With its colorful square icons, Microsoft’s new Windows 8 operating system is sending millions of computer users back to square one.
Windows 8 is Microsoft’s most radical upgrade to Windows since the 1990s, combining the traditional keyboard and mouse controls with a visual interface mainly designed for touchscreen computers. To master it, Windows users must learn new ways to interact with their computers.
Judging by the reactions of early adopters, many can hardly wait. Last Friday, when Windows 8 went on sale at the Microsoft Store in Boston’s Prudential Center, Michael Medici was eager to buy the new software and a new laptop to run it on.
“I like the touchscreen functionality,” said Medici, 33, a Wellesley resident who works for a venture capital firm. “But I also like that it has the classic kind of Microsoft computing functionality . . . I kind of thought it was the best of both worlds.”
Brad Cantrell, 37, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University, welcomed the idea of mastering the changes in Windows 8.
“It’s one of the things I love about computing, always learning something new,” Cantrell said. “As long as it still does all of the basics, I’m interested in making a new step forward.”
But while computer enthusiasts may quickly embrace Windows 8, Microsoft’s primary challenge is winning over the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have used old-style Windows computers for most of their lives.
By Microsoft’s reckoning, there are about 1 billion users of Windows in the world; the plan is to eventually migrate all of them to Windows 8 or its successor products.
The process could take quite a while, because the overwhelming majority of Windows computers do not have touchscreens and therefore can’t take full advantage of the Windows 8 interface.
“For most people, I would recommend not doing the upgrade if they’ve got a traditional computer,” said Carl Laron, the senior editor at Consumersearch.com, an Internet-based shopping advice service. “It’s actually harder to use than traditional Windows when you’re using keyboard and mouse.”
Laron’s advice undermines Microsoft’s hope of persuading computer owners to upgrade their machines to Windows 8. During a reporter’s Friday visit to the crowded Boston Microsoft store, only one customer was interested in upgrading his laptop.
That customer had come to the store to get his laptop repaired, after he had tried unsuccessfully to install Windows 8 himself.
On the other hand, Windows 8 is a major opportunity for the world’s computer makers to sell a new generation of touchscreen laptop, desktop, and tablet computers. Computers without touchscreens will probably become extinct; already, every machine at the Microsoft Store is touch-sensitive.
With or without a touchscreen, using Windows 8 means learning new tricks.
For instance, many of the important controls that were once activated by clicking the Windows Start button have been moved to the right edge of the Windows 8 screen, controlled by a set of icons called “charms.”
But these charms are hidden unless you know where to look. Users must swipe a finger over the right edge or aim a mouse pointer at the upper or lower right corners of the screen to make them appear.
Many Windows 8 programs are simple, inexpensive apps, similar to those found on smartphones. When you’re done using an app, how do you shut it down? You can’t just click the bright orange X in the upper right corner; apps don’t have this feature. Instead, you “grab” the app with a finger or a mouse pointer and drag it to the bottom of the screen until it disappears.
These changes and many others are minor, but each must be learned from scratch, by a user who may have been perfectly happy with the old way of doing things. In all, they will make the first few days with Windows 8 something of a challenge for people accustomed to earlier editions.
But for the technically adventurous, Microsoft’s decision to embrace a new style of computing is reason enough to welcome Windows 8.
“I was interested in moving from Windows to Apple, “ said Rob Ivanoff, owner of Financial Products Research in Boston, “but now that I saw this, I may stick to Windows.”Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.