ANAHEIM, Calif. — With Windows 8, Microsoft has created a new operating system that computer makers can use to seriously challenge Apple’s iPad.
The touch-centric interface on Windows 8 is refreshing, easy to understand and a snap to customize.
“Windows 8 is a bold re-imagining of what Windows could be,” Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Live division, said at a Monday event previewing the company’s Build developer conference.
If computer makers produce tablets as gorgeous as demo units Microsoft provided Monday, and they sell them for a reasonable price, there won’t be quite as much talk about the iPad vanquishing the PC industry.
But that’s a big if.
PC makers will be tempted to clutter the elegant home screen of Windows 8 with promotional icons and it will be a challenge to offer ultrathin and powerful tablets in the $500 to $800 range of the iPad and the top Android tablets. The new software will also be used for the next generation of laptops and desktops.
Microsoft and its partners are also going to need to explain why people looking for a Web tablet should buy one that’s a full-blown PC. Among the reasons provided Monday were the ability of a PC to connect directly to more than 10,000 cameras, printers and other peripherals, and the potential to store and load files directly on a Windows tablet.
Windows 8 will also run all programs that run on Windows 7, plus upcoming applications built for its touch-centric “Metro” interface.
The software has more than a pretty new face.
Demo versions had impressive speeds. They started up in 10 seconds or less, and they immediately showed thumbnail images of photos called up on the system, so you no longer have to wait for the images to render when scrolling through a batch of photos.
I wonder if you’ll need the latest hardware to see some of these advances, but Windows bosses said the improvements will benefit even the most inexpensive PCs.
Sinofsky said one of the systems he’ll use in the big public unveiling of Windows 8 today is a $299 Lenovo model that’s also one of his personal machines.
But the systems used to show off the fast startup times used expensive solid-state memory, instead of spinning hard drives that aren’t as fast. Gabe Aul, partner director of Windows program management, said the price of sold-state drives is coming down, though, and they shouldn’t be a prohibitively expensive option by the time Windows 8 is released.
Microsoft didn’t provide a timetable on Monday but the release is expected by next fall. It’s complete enough for Microsoft to release a test version at this week’s conference, so attendees can load the system on their own computers and begin developing Windows 8 applications.
Windows 8 also provides ways for different applications to work together, so they automatically share data. Windows handles the connections, so a photo-sharing application will seamlessly connect to social networking applications if they use the interfaces.
Microsoft’s also putting more emphasis on developing applications that connect to its cloud services, particularly its SkyDrive online storage service.
Using the new “Metro” interface in Windows 8 was straightforward on a review unit, though sometimes it took a few tries to launch the on-screen touch keyboard. The new browser hides controls “above” and “below” the screen, so you have to flick to call them back. This shows pages in the full screen, but it also adds an extra step to access tabbed pages and other controls.
I also found myself frequently using the single Windows button on the bezel to exit programs and return to the home screen, just as I do with the iPad’s single button, because it’s not always obvious how to go back in an application.
As with the iPad, I find it impossible to type at work speed on the Windows 8 on-screen keyboard — or most any touchscreen keyboard. But it’s a big, nice keyboard with some unexpected flair; there’s a smiley face emoticon key fixed to the left of the space bar.
The demo unit — a widescreen Samsung slate with 4 gigabytes of RAM, a 1.6 gigahertz Intel Core i5 processor, a docking station and a Bluetooth keyboard — included a handful of applications written over the summer by Microsoft interns. That’s neat and shows that it’s not overly difficult to write the apps, but several of the apps could have used more logical controls. I was unable to stop one of the games, for instance, which annoyingly kept running in the background after I launched other applications.
There were also times when the on-screen keyboard obscured what was being typed into forms on the screen, including forms for the AT&T wireless service provided with the loaner unit and the composing window of the blog software I’m using here. The keyboard doesn’t detect that it’s obscuring these things, apparently, and the programs hadn’t yet been updated for Windows 8.
It’s early beta software so you can’t nitpick too much, but it was especially frustrating that I could not get Outlook Web Access to load via the Metro interface.
On the positive side, the Metro interface is going to create a rush of opportunity for developers on the Windows platform, which continues to dwarf the reach of the iPad and Google’s fledgling Chrome operating system.
During Monday’s session, Sinofsky noted that nearly 450 million copies of Windows 7 have been sold and its usage overtook that of Windows XP last week. Microsoft also is seeing 542 million people sign into its online services every month, mostly for Windows updates.
Several Gartner analysts I had lunch with Monday said they expect Windows 8 will appeal mostly to consumers at first. Corporate buyers, many of whom are still moving to Windows 7, may opt to skip Windows 8 and move directly to Windows 9, they said.
Big companies may be wary of switching to a system with a radically different interface that works best with touchscreens, which cost more than standard PC displays. But their IT departments will probably be enthused about its rapid reboot times and controls that speed the process of resetting and refreshing a PC.
For traditionalists, Windows 8 can also be run with the current, traditional desktop. One of the most prominent tiles on the start screen is called “Desktop” and switches the PC in a flash to a Windows 7 style. People using computers for work may spend a lot of time in this mode, which to me feels less distracting because it doesn’t have tiles showing Facebook updates and news headlines urging me to venture online and see what’s going on.
On the fancy Windows 8 slate I’m testing, the traditional desktop also worked fine with Outlook Web Access.
Going back and forth between the old and new interfaces made me think of Windows 8 as having right and left brain. The new, Metro interface is more artistic and creative and the traditional desktop remains more practical.
There are some cool new features accessible from both hemispheres. One is a vertical row of five key commands, called “charms,” that appear down the right side of the screen when you flick a finger or cursor past the border. They include search, settings, devices, start and share. This start button takes you back to the home screen and the primary collection of tiles.
Among the “settings” called up are power, volume, brightness and wireless connections. One nice touch is that the wireless settings will inform you when you’re using a metered wireless plan, and warn you before starting a big download. That lets you choose to wait until you’re connected via Wi-Fi or a wired connection and avoid using up your monthly data quota.
Another nice and geeky new feature is the improved Task Manager, the control panel used to monitor and manage system activity. In a single pane it displays how much processing power, memory, disk activity and network bandwidth applications and processes are using.
It also shows off how Windows 8 suspends inactive applications, to conserve energy and give active programs the most oomph.
The devices option is limited at this point. It provides the option to send files to someone with a nearby device, such as a PC or phone, or to output audio and video to a computer or large-screen display nearby.
So, could this be your next PC?
(Microsoft gave these to the 5,000 developers to the conference. It’s not clear whether Samsung will offer them commercially; Microsoft helped the company develop the system as a developer test bed.
It has an 11.6″ diagonal screen, weighs 909 grams and is 12.9 millimeters thick. It can also run dual monitors through its HDMI port, has a 64 gigabyte solid-state drive and connects to AT&T’s 3G wireless service.)