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Windows 8 sends Microsoft down a new path

By Troy Wolverton, San Jose Mercury News –

A new version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, dubbed Windows 8, hits store shelves this week — but it’s no ordinary update.

The new software looks completely different from its predecessors. There’s a variation of it that won’t run any programs designed for previous versions of Windows. And because the software was designed to be used on touch-screen devices, Windows 8 will take Microsoft’s operating system to places it hasn’t been before, including on tablets comparable to the iPad and new types of computers that blur the lines between tablets and laptops.

“This is definitely the biggest change in the user experience of Windows since Windows 95,” said Steve Kleynhans, an analyst for technology research firm Gartner.

Even before the final version of the software has been released, its big changes have drawn skepticism from analysts and customers and criticism from tech reviewers, including this reporter. Some analysts have gone so far as to compare it to Windows Vista, the much-pilloried version of the operating system that came before Windows 7 and was largely ignored by corporate users.

“If you have Windows 7 today on a non-touch-enabled PC, I would say there’s not an overwhelmingly compelling reason to upgrade to Windows 8,” said Al Gillen, an analyst with tech research firm IDC. “I think lot of business users will see it that way.”

The biggest difference for users is Windows’ new interface. Gone are the familiar start button, start menu and — at least at first glance — the traditional Windows desktop. They’ve all been replaced with a new interface designed around application “tiles” arranged on a plain background.

The tiles work like program icons: you click — or tap — them to launch a program. But unlike traditional Windows program icons, the tiles can work like widgets, displaying small tidbits of updated information. For example, the email tile might display your latest message, or the calendar might show your next appointment.

But the interface — which Microsoft formerly called “Metro” — has other differences from the traditional Windows desktop. Unlike the traditional Windows interface, the new one doesn’t support overlapping windows or the ability to view more than two programs on the screen at one time.

And the only programs that will work with the new interface are ones that either come preinstalled or that users download from Microsoft’s new online Windows Store.

On most editions of Windows 8, users will still be able to access a traditional desktop and run older Windows programs. They can even launch those programs from the new interface, but when they do, they’ll be taken to a version of the old desktop, in which they can see more than two applications and have overlapping windows. And they can’t configure Windows so they see the desktop when they start it up; instead, they’ll have to go through the Metro interface.

The new interface “is a huge change,” said Mike Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent analyst firm. “It takes away things that have been in Windows almost since the beginning.”

On one edition of Windows 8, called Windows RT, the break from the past is even more pronounced. This edition of the software was built to run on devices using ARM processors. These are the low-power chips that come from a variety of manufacturers and underlay the iPad and most other tablets and smartphones on the market.

Windows RT has the same Metro interface and will run the same Metro programs that are available for other editions of Windows 8. But it can’t run any older Windows programs. Also, unlike other versions of Windows, the only way to get Windows RT is to buy it preinstalled on a tablet or PC; Microsoft won’t be selling a separate version that users can install themselves on machines they already own.

Windows RT will include a version of Microsoft’s Office suite of productivity programs. But that version won’t include Outlook, the email program that is among the most popular applications in Office.

Given its limitations and differences with other editions of Windows 8, calling this edition of the operating system “Windows” has the potential to confuse and frustrate customers, analysts have warned.

Traditional Windows PC users who buy a Windows RT device will have a computer or tablet “that has no direct compatibility with the older devices that (they) used to own,” noted IDC’s Gillen. “There’s a potential for disappointment with consumers, isn’t there?”


With Windows 8, consumers will notice one other big difference from the past: the types of machines they can run it on. The new software is the first version of Windows to be designed to be used with a fingertip. As such, it’s going to show up in a wide range of touch-screen devices.

Some will be tablets that look and act a lot like the iPad. Others will be hybrid devices of one sort or another that can act like both tablets or traditional PCs.

In some cases, these will be tablets that can run traditional Windows desktop applications. In other cases, they will be laptops whose screens can detach or fold back so that they can be used as tablets.

“There’s a lot of interesting experimentation going on with new types of devices,” said Kleynhans. “Frankly, I don’t think we know exactly how people are going to use these things or which is the best way to actually build them.”

So after years of stability, Windows is embracing change with a new interface running on new devices that in some cases completely breaks ties with the past. It may be only the latest in a long line of Windows, but in many ways, it’s completely new.



Microsoft is releasing a new version of its flagship Windows operating system this week. Here are the key details you need to know:

—Release date: Friday, Oct. 26

—Number of editions: Four: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise and Windows RT

—Distinctions: Windows 8 Enterprise is only available to corporate customers. Windows RT is only available preinstalled on devices that run on ARM-based chips. Windows 8 Pro allows users to log onto corporate networks and access their computer remotely, things they can’t do with regular Windows 8.

—Price: $15 for the Pro version of Windows 8 for those who bought a Windows 7 computer on or after June 2. For other consumers, the downloadable Pro edition of Windows 8 will cost $40, while the version sold in stores on DVD will cost $70. Microsoft hasn’t announced pricing for the regular and Enterprise editions of Windows 8. Windows RT will only be offered as the included operating system on certain tablets and computers; Microsoft won’t be offering it separately.

SOURCE: Microsoft Corp., San Jose Mercury News research



The new version of Windows, dubbed Windows 8, is considered to be the biggest makeover of the operating system in more than a decade. Here are some of the differences:

—Interface: Windows 7 was built around the traditional desktop interface. By contrast, the main screen in Windows 8 is Microsoft’s “Metro” interface that eschews the desktop for application “tiles” arrayed on a plain background. In Metro, there’s no start button, no overlapping windows and no ability to view more than two applications at once.

—Touch: Windows has supported touch-based interaction for years, but generally through the use of a penlike stylus. The Metro interface was designed to be used and navigated with fingertips.

—Devices: Windows 7 was available primarily on traditional desktop and laptop computers. By contrast, Windows 8 will be available on iPad-like tablets and hybrid devices that can switch between tablet and laptop modes.

—Versions: Microsoft has streamlined the number of editions of Windows 8 to just four, down from six with Windows 7.

—Chips: Windows 7 only ran on computers using x86 chips, generally made by Intel and AMD. Windows 8 will also run on those types of computers, but a version of it — called Windows RT — will run on chips designed by ARM. ARM chips power the iPad and most smartphones.

—Software stores: Users could acquire programs for Windows 7 from retail stores or download them from numerous sites and services on the Web. Users can get traditional desktop programs for Windows 8 the same way. But Metro apps can only be obtained from Microsoft via its new online Windows Store.

—Compatibility: Computers running Windows 8 on x86 chips will generally be able to run traditional Windows programs in a desktop mode. But computers and tablets running Windows RT on ARM chips won’t be able to run any non-Metro Windows applications.

SOURCE: San Jose Mercury News research



Here’s what you’ll need to run Windows 8 on your computer.

—Processor speed: 1 GHz or faster

—Memory (RAM): 1GB for 32-bit systems, 2GB for 64-bit ones

—Hard disk space: 16GB for 32-bit systems, 20GB for 64-bit

—Graphics card: Needs to be compatible with Microsoft DirectX 9 and include a Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) driver

—Optional: Multi-touch display or trackpad for touch interaction, a screen resolution of 1024×768 to access the Windows Store and download and run Metro apps, a screen resolution of 1366×768 to view two programs at once under the Metro interface.

SOURCE: Microsoft Corp.

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