Shock: Windows 8 optimized for desktop tablets

Why the default user interface for desktop Windows 8 looks a lot like Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7

By Mike Elgan

Computerworld – Microsoft demonstrated the next version of Windows this week, and the operating system has an interface almost nobody expected or predicted.

The default interface for Windows 8 will look almost nothing like Windows 7, but will look and feel a heck of a lot like Microsoft‘s cell-phone operating system, Windows Phone 7.

What’s going on here?

Way back in February 2007, I told you about the coming era of touch-screen desktop computing — “an iPhone the size of a big-screen TV.” I asked: “Will the desktop version of this third-generation UI come from Apple, or Microsoft?”

After four years, we still don’t know the answer to that question. Apple could still beat Microsoft to the punch.

But this week we learned that Microsoft intends to ship the first desktop touch tablet version of Windows next year. More importantly, we know how Microsoft is going to manage the jarring transition from second-generation WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointing devices) computing to third-generation MPG (multi-touch, physics and gestures) computing.

To gently-but-aggressively transition the Windows world to the next generation of computing, Microsoft is going to do something I hadn’t even thought of: Microsoft will get millions of users to interact with their touch interface without touching. Windows 8 will combine the gestures and eye candy of tomorrow’s touch tablets with the clunky mice and keyboards of yesterday’s PCs.

A proven strategy

When Microsoft transitioned users from DOS to Windows back in the early 1990s, they made Windows a “shell” on top of DOS, but made the Windows UI the default. (Note that the less aggressive, legacy-friendly alternative to that would have been to ship DOS with the Windows shell as an optional application.) Microsoft didn’t force everyone to suddenly abandon DOS and the DOS applications they had invested in. Anyone who wanted to launch and run a DOS program could do so, but in a DOS window within the Windows shell. Microsoft’s strategy paid off, and Windows adoption happened quickly.

Microsoft plans to do exactly the same thing with Windows 8. The new operating system will default to the next-generation shell — the Metro UI, which first showed up in the Windows Media Center, then the Zune, then Windows Phone 7.

That’s right. When you install Windows 8, you’ll be greeted not by a “desktop” with icons, but to a “personal mosaic of tiles,” according to Microsoft’s demo video. These are like icons in functionality — when you click or tap them, they launch the associated applications. But unlike icons, they display data from the applications. In Microsoft’s example, the e-mail tile shows new messages. The calendar tile shows today’s appointments. A “My Investments” tile displays live stock prices. A Twitter tile shows a recent tweet.

The interface is so new that applications will have to be re-written for it from the ground up, just like DOS applications had to be re-written for Windows. These new applications will have interesting qualities. For example, they’ll be written in either HTML5 or JavaScript. They’ll launch full-screen, just like apps on an Apple iPad tablet, but will also optionally run two at a time, side-by-side. And even if you’re using an old mouse-and-keyboard style desktop PC, the apps you’ll use will be “designed for touch.” You can cycle through multitasking applications with a simple swipe-from-the-left gesture.

But don’t worry. Your old Windows applications will still run. Like in the earliest versions of Windows that ran DOS software in a special DOS mode, Windows applications will run in a “Desktop” or “Windows 7” mode. Best of all, you’ll be able to run old Windows applications side-by-side with the Metro UI app of your choice.

Interestingly, the Metro UI handles files like the iPad — documents and data files are associated with the application, and will be managed only from within applications. But in the Windows 7 window, you’ll still have old-fashioned file management, where your data file locations are not associated with specific applications and can be moved copied, deleted or modified without reference to specific applications.

Note that these two generations of user interface will exist side-by-side only on PCs. Windows 8 will also run on devices powered by ARM chips made by a company called ARM Holdings. Traditionally, these chips power smartphonesand tablets, and the slim operating systems designed for these mobile gadgets. Windows 8 will run on ARM devices, but the old interface will not be supported. ARM devices will run only the Metro UI, and the apps written for that platform.

So both your PC and tablet will run Windows 8, but only your PC will be able to run your current version of Office or QuickBooks. On the tablet, you’ll have to wait for new, Metro-specific versions to be created.

Why Microsoft is doing this

People resist change. It’s just human nature.

Users are going to love the touch-centric computing interfaces of tomorrow. But today, many Windows users just don’t like the sound of it.

Whenever I predict desktop tablets, I get a lot of e-mail from the resistance. Touch is too limited, they say. An iPad-like interface is cramped and limiting. The arm position necessary to use a touch screen even at an angle is uncomforable. I need a real keyboard. I’ve grown attached to my mouse. I need hardcore multi-tasking.

Apple’s strategy for overcoming resistance was to launch an entirely new device, rather than immediately replace an existing platform with a new one. Apple’s MPG (multitouch, physics and gestures) interface was first used on Apple’s first-ever cell phone. Because the entire device category was brand new to Apple, the company didn’t ask users of existing Apple products to do things differently. The company’s strategy is to start small and move up the food chain – first phones, then tablets, then multi-touch laptop and desktop touchpads, then desktops, which we’ll see no doubt this year or next.

What we learned this week is that Microsoft has come up with an entirely different solution to the problem of user resistance to change: Microsoft intends to get us all using a touch interface with mice and keyboards first.

By the time we get used to doing that, we’ll be happy to get rid of the peripheral hardware and just use our desktops like iPads, touching the screen directly. It will be the same interface, but much better because we’ll be able to use multi-finger gestures and because we’ll enjoy the innate psychological payoff of using an MPG device.

I think Microsoft’s strategy is brilliant. I had all but written off Microsoft as clueless about the future of touch computing. But the company’s latest demo changes everything.


One response to “Shock: Windows 8 optimized for desktop tablets

  1. Pingback: Windows Dos·

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