The tablet wars will undoubtedly heat up when Microsoft ships Windows 8 next year. The developer preview of Windows 8--unveiled today at the BUILD Windows conference in Anaheim--underscores how Microsoft’s new OS is nothing like what we're used to seeing.
Microsoft finally looks poised to deliver the touch-friendly operating system that the Windows universe has craved for a decade. That said, the company doesn't have a clear sure bet. Microsoft has a host of challenges ahead if it wants to go toe-to-toe with Apple and Google on tablets.
Currently, using Windows on a tablet is very much the same experience as using it on a desktop. Windows is not at all prepared for the navigational challenges of using your fingers to get about. (An add-on software pack doesn't help enough.) The current Windows tablets, including models from Fujitsu, Motion Computing, and ViewSonic, have primarily targeted businesses and markets that require compatibility with existing custom Windows software. But these tablets have had limited appeal to consumers enamored with the stylized, clean interfaces introduced with Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile operating systems.
Windows 8 now blows away the distinction between consumer and business tablet, simply by changing the fundamental basics of how we use Windows, and what the Windows front door looks like. No, Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore.
It's All About the Interface
Let's face it: One of the things about iOS that caught everyone off guard when it first debuted five years ago was that it looked so fundamentally different than any other computing interface. Using the iPhone, and later, the iPad, was downright fun as you swiped, tapped, and glided your way through navigation and options.
Windows has long lacked a comparative “whiz-bang” factor. Its drab, gray dialog boxes and angular windows have made the OS feel dated for a long time. With Windows 8, Windows gets its whiz-bang back--and does so through touch-friendly design aesthetics that will appeal to mobile-phone-influenced consumer tastes.
At the heart of Windows 8 is the new Start screen, a sophisticated, clean design with a face dominated by large, finger-friendly tiles that practically invite you to touch them. The tiles are in the “Metro” style, first defined in the Windows Phone 7 interface, and those tiles translate well to the tablet.
Swipes, gestures from the edges, seamless movement amongst apps for multitasking, and unified search and contacts--we've seen elements of these before on tablets (yes, I'm looking at you, PlayBook Tablet OS and webOS). But Microsoft appears to have given a lot of thought to the detail, as evidenced by its on-screen keyboard designs (both a standard full-size keyboard and a split-screen keyboard), easy-access reworking of basic Windows navigation, and the placement of the URL bar at the bottom of Internet Explorer 10.
This switch from the normal top-of-screen placement reduces how far your hands will travel, assuming you're holding the tablet from the bottom. FYI: The five core navigation icons--Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings--are nicknamed "charms" by Microsoft and slide out of the right side of your screen.
The Windows 8 advantage is that its Start screen looks as if it will be easier to tame and access than the competition's, by virtue of its lack of clutter. By contrast, Google's Android 3.x Honeycomb and Apple's iOS 4.3 home screens each are littered with small icons that you have to process in two steps--once to identify the visual graphic, and again to read the description below. Multitasking in Windows 8 appears to be superfast, although it could get tricky to land where you want, since you're actually passing through each open app as you swipe among them. Sharing has been simplified, to the point that Microsoft says two apps that aren't even familiar with one another can share between them. And you'll have two pane views--something you don't get with either Android or iOS--so you can have two activities going at once; for example, an RSS feeder in a narrower pane to complement your full-frame e-mail app.
Lots of features weren't on the preview device we got a look at; but the demos made the Mail, Calendar, and Pictures appear as if they are competitive with, or go beyond, what Apple and Google offer.
We saw rough spots in this early version of Windows 8. The experience I had is by no means seamless. For instance, shifting among standard "desktop" apps and the next-generation "Metro"-style apps is particularly jarring because of the vastly different aesthetics, and the contrast between old and new is striking.
Furthermore, we don't know a whole lot yet about how Windows 8 will act on an ARM-based tablet; Microsoft didn't reveal much in its preview, beyond saying that ARM-processor-equipped tablets will run the Metro-style apps, which will be optimized to take advantage of Windows 8's features, such as its power management capabilities (Metro is the name of the user interface found in Windows phones). However, what's been shown in previews makes Windows 8 look very promising. Microsoft appears to be on the right track.
Next: Windows 8 Challenges