Microsoft is seeking to reinvent itself and the PC operating system as we know it, launching a free preview version of its new Windows 8 operating system for the public at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Wednesday.
The preview version, which can be downloaded now on most devices that currently run Windows 7 (including tablets), does away with the familiar Windows starting screen — the taskbar at the bottom with the “Start” button in the lower-left hand corner— replacing them with a mosaic of “live tiles,” squares of varying sizes and colors that represent different programs and apps on the computer. With that, it’s clear from the outset this isn’t your
grandpa’s dad’s old familiar Windows experience.
“With Windows 8, we reimagined the different ways people interact with their PC and how to make everything feel like a natural extension of the device, whether using a Windows 8 tablet, laptop or all-in-one,” said Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Windows division, in a press release announcing the free demo. “The Windows 8 Consumer Preview brings a no-compromises approach to using your PC.”
Indeed, Windows 8 is designed specifically to keep one, unified, touch-friendly experience across a multitude of upcoming computing devices, from new laptops to tablets to even smart TVs. A familiar looking Windows 7-like desktop is available on Windows 8, but only as its own “app.” Users can also toggle between desktop and tablet versions — one that offers touch support and one that is designed for a physical keyboard and mouse.
One crowd that already has some familiarity with the new Windows 8 interface is users of the latest version of Windows Phone, as Windows 8 borrowed fundamentally from that mobile operating system’s “Metro, user interface” which also has users navigating between different apps and tasks via tiles.
Unfortunately for Microsoft, despite rave reviews, Windows Phone 7 isn’t doing well in the marketplace, arguably because it is such a departure from the familiar interfaces that came before. Of course Windows Phone 7 is also facing a titanic struggle in attempting to make up the ground lost by Microsoft to Google’s Android smartphone operating system and Apple’s iOS.
By contrast, Windows 7 is the most popular desktop operating system in the world as of October 2011, according to web tracking firm StatCounter. So although Windows may not be a giant yet when it comes to mobile, it’s got a great launching pad to attempt to push Windows 8 to an increasingly post-PC world.
But releasing a preview version to the world without any final date for a full release is an unheralded move in Microsoft’s history and represents the company’s “riskiest bet yet,” in the words of the UK tech website The Register. As Microsoft’s own Windows 8 team acknowledged in a blog post: “It represents a work in progress, and some things will change before the final release. This means you’ll encounter some hiccups and bugs.”
Yet Windows has been peeling back the curtain on Windows 8 gradually over the past year, with developers getting a first bite at the new OS back in September 2011. Microsoft in December 2011 also showed off an extensive demo of its new Windows Store, an app store designed to compete head-on with Google’s and Apple’s own applications markets, though as Microsoft proudly touted, it will give developers a larger cut of app sales than either of its adversaries: 80 percent compared to the standard 70 percent.
In the intervening months, Microsoft says the Windows 8 team has made over 100,000 tweaks to the OS, including addressing a common developer complaint that the Metro user interface worked well on touch devices but poorly with a keyboard and mouse. It’s clear that the Windows 8 team has worked hard on their new product and that they firmly believe in its potential, such that they even redesigned Windows’ logo (making it a square “Window” to emulate the new tiles, instead of the familiar wavy Window logo of years past.)
But the real question will be how the average, non-technical user will respond to the radical overhauling of Microsoft’s signature product.
Gadget bloggers who’ve been testing the new Windows 8 consumer preview for the past week or longer have been posting their initial reactions to the new OS today. Here are some of the most telling:
Seth Rosenblatt at CNET loves the new design, but thinks that Microsoft’s Achilles’ heel could be convincing business partners to adopt the software:
“Windows 8 is an attempt to unify the desktop and the tablet. Microsoft has nailed the operating system, given that it didn’t have much choice if it wanted to compete in the tablet space. Too much of Windows 8’s fate resides on partnerships, though. It depends on hardware, affordability, how closely the pitch to consumers matches the reality of adoption, and, frankly, what Apple does. Ultimately, Microsoft has control over only one of those, and it’s only partial control at that. There’s a long, narrow road ahead for Windows 8. It could be the next big thing, but there’s not much room for missteps.”
Tom Warren at The Verge agrees that the design, performance and implementation of the new Windows 8 OS is a success, but thinks the fate of Windows 8 in the marketplace rests with developers:
“If what we have seen in the Consumer Preview is anything to go by then Microsoft’s Metro apps have a chance to redefine Windows as a whole. Microsoft has laid down its work and tools, and as Ballmer would say, it’s over to developers, developers, developers now.”
Zach Epstein at Boy Genius Report was also impressed with the boldness of Microsoft’s move but points out several confusing redundancies, including two versions of Microsoft’s Web browser Internet Explorer — one that is totally new and designed for touch interfaces and one that’s just the same old point-and-click desktop version of IE 9.
Epstein points out this repetition speaks to the overall conflicting nature of what Microsoft’s trying to do — create a unified experience for devices with different purposes, the tablet and the PC.
“The concept is fantastic and I very much like Microsoft’s execution thus far, but it still feels like a marriage of two completely different operating systems rather than a fusion of two experiences”
Mashable’s Peter Pachal largely agrees with this sentiment, noting that when toggling between tablet mode and point-and-click mode, Windows 8 fails to keep gestures consistent:
“It makes sense that, If you’re going to use the same device as a tablet and a traditional PC, it would react differently to your different tools. But in practice, it flies in the face of intuition. Your gadget “muscle memory” gets confused if your mouse pointer solicits a different menu from what your finger gets via the same movement.
In the end, Microsoft isn’t just asking you to get used to a different interface for Windows. It’s asking you to get used to multiple interfaces within the same OS. I’m not sure how many people have the patience for that. ”
Writing for a more general audience, Joanna Stern at ABC News offers a good summation of the general feeling of the crowd of early Windows 8 consumer testers:
Overall, I’m extremely impressed with the next version of Windows - the features, the new ways of interacting with a tablet, and the potential of it all. And there are parts of it, like how you can position apps side by side, I like better than my iPad 2. However, Windows 8 isn’t ready yet. While the public can download the pre-release software today, there are major parts of the operating system not yet working.