumors of Windows 8's tile-centric, Windows Phone-influenced interface have been drifting around for months. In April, bloggers Rafael Rivera and Paul Thurrott dissected various features of what they called an early operating-system build on Rivera's Within Windows blog. Their postings included a screenshot of a start screen, done in the "Metro" design style already present in Windows Phone.
Windows 8 is clearly trying to cover all the computing world's bases, from tablets all the way up to laptops and desktops. In its bid to assure the world that it has actual tablet plans, Microsoft made the decision to highlight its next operating system's touch interface and sleek, mobile-style look. It may be a little more time before the company reveals how Windows 8 will work for the people on the other side of the spectrum: the hardcore PC users, those of the multiple open windows and documents and applications, who helped make the Windows franchise a juggernaut in the first place.