With Windows 8 preview downloads flying off the virtual shelf, excitement is building for Microsoft’s latest operating system. But what’s really getting reviewers all hot and bothered is Windows 8 running not on a PC or laptop but on a tablet. The New York Times’ David Pogue said:
[Windows 8 is] a huge radical rethinking of Windows — and one that’s beautiful, logical and simple. In essence, it brings the attractive, useful concept of Start-screen tiles, currently available on Windows Phone 7 phones, to laptops, desktop PC’s and tablets.
I’ve been using Windows 8 for about a week on a prototype Samsung tablet. And I have got to tell you, I’m excited.
He’s not the only one to think that Windows 8 on a tablet could help Microsoft steal second place from Android, which suffers from software fragmentation and a confusing number of choices of hardware. CNet’s Scott Stein takes a look at what hurdles Microsoft has to surmount in order to start competing first with Android and then, ultimately, Apple.
The big challenge is, of course, apps. Android has a messy apps market which struggles to compete with Apple’s well-stocked and easy to use app store. Microsoft has known for a long time that apps would be a key battleground and it started trying to attract app developers back in December when it demoed its Windows Store at an event in San Francisco. Selected developers were invited to submit apps for this beta, but there’s a lot of time for more to get in on the act before the commercial release, which is still expected to happen this autumn.
What will also be important is how compatible Windows 8 will across the range of devices. With Windows 8, we’ll have an operating system that works the same way across PC, tablet and, if they upgrade Windows Phone, your phone as well. A true ‘Grand Unification’, as Pogue puts it, would allow users to effortlessly share files and apps across devices.
It remains to be seen how far down that road Windows 8 goes, but if Microsoft is smart they will make it as simple as possible to work on a single document across multiple devices without having to worry about syncing and versioning. This is something that Apple hasn’t even begun to get right yet: Trying to get files off your iPad, for example, is a frustrating hassle and half the time it’s actually impossible.
PCWorld’s Melissa Perenson quotes Lixin Cheng, CEO of device manufacturer ZTE USA:
“I do believe a similar thing will happen in tablet world as in smartphone world. I think iPad's dominance will gradually decrease, and other OS tablets will grow. [Windows 8] has high expectations for those looking for a unified experience across PC, tablet, and smartphone.”
Where Windows 8 might run into problems, though, is in backwards compatibility. Windows 8 runs on ARM processors, but won’t run old x86-based apps. Says Perenson:
Small businesses and corporate installations that have hundreds or thousands of x86 apps and browser plug-ins to support will be left in the dark. They will be relegated to looking at Intel- or AMD-based tablets, where the desktop mode will at least give you a chance to try and run the apps you need.
In many ways, this is inevitable when software makes such a big transition. Apple’s been through it: When they moved from PowerPC to Intel chips, users needed software called Rosetta to run old software. Virtualisation technologies have come a long way since then, and there’s no doubt that someone, be it Microsoft or an independent developer, will write a virtualisation app for Windows 8 that gives users access to their old x86-based apps.
Over all, Windows 8 is one of the most exciting developments from Microsoft in the last decade. The possibility of seamless sharing, the improved user experience of the tile-based Metro start screen, the intuitive gestures, all point to a long-overdue sea change for Windows. Pogue, again:
These swipes [gestures] take about one minute to learn. On a tablet, I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it is. It’s evident that Microsoft has sweated over every decision.
It’s been a long time since Windows has been described as ‘fun’. Perhaps Windows 8 will mark a renaissance for Microsoft’s 27-year-old operating system.