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Windows 8: Looking good, but can it be all things to all devices?

I was optimistic but a little incredulous as I watched Microsoft’s Windows President Steven Sinofsky and corporate Vice President Julie Larson-Green demonstrate Windows 8 at The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital conference in Rancho Palos Verdes last week.

The demo (scroll down to view video), which showed a dramatic new interface for Windows, was indeed impressive. But most impressive was the claim that the same version of Windows that will be used for desktop and laptop PCs with a mouse and keyboard will also work well on thin and light tablets with touch screens.

It performed well in the demo, but the software is not even ready for early beta testers, let alone paying customers. Sinofsky wouldn’t say when the new operating system will ship, other than that it won’t be any time soon.

The user interface for Windows 8 bears a strong resemblance to that of Windows Phone 7. Instead of clicking on a Start menu or icons on a desktop, users launch programs — or should I say “apps” — by using a finger to touch one of the large tiles on the screen. It looks like an interface designed specifically for a tablet machine.

There is no doubt that Microsoft was influenced by Apple. In an on-stage interview, Sinofsky told conference co-host Walt Mossberg that “a word we used a lot in developing was ‘modern,’ and how to think of it in a different way that solves a bunch of the things that people see or say they see are solved in an iPad.”

He added that the designers of Windows 8 “looked at it from the ground up” to “rethink how you interact with Windows, the kinds of programs you can run and how you get those programs.” Yet, in the next breath, he reassured the audience that “It’s Windows,” adding, “everything that runs on Windows 7 and every device you can plug into a Windows machine just runs.” The operating system will support both new apps written specifically for Windows 8 and “legacy” apps from previous versions of Windows.

During the demo, Larson-Green was using what looked like a tablet PC but it was actually a screen connected to a desktop PC under the table. Still, it looked great and appeared responsive as she used her fingers to flick from one set of tiles to another or to launch some of the full screen apps designed for Windows 8. She showed how you can swipe your finger across the screen to quickly switch between running apps. She also demonstrated a feature called “snap” that lets you pause as you swipe an app from the side to the center of screen to have it appear next to whatever other app is also running. It allows for a multitasking interface while striving to avoid the clutter that is so common when running multiple programs on either Windows or a Mac.

Like all modern tablet operating systems, the new Windows will display an onscreen keyboard. But there will also be an optional “thumbs layout” where the keyboard is cut in half, with one part on each side of the screen to make it easier to use two thumbs instead of 10 fingers.

If Windows 8 works as advertised, it will solve some of the major limitations that frustrate me when I use an iPad or an Android tablet — because any Windows 8 device, regardless of whether it’s a 7-inch tablet or a desktop with multiple screens, will be able to run the same software. Users won’t have to give up productivity applications, including ones customized for their businesses, for the privilege of being able to run cool apps designed for touch-screen devices.

Whether this actually works will depend not only on what Microsoft delivers but on the evolution of a robust ecosystem of apps, accessories and devices that make the operating system fun and productive to use.

I’ll reserve judgment until I have a chance to try it out, but I was certainly impressed by the demo. I do worry, however, about any product that tries to be all things to all people. I need to be convinced that a good desktop operating system can also be a good tablet operating system.

But, as Steve Jobs likes to say at the end of his demos, “there’s one more thing.” The iPad, which is now the gold standard for new devices, is not just a vessel for running apps; it’s also an experience that delights users and inspires developers to create some of the most interesting software we’ve seen in decades.


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