Windows 8, in the words of Windows chief, Steven Sinofsky, is “a bold reimagination of what Windows could be”.
This latest big move for Microsoft, as heralded at the Build developer conference in Anaheim, ranges from the chipset changes, to the experience for new capabilities, uses, scenarios and form factors. And with 450 million copies of Windows 7 now running on traditional keyboard-and-mouse-driven PCs, Windows 8 isn’t just the touch-first, Metro UI, tablet app and the live tile Start screen experience: it’s the familiar desktop as well. Like Windows 7? Then Sinofsky is convinced you’ll like this more.
"Windows 8 makes Windows 7 even better. All of the things we did in Windows 7 to make a great operating system, they're all there in Windows 8 and they all get better; not just a tiny bit better but we've thought out everything and how we could make it dramatically better."
Well, we didn’t expect them to say they’d made things worse.
Despite tablet sales surging, the keyboard and the mouse - and the desktop apps that need them - aren’t going away (at least on PCs using x86 processors), according to Windows experience leader Julie Larson-Green, they’re not, and indeed there’s no plan for them to any time in the future. She told Pocket-lint:
"There’s no time frame for the end of the desktop; not as long as people need dense, powerful apps that they can use with high precision and, when you’re using a mouse, you have a lot more precision. It’s like a surgeon having many different types of knives for the different things they do"
But touch will be one of those tools for everyone, Sinofsky believes. His gushing promises in the Build keynote that "once you try it, it turns out you just never want it to go away" and the claim that "you’ll have fingerprints all over your monitor" on even non-touch devices are testament to that. For CEO Steve Ballmer, though, the beauty of the dual approach software is more about business pragmatism.
"The brilliance of the Windows 8 strategy," says Ballmer, "is that we get all of the applications that come from Windows on x86, as well as all the applications that have gone through the process of rethinking how they might work in a Windows 8 world."
The only stumbling block is that rethinking those apps is not just about the look of Metro but the technical underpinnings as well. Microsoft will need a critical mass of app developers to commit to touch in a way that they simply haven’t to the Windows Phone 7 platform. With Microsoft’s lead product though, it should be a different story.
"Apps are at the centre of the experience for the customer," says Larson-Green underlining their proximity to the heart of Windows 8.
"We started by looking at the things people are trying to do that no operating system has solved for them today. Think of all the websites with all the social network icons at the bottom. There’s a need for developers to connect apps together that no one has been working on so we took that into our process. There are large numbers of people building their own storage for apps, their own notifications, their own update messages. We thought we could move the experience forward."
Of course, there’s more to Metro than just social networking and, indeed, more than the needs of the consumer. One of the apps in the developer preview is a Metro version of Remote Desktop for logging into PCs over the Internet. Building PCs that work for both consumers and businesses is a virtuous cycle, and a serious business advantage as far as Ballmer is concerned.
"It is important, essential, to pioneer in the consumer market, and yet one-third of personal computers today are sold to enterprises. At the same time, the technologies that are getting proven today at massive scale in the consumer Internet are the same technologies that need to be put into production form for the enterprise customer. That, to me, remains one of the core strengths of Microsoft versus the other guys that we see in the market."
The developer preview tablet Microsoft handed out to developers at Build was a Samsung Core i5 slate. By the time Windows 8 comes out, it will run on ARM tablets with the Metro Start screen. ARM tablets and some future low-power Intel and AMD PCs will also get a new power-saving mode called Connected Standby where the screen and the processor are turned off but the wireless connection stays on to receive important messages and wake the PC up if you get an urgent alert or a VoIP phone call.
That takes a lot of new hardware but they’ll have standby that’s "measured in days not hours" according to Windows program management director Gabe Aul. And not only will booting and shutting down be fast in Windows 8, reinstalling Windows, if anything goes wrong, will be much easier with new refresh and reset options.
"People are used to a phone where you can hold buttons down do a reset," he says. "We need it to be that easy."
Today, Windows 8 and Windows Phone are very different platforms that share a few things, the obvious one being the Metro interface design.
"The phone and the Metro-style apps [on Windows 8] is a sharing of the concepts," agrees Sinofsky. "But there are also some systems that are the same."
"We've gone through this sequence of steps in sharing code between both Windows and the phone. Windows Phone 7, under the hood, uses the Windows graphics engine. We called it DirectX. The ability on the phone now to use Internet Explorer comes from having shared all of that code. And so today, the Internet Explorer team; every code change they make is a code change that is available to the next release of the phone as well."
Synchronous launches for the application on both mobile and PC systems could well be expected in the future then.
For developers, the Metro-style applications in Windows 8 aren’t the same as they’d build for Windows Phone, but they’re not completely different. Does that mean Windows 9 and Windows Phone 8 might be the same thing? Microsoft isn’t saying anything about long-term plans, but Sinofsky points out that there’s more to devices than just the technology platform; there’s the question of how you use them.
"The problem is still going to exist that the screen sizes are very different and that drives differences not just in the layout but in the choices you make in the user interface. From a product design challenge, the user interface, the sub-4-inch-and-below screen and, say, a 9-inch-and-above screen are very, very different designs, not just technologies, but very different designs."
Windows 8 has to go from the smallest tablets to the most powerful gaming rigs and high-end workstations; the devices are different but, to Sinofsky, Metro is what ties it all together.
"Metro is not only for 10-inch slate devices, it’s for every machine that runs Windows 8. We’re not trying to seed a unique [tablet] market. We’re trying to seed the market of all Windows 8 devices. A Metro app runs across all the hardware. This is a huge opportunity - the hugest opportunity of any that exist."
You can follow all of our Windows 8 coverage on Pocket-lint on our Windows 8 homepage.