As far as Microsoft is concerned, 2012 is the year everything changes. The software giant is on course to reinvent its core software, Windows, for the modern era. Windows 8 changes Windows entirely, yet leaves it untouched in some key ways. How it all works -- and how its customers respond -- will determine the company's future.
Currently, that's a lot of customers. According to recent statistics, close to 90% of today's computers run some version of Windows. While that guarantees Microsoft a certain level of success no matter what happens, no one wants another Windows Vista, which was plagued with issues ever since it launched in 2006, and never achieved the adoption of its predecessor, Windows XP.
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Windows 8 is a bold step forward for Microsoft, since the experience on mobile devices -- specifically, tablets -- was a key part of its inception. While there currently aren't any Windows tablets with significant market share, Windows 8 will finally give them an operating system tailored to their touchscreens and low-power needs, potentially breaking that market wide open.
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At least that's Microsoft's hope. But what exactly is Windows 8 and how is it going to change the experience for Windows users? We've been covering its progression over the past several months, and we even had some time to get up close and personal with the latest version of the software last month (see the video at the end of this article for our impressions).
Here's what you need to know about Windows 8, including a few details you may not have noticed yet.
Why is Windows 8 such a big deal? Windows 8 is a top-to-bottom rethinking of Windows. It looks and works differently than any version of Windows ever made. The idea was to create a version of Windows that was just as friendly to touchscreen devices like tablets as it was to traditional desktop PCs with mice and keyboards.
The new interface is called Metro, and its overall aesthetic and functionality is very similar to Microsoft's mobile operating system, Windows Phone. The Metro interface is centered around touch-friendly "tiles," instead of files, folders and icons. The traditional desktop is still part of Windows 8, however, and users will be able to toggle between it and Metro with a single click.
Why is Microsoft changing its software so drastically? Microsoft is very aware of the growing importance of mobile devices in "personal computing." But unlike, say, Apple, Microsoft doesn't have a strong mobile platform to build on; the original Windows Mobile phones are almost phased out, and the relatively new Windows Phone platform is barely out of the gate.
Although the iPad is dominant in tablets, the market is still growing. At the same time, traditional PCs (laptops and desktops) are relatively stagnant. Windows 8 is a long-term bid by Microsoft to leverage its powerful position in PCs, and to to create an strong ecosystem for tablets while simultaneously re-imagining its core software to be more in line with today's consumer needs.
So what's Metro like? Metro has much more in common with the tile-based Windows Phone interface than the familiar desktop. You launch apps by clicking (or touching) tiles, and those apps take up the full screen. Microsoft apps -- like Internet Explorer -- are still there, but re-imagined for the interface. Gone are the pull-down menus of yore, replaced with big, clear labels and "charms," basically function menus that you can call up with a right-click or finger swipe.
When you really need those files and folders, the familiar desktop is still there, accessible with a single click. In fact, you can use a Windows 8 machine entirely in "legacy" mode, never turning on Metro, if you wish.
Here's a slideshow that will give you a better idea of what Metro looks like.
Here's what greets you every time you log into your Windows 8 machine. Yes, the tiles are customizable, though it's a little unwieldy in practice.
Metro sounds like it would be surreal across multiple displays. It would be, but it doesn't work that way. Windows 8 will only feed Metro to a single display (the primary one). Your other screens get the traditional desktop.
Fair enough. Is there anything special about Metro apps besides how they look? A lot, actually. Windows 8 is designed for sharing, and apps can tell the OS that there's something to share via a "contract." When Windows 8 sees the contract, it'll add the app's icon to the Share menu, which is available in every app (you can see it demonstrated in the video below). It's a little unpolished in the consumer preview, and there are currently no apps that can share other than Mail, but the potential is great. Think icons for Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn -- the works -- all ready for you, from every app.
Contracts also work with search. If your app tells the OS that it has searchable content, it'll show up in your search menu, letting you search solely for content that that particular app touches.
How does the Windows 8 experience change from tablet to PC? The interface stays the same, but you access specific functions differently. For example, if you want to open up the main functions menu on a tablet, you slide your finger in from the side. If you're using a mouse and keyboard, you aim for the bottom corner. Microsoft maintains the interface is natural and friendly on both kinds of machines, though we found the mouse-and-keyboard setup somewhat counterintuitive.
On the tablet side, it's important to note that in the case of a Windows 8 device, your tablet is your PC. Although you're certainly allowed to own as many devices as you want, there isn't a need to buy both if you want both experiences. This is one of the main points of departure from the Apple experience, which has different operating systems for both the iPad and Mac computers. On the Windows side, they'll be one in the same.
Apple keeps my devices synced via iCloud. Does Windows 8 do something similar? Yes! And it's arguably better. If you sync your Windows 8 machine with a Windows Live account, then all your preferences and personal info is synced via the cloud. That means when you log into your friend's PC, it will effectively become your PC -- apps, bookmarks and all -- until you log out (memory and storage permitting). You can also store up to 25GB of your own files in the cloud via Microsoft's cloud-storage service, SkyDrive.
Speaking of multiple devices, Microsoft says it will allow simultaneous logins for five different devices so families can share an account. In addition, if you have Windows 8 on a USB key, you can boot straight from that, without installing anything on the machine.
I've got an Xbox 360 -- how does Windows 8 tie in with that? Microsoft includes apps for Music, Videos and Xbox Live as part of the default Windows 8 desktop. Through Xbox Live, you can see what your friends are playing and change your avatar, for example. The Xbox Live Companion app even lets you launch Xbox 360 games on the desktop or stream video to an Xbox at home.
What about Office? Microsoft is working on a version of Office that's tailored to Windows 8. Although it hasn't said much about the details, Microsoft says the upcoming version of Office (code-named "Office 15") will work in both the Metro and desktop environments. A version of Office will also come packaged free on Windows on ARM devices.
Wait, what's Windows on ARM? When Microsoft decided to make Windows work on all kinds of devices, it set out to re-code Windows for machines that use chips based on the ARM architecture, which has a near-monopoly on mobile devices (phones and tablets). (Until now, traditional Windows has run exclusively on machines that use the power-hungry x86 chip architecture made by Intel and AMD.)
Windows on ARM (WOA) is a key part of Microsoft's plan to get Windows on as many machines as possible. The experience will differ a bit, but most features -- even the traditional desktop -- will be available on both. Microsoft says WOA devices will be "end-to-end" products, meaning you won't buy Windows separately from the device. Look for special mobile features, like an extreme low-power mode that lets the tablet stay in standby mode for weeks.
That's starting to sound a bit like a Windows Phone. How does that fit in? Microsoft hasn't officially stated its plans for tying Windows Phone to Windows 8, but you can bet plans are afoot. Leaks and rumors say Microsoft is also retooling Windows Phone from the ground up, so big chunks of its software will be directly compatible with Windows 8. (Windows Phone is currently based on Microsoft's older mobile OS, Windows CE.)
Assuming that happens, it'll be easier for developers using Windows proper to port their apps to Windows Phone, and vice versa. That functionality is essentially the whole thrust of Windows 8 in a nutshell -- making a comprehensive ecosystem that includes desktops, laptops, tablets and phones.
I want to dive deeper -- how can I? If you'd like to experience Windows 8 for yourself, feel free to download the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and install it on your Windows machine. Microsoft says any machine that runs Windows 7 can run Windows 8. Be warned, though: It's still buggy and far from final.
What will I need to run Windows 8? Here are the official specs from Microsoft.
- Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster
- RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
- Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
- Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device or higher
Additional requirements to use certain features:
- To use touch, you need a tablet or a monitor that supports multitouch.
- To access the Windows Store and to download and run apps, you need an active Internet connection and a screen resolution of at least 1024 x 768.
- To snap apps, you need a screen resolution of at least 1366 x 768.
When's it coming out? When it's ready. Going by past history, we'll likely see a general release of Windows 8 in the fall of 2012. However, Microsoft needs to carefully move a lot of different pieces into place to pull this off, and setbacks in any one of them could push the release back. This is the biggest change in Windows since the release of Windows 95, and it's just getting started.
This story originally published on Mashable here.