In its own Chino-decked, blue-shirted way, Microsoft is probably enjoying not being the centre of attention any more. Its unveiling and demo of its new Windows 8 OS drew nothing like the global buzz that would have been guaranteed for a Microsoft release only two or three years ago. Perhaps that explains why the team showing the company’s new OS looked relaxed. Humble, even.
The irony is that Windows 8 is one of the bravest OS releases ever. It makes Lion, Apple’s attempt to tabbify the desktop, look tame. For one, the Start Menu – the one thing that has seen the OS through from Windows ‘95 to Windows 7 – has become something else entirely.
First impressions of Windows 8
Windows 8 merges the desktop and tablet in a way that must have Apple’s design team scratching their heads (and asking themselves who signed off Launchpad in Lion 10.7). In place of the rectangular Start Menu pop-up used by millions worldwide for over 25 years, you now have a touch-friendly, full-screen set of tiles with a strong family resemblance to Windows Phone 7.
We installed the Developer Preview (with the associated warnings that this is a massively unfinished product) on a desktop machine, so we have no way of judging the new OS on a tablet. But the Windows 8 desktop experience – even from this uncooked release – is enough to suggest that Apple has something to worry about at last.
Installation and login
Getting Windows 8 installed from the 64-bit ISO took under 15 minutes from start to login. There’s no surprises here, bar the fairly aggressive integration with Windows cloud services – to set up your account, you can login using your Windows Live ID – a clue to the more Windows Phone 7-ish experience given by the set-up screens.
Complete the set up, and you’re launched into the most radical aspect of Windows 8. The default tiles in the new Start screen include the obvious such as Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer, but also new social apps that call on your Twitter and Facebook accounts. The aim’s obvious enough – a flexible dashboard that shows all of your stuff – from social to games to more conventional desktop applications – in a single place.
Windows 8 desktop
Its early days and the Windows 8 desktop may evolve further as the OS nears release, but today its underwhelming compared to the initial rush of the new Start screen. This doesn’t mean its bad in any way – in fact, Windows 7 users will feel right at home. The only major clue is the new Start button, which – obviously enough – launches you back into the Start screen.
Windows 8 browser
Fiddle around a while, though, and there are significant changes – like a redesign for Windows Explorer (which now gets the full Office ribbon treatment), and an all-new Internet Explorer 10. From the desktop, that looks a lot like Internet Explorer 9, but access it from the Start menu and it’s a different beast. You may have abandoned IE long ago, but we wouldn’t put it past the browser’s new minimalist cut to tempt you back.
Windows 8 apps
Apple may have popularised (and even tried to own) apps, but the Windows 8 Developer Preview suggests Microsoft is ready to start playing catch-up before the Mac App Store’s foundations can set as deep as its mobile counterpart. There are games, location apps and a GarageBand-esque virtual piano that’s horrid to use with a keyboard and mouse, but might translate better to touchscreens.
If this skin-deep appraisal of Microsoft’s next generation OS is anything to go by, Windows isn’t done yet. But it’ll be a balancing act to drag Windows 8 kicking and screaming into the 21st century without making some of its users kick and scream. This first glimpse does little more than shine a light down the path Microsoft intends to travel, but it could be the trip of Microsoft’s modern life.
One more thing…
We did (inevitably) manage to crash the dev beta. And here’s the all-new Blue Screen of Death...
Windows 10 conference