It may look like Windows Phone 7, but Windows 8 is a full-blown desktop operating system. Yes, Microsoft is trying to have it both ways with its next-gen OS, which is expected to launch sometime in 2012. Although it has a whole new touch-friendly interface and will run shiny new full-screen apps, Windows 8 will also be compatible with all the desktop programs PC users like to run. Time will tell if Microsoft is biting off more than it can chew with this strategy, but right now I’m more interested in what the company just previewed. Here’s what I think Windows 8 does well and where it needs improvement.
Live Tiles Beat Apple’s Static Icons
Compared to the Start screen on Apple’s iOS, the Windows 8 Start screen looks relatively busy. But it also provides more information at a glance. Just like Windows Phone, the UI includes Live Tiles that let you see everything from social-networking updates and updated stock prices to your next appointment and the weather forecast. Microsoft says you can easily move tiles around and delete them—should a PC maker try to sneak in craplets—and you can turn web bookmarks into tiles.
The menu that houses the Start button has a few other options, including Connect, Search, Settings, and Share. Microsoft didn’t provide many details about what these options do, but during her demo at the D9 show this week vice president Julie Larson-Green said that social networking would play a large role in Windows 8. So we’re assuming we’ll be hearing a lot more about the Share button in particular. If Windows 8 works the way it should, you will be able to share pretty much anything on Facebook or Twitter, whether it’s photos, web pages, or news. A Microsoft-designed Tweet@rama app for Windows 8 also seems to signal that the company gets it. Based on what we’ve seen thus far, Mac OS X Lion doesn’t have a deeply integrated social component, but it looks like iOS 5 will.
Finally, A Touch-Friendly Browser
Internet Explorer 9 is still brand-new, but by the time Windows 8 rolls out IE 10 will be taking center stage as the bundled browser for Microsoft’s new OS. The company says it was rewritten from the ground up for touch input, and based on what I’ve seen it looks like scrolling is pretty smooth. I’m not keen on the way IE 10 treats tabs, though. You have to swipe up from the bottom to see them. I prefer when the tabs are always present, such as in Android Honeycomb, even though it takes up more real estate. Swiping up also reveals the address bar on the bottom, similar to the Mango update on Windows Phone 7.
Hidden Start Button
One thing noticeably absent from the Windows 8 Start screen is a home button or Windows button. To access that, you need to swipe left from the right side of the screen to pull up a menu, then tap or click the Windows button. That seems like an extra step that could easily be accomplished with a multitouch gesture, whether it’s on a touchscreen or touchpad. Yes, traditional laptops and desktops will continue to have a dedicated Windows key, but we’re not sure if upcoming Windows 8 slates will have a dedicated button. I hope so.
Multitasking a Mixed Bag
When using the Start screen in Windows 8, you can easily launch recent apps by swiping right from the left side of the screen. This is a nifty effect, but if you have multiple apps open, we could see users getting confused quickly. We’d like a way to see a thumbnail view of all open apps on the same screen at once. What we do like is Microsoft’s reimagined Snap feature, which lets you dock apps to the right or left side of the screen and resize them. This will make it easier to multitask.
Too Much Baggage?
If you believe some of the early reactions to Microsoft’s preview of Windows 8, full-blown means bloated in the iPad era. I admit that it was pretty jarring to see the old-school Excel sitting next to a slick and elegant touch-friendly Twitter app when watching Microsoft’s promo video. But that juxtaposition also illustrates the company’s dilemma. Steve Ballmer is attempting to answer the iPad while protecting the company’s cash cow. What Microsoft needs to do is encourage developers—including its own Office team—to rewrite its apps to be more touch-friendly and efficient so that they will run as well on low-power ARM and Intel CPUs as on traditional X86 processors. The last thing Microsoft should want is for consumers to feel as if they’re running two OSes on the same machine.
Microsoft is taking the exact opposite approach of Apple when it comes to next-generation operating systems. Windows 8 will run on tablets, laptops, and desktops, leaving Windows Phone 7 for handsets only. And iOS will continue to power the iPhone and iPad, while Mac OS X Lion will be inside laptops and desktops. Treating tablets and traditional PCs as the same device with different form factors hasn’t worked in Microsoft’s favor before, but Windows 8 could go a long way toward closing the gap. Now the hard work begins: getting device makers and app developers to build a robust ecosystem that makes the OS seem less like a fancy skin and more like the foundation for the future of computing.