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Microsoft previews “touch-optimized” Windows 8 operating system

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June 5, 2011

The Windows 8 tile-based Start screen

The Windows 8 tile-based Start screen

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With Apple bringing a few user interface elements found in its iOS mobile operating system to its upcoming OS X Lion desktop operating system, Microsoft is taking a similar tack for its Windows 8 OS. Previewed last week at the D9 Conference, the next generation of the Windows operating system borrows heavily from Windows Phone 7 by replacing the traditional Windows Start menu with a tile-based Start screen that provides a customizable, scalable full-screen view of apps on the system.

As with Windows Phone 7, the live tiles can display up to the minute information, such as the current temperature or number of unread messages in your inbox, while remaining in the background. Users can also multitask by having two applications on screen at once. With a swipe of a finger, running apps can be "snapped" into place alongside other apps and can be re-sized as desired to let your Twitter feed sit in a column alongside an Excel spreadsheet, for example.

The OS will come with a new version of Internet Explorer 10, while developers will be able to create full-screen, touch-optimized Windows 8 apps using HTML5 and Javascript that can be integrated easily into the Windows UI. Apps will also be available via a new app store.

In addition to a standard onscreen keyboard, Microsoft has also developed a thumbs layout keyboard that splits the keyboard in two and places the two halves on opposite sides of the display. This allows tablet PC users to type with their thumbs while they hold the device in both hands as opposed to having to hold the device in one hand and type with the other as is generally the case with standard onscreen keyboards.

Thumbs layout keyboard

The new touch-optimized interface reflects the fact that Microsoft has designed Windows 8 to be used on a range of devices, from touch-only mobile tablet devices, to touch-enabled laptops and desktops, up to large screen PCs controlled with the traditional keyboard and mouse. While Windows 8 apps will be optimized for touch, Microsoft says the new OS will maintain compatibility with existing Windows 7 software and peripherals.

This one-size-fits-all approach is fundamentally different to that of Apple who, although its iOS and upcoming OS X Lion operating systems will feature similarities, will continue to keep the two as separate entities.

Some, like Daring Fireball's John Gruber, have already criticized Microsoft's approach to create a touch interface on top of Windows to maintain backwards compatibility with its existing software as trying to do too much and, as a result, compromising the effectiveness of the OS. Citing Apple's iWork apps as a prime example, Gruber points out that the iOS iWork apps aren't simply touch friendly versions of iWork apps on the Mac, but are designed from the ground up for touchscreen use.

A Twitter app running alongside an Excel spreadsheet

This also highlights another major difference between Apple and Microsoft. Apple has repeatedly shown it is willing to shed its past, as it did with the introduction of Mac OS X in 2001, which was incompatible with the company's existing hardware and software at the time and the switch from Motorola to Intel processors.

Of course, Microsoft faces a more difficult task in this respect as it has a much larger user base and would face a much bigger backlash if it were to ditch compatibility with legacy apps - particularly from enterprise users. However, Windows 8 seems to offer very little to organizations so most will probably end up skipping it anyway as many did with Vista.

There's no doubt Microsoft had to do something to address the success of Apple's iPad, which has served as a gateway for many consumers who previously would never have considered buying a Mac. Windows 8 definitely looks to have some nice features and Microsoft has obviously put a lot of time and effort into it, but whether Windows 8 is enough to stop the bleeding and even win back old Windows users remains to be seen.

Microsoft is yet to announce a release date for its new OS or even its official name - Windows 8 is just the codename for now.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
7 Comments

"[...]the new OS will maintain compatibility with existing Windows 7 software and peripherals. [...]"

So they're making a selling point of NOT flicking the bird to people that used their old stuff? This is why I've repeatedly heard them called MicroSHAFT. I can see Win9 now...

"...And our new operating system will have features X,Y,Z, all for £10! However it won't work with anything other than our proprietary shovelware unless you buy this 'upgrade' for another £500."

Bobthefish
6th June, 2011 @ 02:26 am PDT

Dont' worry, the WILL sell it ))

Михаил Финогенов
6th June, 2011 @ 07:33 am PDT

You would need to be able to have a peripheral device that would allow you to take advantage of the touch screen without having to always lift your hands to actually touch the screen. The closest I have seen that would allow you to do this is some experimental technology that shows your hands inside the computer monitor, allowing you to use your hands while they are resting on your desk.

Like this for example:

Frank Swistow
6th June, 2011 @ 02:59 pm PDT

Yes once MS gets the HPBPI going, we won't even need a touch screen.

That is Happy People Brain Plug Interface - that comes with the adaptor and the fitting equipment - which look suspiciously like a rebadged electric guitar jack and a Black and Decker electric drill.

Yes good old Microscoff - keeping the lemmings jumping through their perpetual cash cow upgrade cycles....

Not that next weeks upgrades are Fistworthy, they are just (not very much at all) backwards compatible with any of last weeks not very much at all backwards compatible with the week before that's upgrades... etc..

Aside from "The Ribbon" the changing of the colors of the box or the dates on the package - has anyone actually noticed some great kind of ACTUAL innovation - not counting the pure stupidity of their impositions - in the jump from MS Office 2003 to MS Orifice 2011 (or whatever)?

Yep Microsoft gave me EVERY reason I needed to escape to Linux and Linux gave me every reason I needed to stay there.

MS fan - Not.

Mr Stiffy
6th June, 2011 @ 06:48 pm PDT

What does the home screen of Windows Phone 7 remind you of if you turn 90 degrees clockwise? Windows 1.0! Non-overlapping window tiles with a command line bar across the bottom. These Windows 8 screens resemble that too.

Gregg Eshelman
7th June, 2011 @ 01:09 am PDT

There will be of course, ten pricing ranges with new win 8 : Super Wimpy; Wimpy; Pre-Home; Home Version 1; Home Premium; Professional and Home Network. Prices from $109.00 to $299.00.

Richard C. Edmonds
25th July, 2011 @ 09:24 pm PDT

I am a big fab of Windows. Windows 8 Developer Edition is now available for download, I have installed it on PC. I must stay it looks great to me as i have used. Especially the start menu completely changed.

Prachi Desai
15th September, 2011 @ 02:03 am PDT
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