All of a sudden, Microsoft Corp. is in a hurry. Less than two years after the release of its Windows 7 operating system, the company is already showing off Windows 8, which is due to go on sale next year.
With a dramatic new user interface that supports an array of smartphone-like apps, Windows 8 is shaping up as the most radical rethink since Windows XP hit the shelves 10 years ago.
But its most dramatic improvements are aimed at Windows users who presently don’t exist: those who might someday run Windows 8 on touch-controlled tablet computers. For the billion or so who now rely on a keyboard and mouse, I’m not quite sure Windows 8 is the change they’re waiting for.
You needn’t take my word for it. Microsoft has graciously published a preview version of the code for anybody to download and test.
The company has kept its promise to make Windows 8 work with lower-powered computers. It ran slowly, but well, on a six-year-old Hewlett-Packard machine.
Still, I did most of my testing on a much newer laptop from Dell Inc. Too bad it didn’t have a touchscreen. While the new Windows 8 user interface, named Metro, works on a standard computer, it’s been optimized for touchscreen devices and tablets.
Metro is familiar to those of us who’ve used cellphones running Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 software. Just as Apple Inc. has applied ideas from the iPhone and iPad to its Mac desktop software, Microsoft is making Windows more touch-centric and phone-like.
That means upgrading the traditional file folders and icons. Windows 8 features “tiles,’’ lively little rectangles that represent software applications. As on a Windows Phone, the tiles are often live, their content changing as new information flows into your machine. A weather app displays updated temperatures, or a news app flashes a stream of changing headlines and images. The tiles all hang out on Windows 8’s new “Start screen,’’ which replaces Windows’ aging Start button.
In addition, the apps can interact with each other in clever ways. The Windows 8 Twitter app, called Tweet@rama, can borrow photos from Socialite, an app that communicates with the Facebook social network. That made it easy for me to share a Facebook photo of my daughter on Twitter. I just told Tweet@rama to borrow the image from Socialite, and that was that.
Windows 8 also serves up a smart new search feature that’s ideal for those of us who still use keyboards. When you’re on the Start screen, just type a question, like, “What’s the capital of Turkey?’’ Windows 8 will see if your computer contains an answer. If not, it offers you a menu of other options, including access to the Internet Explorer browser. One click flings open a browser window linked to Microsoft’s Bing service, and there’s your answer: Ankara.
The underlying browser looks a lot like today’s Internet Explorer. Indeed, when you scratch the surface, Windows 8 looks nearly identical to Windows 7. Underneath the Start screen, there’s a standard, run-of-the-mill Windows desktop. And your existing Windows software, like Office, looks and runs as it does now.
This isn’t a bad thing, but it underscores the real challenge Microsoft faces. While the coolest new Metro features in Windows 8 are optimized for touch-based devices, the overwhelming majority of users will still rely on a keyboard and mouse. That’s not going to change for a very long time. Metro will work with mouse and keyboard, but switching between apps is often clumsy and confusing. Traditional PC users may abandon Metro altogether and stick to the standard desktop.
But in that case, why rush to convert to Windows 8? Nearly half of all PC users are still running decade-old Windows XP software; Windows 7 is still young and very good. Unless you’re ready for a touchscreen machine, there’s little reason to choose Windows 8.
Maybe Microsoft should have followed Apple’s lead. There’s the Mac OS for Apple desktops and iOS for mobile devices. Why not a purpose-built Windows for tablets, and Windows Classic for PCs?
Never mind; it’s too late. Windows 8 is no more than a year away. According to some reports, it could go on sale by April. For once, Microsoft is racing toward the future. Trouble is, it may leave a lot of its customers behind.