ANAHEIM, Calif.--Microsoft has characterized just about every Windows launch since Windows 95 as the biggest change to computer operating systems since that product debuted 16 years ago.
This time, it might actually be true.
The software giant will start to unveil Windows 8 this morning to 5,000 developers at the Anaheim Convention Center and the company's Build conference, which will run through the rest of the week. In a preview for journalists and analysts provided in advance of the event, company executives ran the nascent operating system through its paces, demonstrating sweeping changes to the way people will use their PCs.
Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division at Microsoft described the new operating system as "a bold re-imagination of what Windows could be."
There's little doubt Windows needs some re-imagining. It's still the dominant operating system for PCs, used by more than 1 billion people worldwide. But PC growth has slowed to a crawl. Just last week, research firm Gartner revised its 2011 PC growth rates down to an anemic 3.8 percent increase in 2011. At the same time, mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, notably Apple's iPad, are posting huge gains and taking on tasks that had once been the sole domain of PCs.
Windows 8 isn't just another operating system. It's a crucial bid by Microsoft to remain at the heart of computing as the industry grows well beyond the PC. The new operating system will run on PCs, even those that currently run Windows 7. But it also supports touch computing, meaning it can run tablets as well. It even supports a pen-based interface.
The changes start with the interface--the look of the operating system and the way users interact with it. Microsoft gave a peek at the new look at the D9 conference in June, showing a desktop experience that closely resembled the interface the company created for Windows Phone 7 devices.
Rather than the familiar desktop photo covered with application and file icons, the new Metro user interface features square or rectangular tiles. Some are static, such as the Internet Explorer or Control Panel tile. But others include dynamic content. So the calendar tile, for example, includes details of upcoming appointments. A weather tile has the forecast for your chosen city. And a music player can show the album art and the track listing of a song playing in the background.
"Icons are yesterday's way of representing apps," said Jensen Harris, partner director of program management in the Windows Experience group. "Tiles are the more modern way of representing apps."
Tiles keep content flowing to the desktop, so that useful information surfaces for users rather than requiring them to fetch it.
"The idea is that you are always up to date about what's going on. You are always getting drawn into the apps," Harris said. "The serendipity of the Web is being brought into Windows."
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When users click on any application in the Metro interface, they'll find a new immersive experience. Those programs take up the entire computer screen. There's no so-called chrome around the app, the frame that separates it from other apps and the desktop. There's no toolbar on the bottom of the desktop. And the new Windows 8 user interface gets rid of the multiple Windows screens for which the operating system itself was named.
"For years, Windows has been about the chrome," Harris said. "Now we're saying we're humble. We're at the service of the app."
To be clear, Microsoft will continue to offer the familiar Windows user interface. And some Windows functions, such as the task manager, will only be available in the traditional Windows interface.
"We don't think the desktop is some place you never, ever want to go, like the penalty box," Sinofsky said.
But Microsoft is pushing the Metro interface. And with its large tiles, Metro is very much about touch computing, the advent of which Microsoft largely missed.
"While we were developing Windows 7, touch took off everywhere," said Julie Larson-Green, corporate vice president in the Windows Experience group. "People want to be able to, and expect to be able to, touch the screen."
Competing with the iPad
So while Windows 8 can run computers that use mice and keyboards, it will also be Microsoft's first full-fledged attempt to compete with the iPad in tablet computing. The company demoed the new operating system on a variety of devices, created by partners such as Acer and Samsung, that included touch interfaces. But it offered no details about those devices at the preconferance preview. Some were tablets. Some were laptops that had touch screens. And one device was an oversize monitor with tiles that could be touched to launch or opened with a mouse.
And Windows 8 supports multitouch as well. It expands on the familiar pinch-to-zoom feature found in many smartphones and tablets. Users can pinch two fingers together to zoom out from the start screen itself, not just within an application such as a Web browser or photo viewer. By zooming out of the start page, something Microsoft calls semantic zoom, users can reorganize tiles into groups, such as games, and organize those groups to their liking.
Windows 8 won't just change the way users interact with computers, it's also going to change the way developers think about creating their applications. Microsoft will be pushing hard at the conference and in coming weeks for developers to create "Metro-style" applications. The company knows that to compete with the iPad, it needs to offer a huge selection of touch-based applications that are compelling for customers.
In addition to running through the tools that it will provide to help developers create those applications, the company will also give a peek at its idea for a Windows Store, where customers can download those Metro-style apps directly to their devices. Microsoft is pitching the store as a way to reach the widest computing audience in the world. But unlike Apple, which only allows application sales for the iPad through its App Store, Microsoft will also let developers sell their programs directly to users.
Despite the daylong briefing, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. Maybe the biggest is the level of support for tablets running on ARM processors. Microsoft broke the news at the Consumer Electronics Show in January that Windows 8 would run on ARM architectures, not just the x86 chips from Intel and AMD that have been a staple of the Windows franchise. It's been unclear, though, how existing applications would work on ARM chips, because of the different architecture.
Sinofsky said Microsoft won't port existing programs to the ARM architecture. That means ARM tablets will be able to run only Metro-style apps, which could limit their appeal.
Windows 8 will no doubt win kudos for its look and feel. But it's also bound to unnerve some corporate buyers, who won't want to deal with the cost and time of training employees how to use the new operating system.
Meanwhile, developers, whom Microsoft is working to woo at the Build conference, will have to rethink some of their applications to take advantage of the Metro user interface. For some, it will be a welcome change, a move into a world where rivals have an early advantage. But for others, the new interface will undoubtedly pose challenges.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether consumers want one device that doubles as a tablet and PC. For now, Apple is betting on two separate devices. That's why the iPad runs a different operating system than its MacBooks and Macs. Microsoft hopes to convince users that one device will be all they'll need.
The company hasn't offered details on when Windows 8 will launch, though many analysts expect it to debut sometime in 2012.