RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. — Microsoft unveiled a new interface for the upcoming version of Windows that will give its flagship operating system a dramatically different feel and controls designed for touchscreen devices.
Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division, revealed Windows new “modern” look during the All Things D conference.
It draws heavily on the design of the Windows Phone 7 software, with the primary screen filled with large square tiles that are clicked or tapped to launch frequently used applications.
Sinofsky’s appearance late Wednesday was the biggest news yet at the event and served as a rebuttal of sorts to a series of swipes at the Redmond company.
In Tuesday’s opening session, Google’s Eric Schmidt declared Microsoft is passe and on Wednesday HP’s new chief executive talked up an operating system that could start to displace Windows on its PCs.
Windows 8 – as the new software is temporarily called – has a clean homescreen that in the demo featured a photo and clock. To call up the page of tiles, you brush upward on the screen.
Instead of a start button, a row of soft buttons appear down the right side of the screen when it’s touched, revealing a Windows button and other controls.
Key to the system are horizontal swipe gestures that call up the controls and switch between tiles or applications.
On the main demo unit — a 10-inch tablet running an Intel Core processor — the on-screen keyboard was split with half the keys on each side, so it could be typed with thumbs, similar to the keyboard on Microsoft’s abandoned Ultra-Mobile PC platform.
Sinofsky said the interface scales from an 8-ince screen up to wall-sized displays.
Julie Larson-Green, vice president of Windows Experience program management, gave the demo with Sinfosky. She said it’s the biggest transformation in the Windows interface since Windows 95.
Conference co-host Walt Mossberg, who interviewed Sinofsky on stage, said it’s a radical change and “jolting.”
Larson-Green said the redesign takes into account changes that have happened in the industry and reflects Microsoft’s work to reimagine Windows.
“It’s a big change but not a big change because compatibility is still there,” she said.
Sinofsky said the software won’t be released this fall but left open the possibility it may be available by the holidays, saying it’s usual to have a new Windows release every two to three years and the last release was in October 2009.
Sinofsky first joked about being left out of Schmidt’s list of the top four tech companies:
“I feel like Microsoft auditioning on the Voice, waiting to get picked.”
Mossberg pressed Sinofsky on Microsoft trailing in emerging categories of computing, namely tablets and smartphones.
Sinofsky tried to put those things in context.
“There’s all these things we’re doing well and things we’re not doing well,” he said. “You pick two of the things we’re not doing well. It doesn’t mean we’re out of the game.”
Asked if there’s something stifling innovation at Microsoft, Sinofsky said “I don’t really
Microsoft and competitors are often working on the same things but coming at them from different angles, he said.
“Things are always happening in parallel … we’re all looking at the same problem space and pulling many of the same components to build solutions.”
With Windows 7, Microsoft added touch capabilities but they didn’t take off. At the time, Microsoft thought making Windows work with tablets “is not some giant leap.”
The company wasn’t thinking so much about devices on which touch would completely replace other input systems, as it has on the iPad and its imitators. “We didn’t really think of it as a replacement for the mouse,” he said, but the world has changed since then.
Mossberg talked about the sense that Windows has become “a big, sluggish thing” in part because it’s such a massive platform used by big enterprises. That contrasts with the rapid start of tablets like the iPad, he said.
Why turn to this big version of Windows for tablets instead of a scaled-down version or even use the Windows phone software for those devices?
Sinofsky said “the thing that’s most fascinating about the evolution of Windows …. it grew up with hardware” and we were doing that with the software part of that as well.
Microsoft was doubling the system requirements for Windows every three years or so, but when it moved from Windows Vista to Windows 7 the hardware requirements were actually less, he said.
Meanwhile, the system requirements of phones have been doubling every nine months. It’s gotten to the point where phones meet the system requirements for Windows.
One of the big efforts has been to get Windows to work on mobile ARM processors. A number of prototypes of devices running Windows on ARM will be shown at a conference now underway in Taiwan, Sinofsky said.
The slates in Taiwan are running 1 gigabyte of RAM and are moving to 2 gigs.
Sinofsky declined to give the final name of the next version of Windows, despite Mossberg’s cajoling.
“We’re just going to call it a code name … we’re just going to call it Windows 8 for the purpose of this,” Sinofsky said, asking Mossberg to “give us some time” before the final name is disclosed.
So why use a full version of Windows on tablets?
“It’s better because all of the things Windows can bring with it.”
Mossberg quipped: Like viruses and craplets?
Sinofsky’s retor: “Or printing, using solid-state storage pretty well, external storage…. Look, what we tried to do with Windows 8 was reimagine what we could do with a PC.
Sinofsky said Microsoft was trying to “not just get a slate or a tablet made … but reimagine what we could do with Windows.”
Microsoft used the word “modern” a lot working on the system and looked at solving computing challenges people see the iPad resolving, such as fast startup and simplicity, but took different approaches.
“Maybe it’s because we’re not in the gang, we chose a different avenue,” Sinofsky said.
During the question period, tech publisher Tim O’Reilly praised the redesign but said Microsoft needs to show the software was designed to be integrated with online services “so people understand that is what makes it a modern platform.”
Sinofsky said the platform is closely tied to Microsoft services and the demonstration applications are running on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, but today’s presentation focused on the interface.
Larson-Green said the connectivity was key to the redesign, with “the whole start screen being alive and connected from the get-go without having to go to the desktop and decide where you go today.”
They were also asked about the difference between the new design and touch interfaces available now on systems like HP’s TouchSmart PCs. Larson-Green said “it’s not a layer, it’s Windows” and is more seamless, consistent for developers and “just very fast and fluid.”
Here’s a video Microsoft released (on YouTube!) showing Windows 8: