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Microsoft charts new course with Windows 8

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said Thursday that “Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC is now.”

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said Thursday that “Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC is now.”

NEW YORK — With Thursday’s launch of a dramatically overhauled Windows operating system and a new tablet computer to run it on, Microsoft Corp. made it official: The giant software company, long mocked for boring and predictable products, is setting a radical new course for itself — and perhaps the entire computer industry.

“In building Windows 8, we shunned the incremental,” said Steve Sinofsky, president of the Windows division at Microsoft. “We boldly reimagined Windows.”

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But it is an open question whether consumers and businesses are eager to follow Microsoft’s lead.

“This is the biggest shift we’ve seen in the PC industry since Windows came about,” said Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst for Gartner Inc. in Teaneck, N.J.

The new Windows 8 software features a new user interface that replaces the small icons that have decorated computer screens for the past three decades. Instead, the user sees large, brightly colored rectangles, many of them flashing with new information constantly updated via the ­Internet.

Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky (left) and Panos Panay unveiled the Surface computer.

Jason DeCrow/AP Images for Microsoft

Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky (left) and Panos Panay unveiled the Surface computer.

While users can operate the software with the familiar combination of keyboard and mouse, Windows 8’s new interface is designed to be controlled by touch. During the unveiling, at Pier 57 on the Hudson River, the world’s leading computer makers were on hand to show off new desktop and laptop models with touch-sensitive screens, allowing users to operate Windows 8 with a combination of keystrokes and finger flicks.

Windows 8 is particularly suited to use on tablet computers, a product category that Microsoft fumbled for over a decade and which is now dominated by Apple Inc.’s iPad. The Windows 8 rollout featured a new product like the Yoga by Chinese computer maker Lenovo. At first glance a standard laptop, the Yoga features a screen that folds a full 180 degrees, transforming the device into a full-fledged tablet computer.

“What you’ve seen and heard should leave no doubt that Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC is now,” said Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

The most remarkable tablet on display here was Microsoft’s own Surface, the first personal computer built by Microsoft itself. The sleek, jet-black device features a larger screen than Apple’s iPad, and an integrated “kickstand” to let a user easily prop it onto a tabletop. Unlike the iPad, the Surface has a slot for adding memory cards, and a USB port which allows users to connect it to many common devices, including external hard drives and printers.

The Surface carries a $499 starting price for a unit with 32 gigabytes of memory. For an extra $100, users can get a screen cover that attaches magnetically and doubles as a keyboard. The keyboard, which comes in a variety of colors, has a stiff, inflexible feel. But Microsoft also offers a more comfortable version with moving keys for $129.

Panos Panay, general manager of Microsoft’s Surface business, promised that the PC would operate all day on a single battery charge. He also bragged about the device’s toughness, while dropping it onto the floor from shoulder height. “You can actually drop it 72 different ways,” he said, “and we do.”

For now, the Surface will be sold only at Microsoft’s own chain of retail stores, including the recently-opened Boston shop at the Prudential Center mall. The tablet will also be available at 34 temporary locations being operated during the holiday season or through Microsoft’s online store.

Windows 8 goes on sale Friday at retail stores or online. The upgrade sells for $39.99, and many people who have purchased a Windows-compatible computer since June are entitled to upgrade for just $14.99.

Gartenberg, the tech analyst, praised Microsoft’s pricing strategy. “They’ve made it very easy for a consumer to try this on their existing PC,” he said. “There’s almost no barriers to trying this.”

For now, the company’s new Surface will be sold only in Microsoft’s retail stores or online.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

For now, the company’s new Surface will be sold only in Microsoft’s retail stores or online.

Stephen Baker, a vice president at tech industry research firm NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y., said Microsoft had to try something radical to counter the surging popularity of Apple’s products. “For Microsoft, there isn’t a choice,” he said. “Clearly Apple is a competitor across every platform, and in public perception, they’re behind. I think they stopped and said, ‘we have to address that.’ ”

Still, the new look and feel of Windows 8 will take some getting used to. The familiar Start button is gone, and many commonplace controls are hidden under the updated interface. In 2007, millions of consumers rejected Microsoft’s Windows Vista software upgrade and continued to use the older Windows XP software. History could repeat itself; the current Windows 7 software is familiar, reliable, and has only been on the market for three years. It would be disastrous for Microsoft if customers and businesses respond to Windows 8 as many did to Vista.

Gartenberg said that to avert this, Microsoft must teach consumers to interact with computers in a new and unfamiliar way. “This is disruptive, but we forget that we all had to learn to use mice and keyboards,” he said. “Microsoft has to explain why different is better. If they can do this successfully, they will launch the next generation of personal computing.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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