At an information-packed event on Thursday, Microsoft formally launched its next-generation Windows 8 OS, which aims to evolve PCs into more reliable, mobile, and touch-friendly devices. Not coincidentally, the firm also launched its new Surface lineup of tablet devices at the event, then took over Times Square with a busy midnight-madness buying frenzy.

“We have re-imagined Windows, and the result is a stunning lineup of new PCs,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in a prepared statement. “Windows 8 brings together the best of the PC and the tablet. It works perfectly for work and play, and it is alive with your world. Every one of our customers will find a PC that they will absolutely love.”

For Microsoft, the stakes couldn’t be higher, as the computing world is rapidly moving from a focus on traditional PCs to a world in which highly mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are more relevant. Microsoft’s plan for getting to this future does include systems aimed at smartphones (Windows Phone) and tablets (Windows RT), of course. But it also involves moving the needle on the PC. And Windows 8, like the systems on which it runs, is a hybrid with feet firmly in both the traditional and the new.     

As part of this broader strategy, Microsoft has ported Windows 8 to more power-efficient ARM chipsets, like those used in smartphones and tablets today. And it has begun shipping a new lineup of tablet devices, called Surface. The first models, running Windows RT (the ARM-based version of Windows 8), arrive today. But Microsoft will deliver a version based on Intel Core processors and running Windows 8 in early 2013. And it has plans for other Surface devices, though the firm wouldn’t discussion future products on Thursday.

At a related “midnight madness” event in Times Square Thursday evening, throngs gathered around a surprisingly permanent looking “pop-up” Microsoft Store that is aimed solely at selling the Surface. And if the lengthy line—which swung around the block—was any indication, Microsoft is going to sell a ton of them. Customers waited for hours to pay for the devices and then pick them up at 12:01 when the calendar changed to October 26, the official launch day.

Please visit the SuperSite for Windows for various photo galleries from the events, my ongoing Windows 8 review, and a coming series of articles on Microsoft’s revolutionary new Surface with Windows RT. For Microsoft and those who follow the company, the new era begins now.