Microsoft's Windows 8: tragic mistake or stroke of genius?

windows8-greenI've been arguing with my brother lately regarding the potential of Windows 8 and Microsoft's new Surface tablets. As a die-hard Apple owner, he's not taken with the idea of Windows 8. Will Windows 8 be any good without a touch screen? Even with all the software advances under the hood (and there are plenty), will Microsoft scare the average user to death with such a radical design overhaul?

There's no doubt that Microsoft is gambling big. In terms of its user interface, Windows 8 is the most drastic software update imaginable, equivalent to the launch of Windows 95 - and this from a company that still dominates the desktop PC industry with a 90 percent plus lead. The new touch friendly Metro UI is a colourful (some would argue too colourful) tile based system, a smart cross between the Android OS with its lively widgets and the static icons that make up Apple's phone/tablet software. Tiles can change automatically, displaying current news articles or Facebook posts for example, or alerting you to new emails or a weather forecast - or pretty much anything else. The tiles are perfect for touch. Swiping left to right works nicely.

While it's clear that Microsoft is aiming at touch interfaces with Windows 8, it works well with a keyboard and mouse too. You can use a mouse's scroll wheel to move left to right, and hovering over the bottom left hand corner of the screen gives you a shortcut to the Metro start screen, whether you're on the desktop or using a new Metro style app. Pulling down from the top of the screen closes apps and you can snap two apps together to view them side by side by dragging one next to the other. You can always leave the Metro interface and find the traditional desktop with a single click too (minus the Windows 7 start button).

Microsoft's approach means tablets will arrive with a fully functioning desktop OS. The contrast with Apple is stark. Any software that works on Windows 7 desktop machine (such as Adobe Photoshop), should work on other hardware form factors too. In comparison, Apple has been slowly incorporating pieces of its tablet/phone operating system (IOS) into its desktop software (OSX), but that integration has been haphazard. With small changes Windows 8 desktop apps should run on Windows 8 tablets or phones (and vice versa) - a potential gold mine for developers. By creating a unified, multi-form factor software system Microsoft appears to have jumped 5 years ahead of Apple.

Do we really need touch on laptops or desktops though? Won't your arm get tired controlling your desktop PC over long periods? And why have touch on a laptop anyway?

From my own experience using an Android Transformer tablet, I believe that a laptop or desktop with a touch screen is a great idea. While you don't always use touch for everything, it's very handy to have when you do. Some gestures are more natural and easy using touch (and quickly become the default choice), others work far better using a mouse or a keyboard. It's this combined approach on other form factors I believe will win the day. Sure, if all you are using is touch, your arm may quickly tire, but with multiple different interaction methods, it's another story entirely. A combination of touch, voice and/or gesture control, for example, along with a keyboard and mouse, could be just the ticket. Why should anyone be restricted and locked into one interaction method?

The Windows 8 transition should be boosted by the multiple hardware manufacturers that have already enthusiastically jumped on board. If recent computer trade shows are any indication, we'll see a flood of new Windows 8 desktop machines and tablets launched when Windows 8 arrives arrives 26 October (including Microsoft's new Surface tablets).

Microsoft have sensibly priced the software to maximise adoption. You'll be able to upgrade from almost all older versions of Windows (Vista, XP and Windows 7) for a very low US$39. You'll even be able to upgrade for $39 if you're running the Windows 8 Release Preview (download it here if you don't already have an upgrade option).

Additionally, Microsoft is simultaneously upgrading and launching its very popular Office Suite (Office 2013). They've made the new Office more touch friendly and have finally embraced the cloud (Google Docs watch out). As another incentive to upgrade, Microsoft Office will come free with Windows 8 RT tablets (the version that only runs the Metro UI using Arm chips) and presumably will also be included in the high end Windows Pro versions. Download the preview version of Microsoft's Office 2013 here to check it out in detail. An Apple style Windows App store, a Windows 8 phone operating system with the same Metro approach, and Skype integration could help also help persuade the skeptical.

Still, there's no doubt that they are gambling everything here.The Windows 8 Metro UI does take a bit of getting used to and this factor could have a negative impact on early adoption. Equally, a lot of desktop machines with touch-screens will be released at launch, but the default is still non-touch, especially in corporate environments. Will users find it attractive enough to upgrade? Will non-touch PC users be put off entirely? Can a unified tablet, desktop, laptop and phone OS really be consistent and flexible enough to cover all bases?

It's not long before we find out.

Watch demos of the new Windows 8 Metro UI, Windows 8 Phone, Office 2013 and the Windows Surface tablets below.


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