I’ve actually ran into Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer many times in Las Vegas, but I’ve never seen him at a casino. It’s always been at the Consumer Electronics Show or the old Comdex computer show. But based on what I’m seeing from Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy, he certainty is willing to take chances.
Call it a gamble or call it an investment, Ballmer is making a big and risky bet on the most radical redesign of Windows since he and Bill Gates introduced Windows 95 more than 15 years ago.
Depending on what you run it on and how you use it, Windows 8 can function pretty much like existing Windows versions. But put it on a new tablet PC and you have a paradigm shift, at least for Microsoft, as significant as what Apple did when it released the iPad, including the ability to run touch-screen apps designed specifically for mobile devices.
While Windows 8 has the look and feel of a tablet operating system, the version that runs on machines with an Intel processor is also a full-fledged version of Windows with the ability to run existing off-the-shelf Windows programs including, of course, Microsoft’s own Office suite.
Microsoft is releasing two basic versions of Windows 8. There is the standard Intel-only version that runs existing Windows desktop apps and the less versatile tablet-only Windows RT for machines that use an ARM processor. The RT version will run so-called “Metro” apps designed for Windows 8, but not regular Windows programs. Microsoft is, however, offering an RT version of Office.
Regardless of which version you use, you’ll see a very different start-up screen than Windows users are accustomed to. Instead of a desktop with icons and windows, you see a series of squares or tiles. Its unique look and feel is clearly not a copy of what Apple or Google(GOOG) designed for their tablets. Still, it’s designed to be used on a touch-screen device so any iPad or Android user accustomed to launching apps by touching icons should feel right at home.
Once launched, those apps take over the screen so you won’t see those familiar Windows options to get back to where you were. But once you get used to it, the new Metro interface is easy to navigate. That’s especially true if you’re using a touch-screen device.
But there is a learning curve for desktop users. Some commands aren’t intuitive. For example, if you’re in the middle of an app and want to return to the start screen, perform a search or access a device, you have to hover your mouse in the lower right corner of the screen to bring up the requisite set of icons. Once you do that you’ll see an easy way to get back to your start screen where you can access another app. Touch-screen users can do this with a finger.
In my tests of Windows 8, I’ve used many starter-apps including the People app that keeps you up-to-date on what your friends are up to on social media. But like most people who will be using Windows on a desktop or a laptop, I also wanted to get real work done and for that I used the “desktop” features, which function pretty much as they do in Windows 7.
You access the desktop by clicking on the desktop tile and that transforms the device into a traditional looking Windows machine with the familiar interface and access to your old programs.
Once I was in the desktop mode, all the programs I’m accustomed to using worked pretty much as they always have.
Still, there were some hurdles. To begin with, you can’t boot directly into the desktop, you have to start in the main tile screen and click on the desktop icon first. And the familiar start menu in the lower left corner is gone.
The gamble here is that some people may be annoyed with what they might see as unnecessary extra steps, especially if they have no interest in the new Metro apps.
On the other hand, there are those who might be excited about having a full Windows computer that’s also a tablet, which is certainly possible with some of the full-featured Intel-based tablets that are coming out later this month, all of which work with optional external keyboards. And for those wanting an even lighter-weight alternative there is the possibility of getting a Windows RT tablet, which runs the Metro apps and that special light version of Microsoft Office.
Some might even opt to spend $499 for Microsoft’s Surface tablet or shell out an extra $100 for the Touch Cover, that’s also a keyboard.
As for me, I’m not sure how all of this will shake out. I admire Ballmer for stepping up to the table, but when I’m in Las Vegas, I’m one of those guys who stands at the periphery of the casino vicariously enjoying some people’s success while feeling sorry for those who don’t fare so well. Even though I don’t have any cash in the game, I wish Microsoft the best. I’d hate to see Apple walk away with all the chips.