For more than 20 years, Microsoft has defined the computing landscape for more than a billion customers around the world. This was the bold claim of Microsoft’s corporate vice-president, Mike Angiulo, speaking at the Computex tradeshow in Taipei this June.
Along with Ballmer, Angiulo has been showing off the latest builds of Windows 8, Microsoft’s next desktop OS. It’s not that long since Windows 7 went onsale, but Windows 8 is set to debut in mid-2012 as a radically different-looking proposition. In fact, it will be perhaps the most radical overhaul since the fabled Windows 95 launch that catapulted Windows into the desktop OS stratosphere.
See also: Microsoft Windows 8 review
With all those customers at stake, Microsoft has its work cut out to please more than it irks with its new approach to desktop computing and in persuading us to upgrade from our existing Windows versions.
Windows 7 is now just over 18 months old, yet Windows 8 first broke cover in July 2010. Cynics might suggest that the fact that the first images of Windows 8 appeared mere months after the official launch of Windows 7 indicates there’s likely to be very little new behind the scenes. Some things will remain the same – specifically, the ability to run programs you already own. But in many ways, Windows 8 offers a radical departure from existing versions of Microsoft’s platform.
Few people want Windows to have more features. What it needs is more focus – and to be easier to get around. Windows 8 looks set to offer both these things – provided that you favour touchscreen navigation.
Microsoft is introducing a tiled interface that looks like a direct import from its successful Windows Phone 7 mobile OS. These tiles offer a clear indication that Microsoft is shifting from traditional keyboard and mouse input to fingers and touchscreens.
A Microsoft blog post published at the start of June to coincide with Ballmer’s keynote unveiling of the in-progress OS stated: “Windows 8 is a reimagining of Windows, from the chip to the interface. A Windows 8 PC is a new kind of device, one that scales from touch-only small screens through to large screens, with or without a keyboard and mouse.”
Why it’s all about touch
The news that Windows 8 will be primarily a touch-based interface isn’t a surprise. Most commentators had predicted that it would be far more focused on tablets and mobile use than on the traditional office desktop PC. Given the shift in computer-purchasing patterns over the past five years, this makes sense. However, while laptop sales have outstripped desktop sales since 2009, there’s little evidence that people are eschewing their main PCs in favour of touchscreen tablets. Microsoft needs to ensure it’s covering all bases.
Touchscreen controls will not be the only option for input. With legacy programs to support, a new programming layer will sit between them and the interface and improve the way the two work together. Conversely, says Windows 8’s chief designer, Julie Larson-Green, while Microsoft’s focus on touch means most programs will now be written for finger-friendly control, this programming layer will ensure that they will also work well with a keyboard and mouse.
This isn’t prevarication on Microsoft’s part: a touchscreen interface won’t suit every user. Accessibility issues for those with physical and visual impairments mean Microsoft won’t be abandoning traditional input modes. At this stage, though, we don’t have details about the interface customisation options that may be offered. Our guess is that Windows 8 will also offer a ‘classic’ version of the interface, allowing anyone with a specific setup requirement – or simply using software that requires a particular screen mode – to continue to access it.