We’ve been hearing about Windows 8 for months, and today we can finally tell you it’s got a smart tile-based user interface, robust developer options and what is essentially a complete revamp of Windows 7 to bring Microsoft’s new OS into the mobile era.
Microsoft unveiled Windows 8 during the keynote at its BUILD developer conference Tuesday morning. Executives showed off the operating system’s versatility on a variety of mobile and desktop platforms, pointing out features like cloud-based photo sharing, streamlined contact management and the Metro UI overhaul. The OS is Microsoft’s first earnest push into the tablet space and it looks, at first glance, anyway, like it’s a true competitor to mobile operating systems like Android and iOS.
We got an early preview of Windows 8 earlier this summer. The OS is designed for PCs and tablets and uses a live tile-based touch UI with multitasking capabilities. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer hinted that we’d be getting Windows 8 tablets next year. As promised, everyone attending BUILD got a free tablet.
Microsoft has until recently been tentative about entering the mobile space, and not without warrant — Microsoft’s legacy is software built specifically for the PC. Whereas iOS burst on the scene in 2007, followed a short time later by Android, Windows Phone 7 arrived in late 2010. Microsoft’s last OS, Windows 7, was clearly designed for the PC experience rather than the tablet experience.
So far, it looks like Windows 8 is making a big splash, particularly with developers. Here’s a rundown of what we’ve learned Windows 8 offers.
Overview and Hardware
Two major changes have been made to Windows 8: it improves on Windows 7 directly (which means that anything that runs on Windows 7 will be compatible with Windows 8), and the company has rethought what Windows can be.
One of the central themes of today’s keynote announcements was Windows 8 is a reimagining of Windows, from the user experience all the way down to the chipset.
Developers at the conference received one of 5,000 Samsung Windows 8 tablets. The tablet includes an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer, as well as NFC and built-in AT&T 3G. It’s also got a tool that shows you how much data your using, which is pretty cool. The slate pairs with a docking station and a wireless keyboard. From close-ups and screenshots during the presentation, it appears to have a 120 gig Intel G2 solid state drive. (Also noteworthy is that the developer tablet is basically a Windows 7 slate skinned to run Windows 8 — it’s not actually the first ‘Windows 8 device.’)
Windows 8 can run on ARM or x86 architecture, and Microsoft showed off its OS running on multiple devices including ASUS and Acer ultrabooks, an Intel tablet and a Toshiba all-in-one setup. It’s interesting that Microsoft would choose to allow its OS to port to so many different devices, on different chipsets, with different screen sizes, particularly when we’ve watched Google struggle with Android’s ability to do that. But it looks like its user interface may be better suited to that task than Android’s.
Mark Rendle, principal software architect at Dot Net Solutions, really likes Microsoft’s Metro UI.
“It looks like they’ve scaled it up really well, and I like the way it fits to different screen sizes,” he said.
“I’m excited that I can leverage all of the existing skills that I already have and choose what is best for writing a new Win8 app,” said Ed Blankenship, a .NET developer and technical lead at Imaginet.
From what we can see, the app-making and uploading process looks pretty streamlined.
When an app is completed, Windows has a few super-convenient built-in tools to port it over to the Windows App Store. You can select a price, a trial period length and choose the appropriate app categories it belongs in from a drop down menu. Windows’ app store will be “transparent” about its approval and certification process, showing users what stage of approval they’re in with its web interface. The app store itself has the features you’d come to expect: price listing, ratings, an option to buy or try, screenshots, details and reviews.
“I love that Windows 8 will run anywhere and any app that can run on Windows 8 will run on any device. That’s really key – I can develop & debug on a tablet running Windows 8,” said Blankenship.
You can’t do that with other platforms available today. Developers normally have to build that infrastructure themselves, often a huge time sink. But now, devs can easily get apps into the Windows Store.
“Microsoft really knows how to leverage its ecosystem and keep [developers] happy,” Blankenship said. “I know that’s what will be a driving factor for success with Windows 8.”
A Few Apps
Like Windows Phone 7, Windows 8 has a large social aspect built-in. In a departure from the desktop-oriented OS’s of the past, Microsoft has redesigned or reskinned a number of services. Windows 8 also takes advantage of the growing cloud-based storage movement.
“The interaction between apps on and between devices is really exciting,” Rendle said of Windows 8, citing the Contracts API as one he was particularly excited about using.
For instance, the new email client looks pretty slick: It’s a two panel setup that meshes with the Metro look and feel, with an optional third panel that comes up when you’re going through email folders. A contacts app neatly arranges your friends and acquaintances as a grid of square photos, which you can click to get more information. The email client and contacts app won’t be shipping with the developer release of Windows 8.
The photos app can pull images from services like Flickr, Facebook and SkyDrive after you’ve connected with your accounts. The app treats remote storage and SkyDrive’s cloud storage as if data is stored locally. Email and SkyDrive can sync with Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) devices.
As far as entertainment on Windows 8 goes, it looks like Xbox Live will be ported over to the OS.
“Applications are really powering the system with new capabilities, and as you get more applications, the experience gets richer and richer,” Julie Larson-Green, a Microsoft vp, said about Windows 8 and its app environment.
In the demos, there were a few features, such as photo sharing across SkyDrive, which bugged out in the keynote demonstration but worked fine in earlier press meetings.
It’s got boot protection, so when Michael Angiulo, CVP of Windows Planning and Ecosystem, tried to launch a Samsung tablet with an infected USB key, the booting process stopped before the system could fully launch.
A few keyboard shortcuts were introduced: Windows – C opens up the Charm menu (a cross application searching and sharing toolbar with an option for switching between desktop and Metro views), Windows – Z opens the app bar and Windows – F does searches. Traditional Internet Explorer shortcuts still work.
A redesigned task manager also made its debut; it can be viewed as a straightforward list of apps and an end button or as a full view with usage statistics of each of the processes.
Multi-monitor and remote log-in features are made easy, with the ability to swap between a desktop view and Metro view with a simple keyboard shortcut. VHDs and ISO images are also treated like local drives.
Many feared that traditional Windows problems, like the need for drivers, would plague Windows 8, but from the demonstrations at BUILD, everything seemed to run very smoothly. Accessories like a webcam worked instantly after being plugged in. Windows 8 takes mouse, keyboard or touch inputs, and there’s also a digital pad you can use a stylus with for drawing or writing.
Getting Windows 8
You can get access to a developer preview release of Windows 8, with or without development tools, beginning at 8 p.m. PST. The Windows app store will not be active in the preview release (which is not to be confused with a beta release of Windows 8), but the release does include a number of sample/SDK applications.
“I think Microsoft will really need to find a way to drive adoption of Win8 as fast as possible to
encourage the developer community to create these new-style apps,” Rendle said. The fact that the software is available as a public preview should help with that fact.
No date for a Beta launch of Windows 8 has been announced.
“We’re going to be driven by the quality, not by a date,” Sinofsky said.
Why code for Windows 8? Besides the robust developing options, Microsoft estimates that 400 million people will eventually adopt the Windows 8 ecosystem.
“Microsoft has made a significant investment to entice existing developers to build for the Windows 8 platform,” Blankenship said. “I can’t wait to get my hands on the Developer Preview build tonight!”
Videos and livestreams of Microsoft’s conference are available at buildwindows website.