What you need to know now about Windows 8

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

Few Microsoft publicity efforts have ever drawn as much attention as last week’s 20-minute Windows 8 sneak preview.

If you’ve heard that Windows 8 is for the dogs or that it will look like a phone, you haven’t heard the whole story.

Permit me to step you through what we know about Windows 8 and give some insight into what we don’t know. Microsoft has dropped a few hints — some intentionally, some inadvertently — about wherewe’re headed.

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One thing’s for sure: Windows 8, as we know it now, represents a huge departure for Microsoft — a rethinking of the way people interact with their machines. Some of it’s familiar; some of it’s scary. A whole lot of it is very new. Like it or not, Win8 will likely change the way we work through our PCs.

Start with the live-tile phone interface

If you haven’t yet seen the official briefing, take a short break from what you’re doing right now and have a look. Last week, Microsoft VP Julie Larson-Green took the stage at Walt Mossberg’s All Things Digital D9 Conference and, with Windows head honcho Steve Sinofsky providing color commentary, walked us through a slick demo of what we can expect.

As you watch the video, keep your finger on the pause button and watch for these milestones:

2:30 — If you ignore the eye candy, you’ll realize that the sign-in sequence Julie goes through is almost identical to what we do today in Windows 7.

The first view of the live-tile MoSH interface (code-named Metro) will come as a shock. Yes, the tiles (shown in Figure 1) look a lot like Windows Phone 7 tiles, but there are significant differences. The contents of the Win8 tiles can be changed dynamically by programs running on your computer. Conceptually, they’re much like Windows 7 Gadgets — except these tiles float together on the screen, without a desktop underneath. And because they will be displayed on a larger screen, they’re also much bigger than Phone 7 tiles, so they can hold more information.

Windows 8 tiled interface
Figure 1. Live tiles in Windows 8’s new MoSH (“Modern Shell” — gad, what a name) interface. Note the prominent “Store” tile.

3:40 — Julie shows a new, simple, Windows 8 app that displays the weather. It’s not much different from your favorite weather website, except this app’s running directly on your Windows 8 computer. It’s an HTML5/JavaScript application, Microsoft’s newly anointed combination for Web-connected Windows apps. Note, on the right, the link to Maps. I’m not sure where it goes, but it looks inviting.

4:45 — While showing off the pull-out menu on the right — the one with icons for Search, Share, Start, Connect, and Settings — Julie says that it’s the replacement for the Start menu. That isn’t quite correct, as you will see in a few minutes.

5:30 — Toggling apps by swiping your finger from the left side is a lot like the Alt+Tab combination that you’ve been using for decades. Except there’s no visual cue on the left about what apps are running and are thus accessible by a swipe. It also isn’t clear in which order the swiped apps appear.

5:50 — Snap should be familiar to most Windows 7 users. Win8’s snap has a drag capability that lets you adjust the size of the snapped area.

6:10 — See how Internet Explorer 10 runs as a native application? That’s quite different from how apps such as Office run, as you will see momentarily. Also note how IE 10 has no exposed interface: you have to swipe from the bottom or top in order to bring up a tab list or the address bar. That’s generally true: new apps written for the live-tile part of Win8 run full screen, and many (such as IE 10) will hide their controls until you swipe at the top or the bottom of the screen.

Jumping back to the real, old Windows

Starting to feel like Dorothy in the Land of Oz? Hard to believe, but Microsoft says all Windows 8 PCs will ship with this live-tile interface as the default — even on PCs without touchscreens. But be of good cheer: Julie is about to take us back to Kansas.

8:30 — Julie pushes the live-tile for Word and shazam!, we’re propelled onto an old-fashioned Windows 7 desktop. I’m not sure what’s happening here technically, and Microsoft isn’t saying much about it. Is this a virtual machine? Is it sandboxed? Based on what you can see here, with the desktop running full-screen, it looks like all of your old Windows 7 apps will run on this desktop. It’s almost as if the Win7 desktop is just another live-tiled app — on equal footing with the weather application or Internet Explorer 10 in this demo.

Note the familiar Start button, taskbar, and desktop. Look closely at the taskbar, and you’ll see that there are no icons shown for apps running back in the live-tile world: the Windows desktop seems to live in its own space, oblivious to what’s happening in the rest of Windows 8. It looks like the only way to jump from Kansas to Oz — er, to move from the Windows desktop world to the live-tile world — is by clicking the start button in the drag-out menu on the right. The dichotomy raises the question of whether we’ll be able to drag files from one world to the other.

Also note, at the end of the stint inside old Windows, how Julie has a hard time dragging the Excel window up to the top of the screen. You just have to wonder how hard it will be to use a touch interface with Excel in particular and with other Windows 7 apps in general. They were made for clicking, not for swiping — and there’s a big difference.

10:20 — See how Microsoft has changed the nature of click-to-select? In old Windows, you hold down the Ctrl key and click to select multiple items. In the live-tile world, multiple selection appears to be the default — click on two or three items, and you select them all. You then have to do something different to signify you’ve finished selecting. Expect lots of little changes like that, when switching between the live-tile world and the Windows-desktop world, whether you have a touch screen or not and whether you have a mouse or keyboard or not.

13:40 — Imagine working on a laptop with both touch-screen and mouse. Sliding your finger moves the tiles. Presumably, when using a mouse, you’d click-and-drag to move tiles. Thus, there probably won’t be any drag-and-drop in the live-tile world. Which raises many interesting questions such as, how do you customize the tiles if you can’t drag-and-drop them?

17:30 — Walt Mossberg sums it up: “This does not look anything like, you know, ….” He also tries to pin down Steve Sinofsky on a delivery date. All we get to hang our hats on is, “It won’t be this fall.”

Thank heaven it won’t be out this fall; there’s an awful lot of work left to do.

Important conclusions, unanswered questions

Yes, it’s just a demo. No, it isn’t the final product. Anything and everything you saw in the demo could change by the time Microsoft sticks a fork in Win8 and pronounces it fully baked.

But it’s clear that Windows is in for big-time changes. Microsoft’s trying hard to gussy up its 25-year-old cash cow and make it dance with iPads and Chromebooks and Androids. Only time will tell whether it’ll be successful or whether Windows has started a long, slow descent into irrelevance. Slapping on easy-to-program HTML5/JavaScript apps alongside lumbering legacy programs (each running in a different world) opens up all sorts of possibilities and poses perplexing questions.

Those HTML5/JavaScript applications can, at least in theory, run on both traditional Intel/AMD PCs and on the newer ARM (predominantly tablet) processors from Nvidia, TI, and Qualcomm.

The details on running older programs on ARM computers with Windows 8 are at best sketchy. In particular, rumor has it that Microsoft has been forced to make lots of changes to the Office 2010 programs in order to get them working on ARM hardware and Windows 8. But it’s just a rumor. Whether your favorite Windows 7 or WinXP program will work on an ARM tablet running Win8 — that’s still one of the big unknowns.

That said, there seems to be little doubt that current Win7 programs will work fine under Win8 on Intel/AMD PCs.

I’m happy to report that the changes in Win8 will force hardware manufacturers into the 21st century. Details are sketchy, but it appears that all new hardware with Win8 preinstalled will have to use Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI, MS info page), the firmware interface that will finally — finally! — let us get rid of BIOS. Systems using UEFI should boot much faster than BIOS systems.

I’ve seen online comments skeptical about running Windows 8 on a tiny tablet. I don’t give them much credence. My ASUS Eee 1000H netbook ran Windows 7 just fine. Today’s tablets now are just as powerful as the Eee.

I don’t think you’re going to see any performance problems on moderately fast PCs, either. As with Windows 7, sufficient RAM and a good video card will no doubt be key.

After seeing Julie’s video, several of you wrote asking whether to hold off on upgrading to Windows 7, now that Windows 8 is on the horizon. My advice is to move to Win7 now. Microsoft won’t be revealing much more about Win8 until the BUILD conference in September (when many of us are expecting some sort of preview/test version).

Nobody knows when Win8 will ship; Microsoft won’t give an estimate, and delays in Windows are notoriously common. I think there’s a good chance you won’t see a final version of Win8 until 14 to 16 months from now.

I have to say, however, I’m amazed Microsoft has let this much of the Win8 cat out of the bag. The preview could certainly hurt Windows 7 sales.

Bottom line: I like what I’ve seen so far. Will Win8 desktops work better than Win7 desktops? Probably. Have I seen a compelling reason to switch? Not yet. Will Win8 netbooks run better than Chromebooks? Hard to say: Google’s going to rev Chrome quickly, and Apple’s next OS X, Lion, is due out next fall and might take the steam out of either or both.

Will Win8 tablets work better than iPads or Android tablets? I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. You have to consider that Apple should be able to get in two major version upgrades in the time it takes Win8 to get to market. Android’s future depends in large part on Google’s ability to consolidate the platform — but that’s by no means a given.

At least the game is competitive. This should be exciting.

A Windows 8 preview bibliography

To see what’s publicly known about Win8, start with the original All Things Digital D9 Conference demo, which I annotated for this article. Next, check out the “Building Windows 8” video, which includes higher-quality footage of the important parts of the conference presentation. You can also read Microsoft’s press release, but it’s primarily a rehash.

For a different look, see Long Zheng’s istartedsomething blog, which has a brief running commentary and direct screen shots. But remember: at this point, no one outside of Microsoft knows a lot about the internal workings of Win8.

To see what’s happening on the hardware end, Tom Warren’s winrumors blog has an extended demo, conducted by Microsoft’s Mike Angiulo at Computex in Taipei, of many types of hardware running Win8.

The best historical commentary I’ve seen is from Michael Mace on his MobileOpportunity blog. He looks at Windows 8 with a decidedly mobile slant.

Most of all, stay tuned to Windows Secrets Newsletter. We’ll bring you all of the latest developments, as they happen, and sift through the pabulum. We promise.

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Woody Leonhard writes computer books primarily about Windows and Office, most recently the award-winning Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies. He’s a Senior Contributing Editor at InfoWorld, where his Tech Watch columns bring some common sense — and a jaundiced eye — to the latest industry shenanigans.
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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.