Wednesday 14 September 2011

Windows 8: A post-PC, mobile interface coming to the PC

After the wildly successful launch of the iPad, Steve Jobs proudly proclaimed last year that we were entering the post-PC era. The logic being when tablets and smartphones were getting so powerful not everyone would need a full PC to meet their needs.

Don’t count PCs out yet, PCs are taking page from the new touch-driven technologies. With a sneak peek at Windows 8, Microsoft is bringing a post-PC touch interface to its flagship desktop operating system.

At Microsoft’s Build developers conference, Windows has released the next version of Windows to preview. It’s still early days for Windows 8, and it’s still a work in progress, not only rough but also a bit unstable.

Start-me up screen:

The entire experience will feel much more like a smartphone than a desktop computer. If you’ve left your Windows 8 computer or tablet idle for a while, you’ll be greeted with a lock screen. Wake the device, and you’ll see a desktop picture with a clear clock and icons showing you how many messages you have waiting, your battery life and the network status.

You can unlock the device with a password, a PIN or with a Picture Password, gaining access with three gestures on parts of a picture in your library.

Gone is the familiar desktop that we’ve all grown accustomed to since the launch of Windows 95. Now, the desktop is just another application. It is a radically different interface than Windows 7, but if you are one of the few who own a Microsoft Zune music player or Windows Phone, then the “Metro” interface of Windows 8 will instantly look familiar.

Instead of the desktop and the familiar start button, Windows 8 has a start screen with tiles tied to applications that update automatically as new email arrives or with current weather conditions or stock information. Instead of scrolling through a small menu, you’ll swipe through screens filled with application tiles, just as with an iPad or other tablet. As you slide between the screen, you’ll encounter a slight resistance so you don’t overshoot between screens.

The start screen can be completely customised. Tiles can be easily moved around and resized from squares to double-width rectangles. The interface is multi-touch so that you can select a tile with a touch and then move between screens with another swipe.

There is both an on-screen keyboard similar to other tablets and also a split keyboard that will allow easy thumb typing. It also has a clever predictive text feature that will enlarge keys that it think you might want to use next. Of course, you can also use keyboard and mouse or even a stylus.

Swiping left, right, up and down are key to using Windows 8. Swipe left to access a task switcher. Swipe right to access the five “charms”: Search, share, start, devices and settings. Settings control not just the device but also application-specific settings.

Microsoft has adapted its key applications such as Internet Explorer, its 10th edition, to take advantage of the new touch-centric Metro interface. However, some applications still are best for the traditional way of working like Microsoft’s Office. If you open that, it will launch from the desktop.

Life in the cloud:

Just as with Apple’s visions of the post-PC era, the cloud will bind the desktop and mobile versions of Windows. If you don’t have an account for Microsoft’s cloud services, Windows Live, you’ll be asked to create one when you first log into the device. You can store files on Windows Sky Drive, and your Windows Live account will help manage a lot of your social media activities.

Microsoft has had a few stumbles as it has tried to update Windows, most notably with disastrous Vista. However, Windows 8 is getting strong reviews. Peter Bright of Ars Technica says:

“The core UI works, and it works well. It’s fast and fluid, and it’s very well thought-out. … even in this early state, Windows 8 is unambiguously a first-class tablet operating system.”

It’s challenging to develop a user interface that scales from phone to TV, via slate, notebook and desktop PC. But Microsoft seems to have nailed it.”

Here’s a video that shows you what life with a Windows 8 tablet will look like.

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