Microsoft posted the first public beta of the next version of its Windows operating system on Wednesday, following a debut event at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow -- indicating the company's plans to tackle mobile computing and the iPad head on.
The pre-release version of the operating system -- available for free download at preview.windows.com -- introduces a completely new way to interact with your computer and an entirely new vision for the desktop, thanks to the tile-based “Metro” interface the company created for its Windows Phone platform.
Metro has been widely hailed for changing the way we think about smartphones, much as the iPhone did in 2007. Thanks to it, Windows 8 will actively present information to you from your first power on, via tiles that flip and transform by themselves rather than waiting for you to, say, launch a website and visit Facebook or open your inbox to check for new email.
“With Windows 8, we reimagined the different ways people interact with their PC and how to make everything feel like a natural extension of the device, whether using a Windows 8 tablet, laptop or all-in-one,” said Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division at Microsoft. “The Windows 8 Consumer Preview brings a no-compromises approach to using your PC.”
With Windows 8, we reimagined the different ways people interact with their PC.
- Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows division
Beyond the new interface, the new operating system offers several new features:
- The Windows Store, the first online store for Windows applications.
- Internet Explorer 10 Platform Preview 5, the latest iteration of Microsoft’s web browser, which provides an edge-to-edge user interface “all about less browser and more Web,” the company said.
- Cloud computing, thanks to a new user log on feature that lets you bring your settings with you onto a variety of PCs, and integration with the Windows SkyDrive online storage locker.
It's clearly intended for mobile devices, especially the increasingly popular tablet space currently dominated by Apple's iPad and devices powered by the Android OS.
But not everyone will find the new operating system perfect. The major innovation of Windows 8 -- the touch screen Metro interface -- may simple confuse those consumers who don’t have touch-enabled systems.
“This is a big gamble for Microsoft,” noted technology analyst Rob Enderle told FoxNews.com. “Touch isn’t prevalent at all in desktop and laptop computers. Monitors often sit too far away from the user to make touch useful and there are few touch monitors in market, and those few that are cost more than most are willing to pay.”
PC manufacturers contacted by FoxNews.com were unwilling or unable to comment on the prevalence of touch in their current or future lineups. HP, for example, noted that it has touch screen all-in-one PCs branded TouchSmart PCs in the marketplace today. But the company doesn’t break out the touch versus non-touch systems, a spokeswoman said.
“The monitor issue will be a sustaining one,” Enderle said.
Other manufacturers offered similar examples of current models, but were hesitant to state how many future models would do so.
On the other hand, Windows 8 may herald the popularization of a new class of computer entirely -- hybrid systems, where touch-screen tablets snap into base stations, offering desktop or on the go functionality.
Microsoft loaned reviewers just such a device ahead of the launch of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview: The Samsung 700T, an 11.6-inch “slate” PC with a Bluetooth keyboard and docking station that retails for about $1,200.
“This [class of device] will be the showcase product for this release … but its success will depend on how well this new form is marketed with the product,” Enderle said.
Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.