At Microsoft's first BUILD Conference in September 2011, the software giant finally took the wraps off Windows "8" (yes, it's still a code name) and described its vision for the future of PC computing. And although this upgrade doesn't appear to be too compelling for businesses, compared with Windows 7, I think Microsoft has hit the right balance and will see huge success with consumers and individuals that will put a serious dent in the momentum of Apple's iPad. The only problem? Windows 8 isn't expected until at least mid- to late-2012.

What Is It?

Windows 8 is the next major version of Windows on the desktop and the successor to Windows 7. From a user experience perspective, Windows 8 combines the interfaces and terminologies from Windows Phone 7 with the now "classic" desktop UI of Windows 7, providing a somewhat jarring experience when you navigate between apps that run in the two experiences.

The new Windows shell provides a Metro-style UI called the Start screen, which is what Microsoft describes as "touch first." This means that it's designed with multi-touch in mind, and it works wonderfully on touch-capable screens such as those that will be included on a coming generation of iPad-like slate PCs. But the new shell also works well with keyboard and mouse, and, for you tablet PC holdouts, with a stylus as well.

Although many will confuse this distinction, the new shell (i.e., the Start screen) isn't an app, or layer, on top of the old Windows desktop. It is in fact the shell, both logically and literally. You can still access a mostly complete Windows desktop, along with any now-legacy applications that run in that environment. However, that desktop is subordinate to the new shell. In fact, as far as the new shell is concerned, the desktop is just another app.

What makes this possible is a completely new Windows runtime called Windows Runtime (WinRT). This runtime replaces Win32, which was itself based on the so-called Win16 runtime that literally dates back to the first version of Windows in 1985. So these things don't change very often.

WinRT provides APIs and classes that mimic what Microsoft previously provided in .NET, so they're logical, well-constructed, and well-understood by modern developers. But unlike .NET, WinRT isn't a layer on top of other technologies, or an abstraction of any kind. Instead, WinRT sits directly on the NT kernel and is the lowest-level way for developers to access new Windows features. Unlike previous shells and environments, however, WinRT is unique in that it provides developers with the same capabilities via web standards technologies such as HTML5 (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) as it does via more traditional languages (e.g., C#, C, C++, Visual Basic) and presentation layers (XAML).

When Microsoft says it's "reimagining" Windows with this release, for once it's not hyperbole. For developers, Windows 8 brings a major new runtime and API set with the capabilities exposed by a new shell. For users, it brings a completely new and beautiful user experience that's as at home on iPad-like slates as it is on more traditional PCs. Users haven't had a change like this since Windows 95, and developers haven't seen a similar sea change since .NET a decade ago. The fact that Windows 8 affects both groups in equally seismic ways is proof positive of its importance. Windows 7 was about fixing what was wrong with Windows Vista and fine-tuning a stable base; Windows 8 is about surging ahead.

 

The New User Experience

How different is Windows 8 from its predecessors? Let's start with boot time. Using a non-shipping developer prototype slate PC, I've seen boot times of about 5 seconds.

On my own laptop, which isn't optimized for Windows 8, it's closer to 8 seconds when you factor out the dual-boot menu I've compulsively left in place "just in case." After the blink-and-you'll-miss-it boot process, you're presented with your first UI, a full-screen Lock screen that displays a background photo, prominent time and date, and a variety of notification icons using a very Windows Phone-esque presentation.

(Don't worry, that's a compliment.) You slide this screen up, using a finger swipe from the bottom of the screen or a right-click of the mouse, to log on. There are a couple of fun new ways to log on now in addition to traditional password: You can use a four-digit PIN password (as on a phone) or the new Picture Password, in which you use your own personally created sequence of taps and gestures over a personalized photo.

Your user account can be local and created as before, of course, or you can simply use your Windows Live ID. I suggest the latter, because this approach will autopopulate a lot of the upcoming integration with Windows Live services, such as mail, contacts, calendar, and online storage.

After you log on, you'll see the new Windows 8 Start screen. This screen, like Windows Phone's Start screen, provides several live tiles floating over a background, which in this case is called an Accent and can be customized with colors or background images. (This isn't in the Developer Preview, unfortunately, which is colored green for "Go.") These tiles are larger and more expressive than their Windows Phone cousins, and the user can control whether the tiles are small and square or large and rectangular on a per-tile basis. The tiles typically represent apps—-either new Metro-style apps or traditional Windows applications—in addition to other items, such as Control Panels, contacts, email accounts or folders, and so on.

It's probably obvious that the new Start screen is a replacement for the Start screen in previous versions of Windows, but it's also a replacement for the taskbar in that it can be used for simple app switching.

In this mode, you'd use Windows 8 like a phone, by launching and using an app and then tapping the Windows key on the PC—or keyboard—to return to the Start screen and then launch another app.

The Start screen is fast, fluid, and surprisingly responsive. You can flick left and right through various screens full of tiles, in either landscape or portrait mode (virtually all Windows 8 apps can be used in either orientation), group the tiles, and optionally name those groups. (This feature is currently missing in Windows Phone, although these two platforms will supposedly merge in Windows Phone 8 late next year.) Windows 8 also supports a system-wide set of Charms that sit hidden on the right edge of the screen; just swipe in from the right to display the list, which includes Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings.

These Charms are accessible everywhere, from the shell/Start screen, from within any app, and from the classic desktop. There's also a nice time/date overlay that appears when the Charms are displayed.

A New Generation of Tailored Apps

The apps that run under the new shell are described as "tailored" or "immersive." They always run full-screen, although Microsoft provides a way to show two apps (a pair of tailored apps or one tailored app and one desktop app) side by side. So far, the sample and built-in apps we've seen are fairly basic, leading to another Windows 8 misconception that these apps can provide only simple UIs—which isn't the case. Yes, there will be tons of simple Twitter and weather apps, but Microsoft is also looking at porting its Office suite to the new shell, and I've been told to expect some amazing third-party apps well before the product's launch next year.

Because this is Windows, you can of course multitask between apps (and desktop apps), and you can use old keyboard shortcuts such as Alt+Tab (Windows Flip) to switch between them. The new shell sports a new way of switching between apps, however, which involves swiping from the left edge of the screen toward the center. If you do so slowly, you can dock, or Snap, the "next" app next to the current app, visually. Or you can swipe rapidly to move between the various running programs more quickly.

Metro-style tailored apps (but not legacy Windows apps) share some interesting properties. When they're not onscreen, they're suspended, which dramatically drops memory usage. Over time, suspended apps are automatically killed by the OS if the RAM they use is needed, as on a phone. And users won't typically quit these apps, as they do today with traditional applications; that's handled by the OS too. (You can use Task Manager to kill Metro-style apps if you're the micro-manager type.) In addition, these apps can't display a Save dialog or similar interface—and because they can be killed at any time, they must save any state and date automatically on an ongoing basis.

Metro-style apps support the notion of an Edge UI. Swiping up from the bottom or down from the top of the screen (or right-clicking with a mouse) brings up hidden controls in the form of an App Bar (found on the bottom of the screen) and, optionally, top-mounted controls. In the immersive version of Internet Explorer (IE) 10, for example, the Edge UI consists of an address bar and browser buttons on the bottom and a set of tabs on the top.

To make developers happy and to make it easier for users to find and install new apps, Microsoft is creating a new Windows Store for Windows 8. (It's not in the Developer Preview build.) Similar in appearance and utility to the Windows Phone Marketplace, the Windows Store comes with several advantages for everyone.

First, it's curated by Microsoft and will therefore sell only safe, well-written apps that pass stringent tests. Second, it will offer both new, Metro-style apps and legacy Windows applications, although the latter are listing-only; developers will have to host the downloads themselves. Microsoft claims that all Metro-style apps will install in just 2 to 3 seconds—but we'll see.

Although Microsoft hasn't announced licensing for the store, I expect the company to offer the same 70/30 split on earnings for new apps and allow installation on four Windows PCs. Microsoft has stated that it won't charge a fee for listing legacy apps.

Windows 8 doesn't currently come with many built-in immersive apps, so Microsoft is bundling numerous sample apps, which I don't expect to be present in the final version of the OS. (The company will likely offer them via download.) But the shipping version will include Internet Explorer, Messaging, Music, and Video; Windows Live will supply awesome full-screen Mail, People (contacts), Calendar, (Video) Chat, Bing, Photos, and other apps. It's unclear if these will be built-in or require a visit to the Windows Store and/or Windows Update.

As per the Windows 7 taskbar, the Start screen holds only a subset of available apps. Curiously, there's no obvious full list of available apps. However, if you tap the Search Charm from the Start screen, you'll see a list of all your apps there. You can also search for new apps and traditional desktop apps from this interface, although the latter option is incomplete; it couldn't find things like Disk Management for some reason.

Cloud Integration

It's going to be a while before the full depth of Windows 8's cloud integration bits is well-known. But aside from the aforementioned Windows Live ID integration for logging on, there are some pieces available in the Developer Preview and some news about other features coming in the future.

Windows Live SkyDrive, previously a forgotten wasteland among Microsoft's consumer-oriented cloud services, will finally see deep integration with Windows 8.

In the past, we expected that integration to come via Windows Explorer-based access to SkyDrive's voluminous 25GB of storage—but with the classic desktop on the on-ramp to obsolescence, it's understandable why that's not happening. Instead, Windows 8 apps will integrate with SkyDrive and, via a new system-wide File Picker (analogous to the Open dialog in previous Windows versions), you'll be able to access your SkyDrive folders and files from the PC just as you do with local resources.

Microsoft is also providing some interesting new capabilities around backup and restore, including a new PC Refresh option that will let you wipe out Windows without killing any of your settings and customizations, immersive apps and app states, and data files. This information is actually stored on the PC's hard disk and will survive the reinstall process—which takes just 4 to 5 minutes—but there's some evidence that this information will be stored in SkyDrive too, which opens the possibility that you'll be able to log on to any Windows 8 PC with your Windows Live ID and immediately access your custom PC environment.

Windows 8 for Business Users

For the business user, Windows 8 represents more of an evolutionary step than a big leap forward. Most businesses will probably opt to hide the Start screen and use the old desktop interface, because the Windows 8 desktop is reasonably identical to that of Windows 7 and won't require retraining.

And I've been told that admins won't be able to granularly control the Start screen and immersive apps at all, which might limit that environment's appeal further. (I'll need to confirm this in the future, because the current builds are incomplete.) From a user experience and deployment standpoint, Windows 8 is largely identical to Windows 7. This will likely be cheered by many admins, especially those who are well along in their Windows 7 deployments. For those environments, I recommend proceeding; there's no reason to wait for Windows 8.

That said, there are a few new business oriented features in Windows 8. It includes Client Hyper-V, which is a full-blown client-side version of Microsoft's powerful hypervisor-based virtualization solution and appears to look and work identically. It's been updated to support power management (a key issue for those who wanted to use Windows Server 2008 R2's Hyper-V on a laptop) and replaces the old-fashioned Windows Virtual PC we currently use.

A new feature called Windows To Go lets you run Windows 8 from a secure, BitLocker-protected USB memory key instead of a PC's local storage. This can be useful in many situations, and it can be configured to reset to a factory-fresh condition each time the key is removed. For customers looking at expensive and complex Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) solutions, this could be a godsend.
Finally, Remote Desktop is overhauled in Windows 8. It gets the Metro treatment and a new multi-machine interface.

The ARM Conundrum

If there's anything confusing about Windows 8, it's how Microsoft intends to support and sell the various ARM-based flavors of the OS. Currently, desktop versions of Windows run on the Intel-compatible x86/x64 platform, which has been a consistent situation for many years. But with Windows 8, Microsoft will also sell versions that run on ARM chipsets for the first time.

The ARM versions of Windows 8 will each be custom made for a particular ARM chipset and will be sold only with ARM devices, and not as software-only packages. These ARM versions of Windows 8 will run the entire body of immersive, Metro-style apps that developers will have already started creating by the time you read this.
Every one of these apps will run on both ARM and x86/x64 versions of Windows.

The ARM versions of Windows will not, however, run legacy Windows applications, including Microsoft Office 2010 (which Microsoft perplexingly demonstrated back in January; my guess is this was a bid to prove that ARM versions of Windows 8 would be "real" Windows versions).

There's some speculation about whether the classic Windows desktop environment will be available on ARM versions of Windows. My gut says it will have to be, but I could see Microsoft not providing this environment at all because the ARM versions of Windows are aimed at a very specific market: thin, light, and battery-friendly devices such as the iPad.

What's odd about this situation is that Microsoft and its partners will be selling two somewhat incompatible platforms, both of which will be marketed as Windows devices. Those running Intel-compatible x86/x64 chipsets will run classic Windows applications and offer the "full" PC experience, whereas those running on ARM won't run classic Windows applications and will be more device-like.

Further confusing matters is that Intel is racing to develop ARM-like versions of its "Sandy Bridge" chipsets that will allow PC makers to build and sell tablets, Ultrabooks, and other PCs that could be as thin, light, and battery friendly as ARM designs. These chipsets and machines should absolutely be ready in time for Windows 8 to ship in mid- to late-2012. So Microsoft must have some idea about how it will market these similar but different products—but the company is remaining mum about its plans.

Availability and Requirements

The Windows 8 Developer Preview is available for free from the BUILD Windows website. It comes in versions for Intel-compatible x86/x64 PCs only, and not ARM devices. There are 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) versions, as well as a special x64 version that includes developer tools (prelease versions of Visual Studio 11 and Expression Blend 5, among others).

Windows 8 comes with the same hardware requirements as did Windows 7, so it will run on any PC that was made in 2005 or later. In fact, Windows 8 uses fewer resources than Windows 7, so some users might even experience better performance on the same hardware. That said, I don't recommend the Windows 8 Developer Preview to casual users because the software is buggy and incomplete. A wider beta version should appear by January 2012 and be feature complete.

Final Thoughts

I die a little bit every time a Microsoft representative uses the term "reimagining Windows," but let's give Microsoft some credit here. Windows 8 really is a fresh new start for Windows, and that's equally true for both users and developers. The fact that Windows 8 was designed before the iPad was revealed only underscores that Microsoft isn't as far behind as some people think when it comes to anticipating consumer trends. However, the fact that Windows 8 won't be delivered to us until next year means the next several months are going to be quite painful.

And that's what's special about Windows 8. It makes what I'm using now seem shabby by comparison. I can't think of a greater compliment than that, especially when what I'm using now—Windows 7—is so refined and successful. Improving on Vista was easy—a sure thing.

But Windows 8 is the real achievement of Microsoft's Sinofsky era and the start of a new decade of touch-friendly, mobile, and connected computing. It's still early, but Windows 8 looks incredible.