This past week Microsoft began to release beta versions of Windows 8 to partners to help test it and, as always, at this point the first Windows 8 screenshots began to get leaked. There had, of course, been ‘screenshots’ of Windows 8 before this point, however these were generally Photoshopped versions of Windows 7. Windows 8 is going to be different from Windows 7, with a slightly modified UI, more features coming into play and ‘apps’ however it will remain with the same major build number as Windows 7 (6.x series, same as Vista). The internet has largely agreed that Windows 8 should be expected to be released in late 2012, three years after Windows 7 – which is a fairly average release cycle for Microsoft, but release cycles have been leaked from internal Power Points that show that Microsoft are planning on releasing it then. Finally, the name is something to also consider, and whilst it is pretty much respected to be codenamed Windows 8 at the moment, and that is also what Microsoft are calling it, I would not be surprised if Microsoft change the name at some point.
Microsoft seems to have a rather peculiar habit of turning the basic UI of Windows on its head with every new release. Windows XP brought Teletubbie land in, Windows Vista brought Gothic Aero and Windows 7 made Aero nice. Windows 8 seems to use a relatively similar sort of Aero design to Windows 7 and there are few major changes to note. The taskbar is remaining relatively similar, however the User icon has been placed next to the clock in the bottom right, and this is thought to use the standard User menu and will probably provide options to Switch User, Log Off, Change Picture, etc. The Aero Basic theme is also changing too, which was previously quite flat and boring, however it now seems to be better focused for the devices it is most commonly found on, such as netbooks and other low-power PCs.
Windows 8 is also going to be more aimed at tablets, with Windows being built for standard desktop architecture – also known as Intel Compatible or i386 – and also ARM, the chip set that is widely found in mobile phones, are more importantly, tablets. Microsoft is making suggestions that Windows 8 will be the first ‘tablet’ version of Windows, however in some way or another they have been aiming for this since XP, and in my mind there are technically enough features in Windows 7 to handle the touch requirements and interactivity of a tablet. There are appears to be another hardware change in Windows 7 in that the Desktop Window Manager, which handles all running applications and renders them, will be able to take advantage of hardware (GPU) and software (CPU) rendering, so that devices that have less powerful GPUs that normally wouldn’t be able to handle the Aero effect, such as netbooks and potentially tablets, would be able to handle it thanks to the CPU. This is a very relevant change, if true, because both AMD and Intel are looking at building CPUs that are essentially bridged CPUs and GPUs – AMD are dubbing these APUs, and AMD seem very keen to move towards this model after having rebranded all their GPUs from ATI to AMD.
The interface is also being geared towards tablets, with a new style of interface called Immersive, and the idea behind it is that an application may look like a desktop application on the desktop, however on a tablet it would have mobile app style controls. Microsoft seem quite keen to mimic many of Windows Phone 7′s features like this, and it is a very sensible thing to do. Apple are already doing some similar with OSX 10.7 Lion, which takes the principles behind OSX and iOS to create a more usable and interactive environment, and probably more familiar environment considering there are probably a lot more iOS users than OSX users. The interface is also further inspired by Windows Phone 7, with a similar ‘Lock Screen’ having been produced, and the ‘WP7 Font’ being used across the OS.
One of the core interface changes isn’t so much a change, more an idealistic move of progress by Microsoft. Previously the Ribbon had been used by many of the Microsoft applications, and it can now be used in 3rd party applications, though I haven’t seen many good examples. The Ribbon was created because there were too many problems with the older Drop-Down menus and toolbars, as people messed around with settings, lost buttons and essentially got confused. The principle behind the Ribbon was to create something that was ‘as-is’, so people could easily understand where everything was. At first, when it was emerged in Office 2007, the Ribbon was a little confusing to some people, and it frequently took a long time to adjust to the new interface, and even to this day I am trying to find buttons and options in Office that weren’t quite so hidden away in Office 2003. Microsoft is making a very radical move with the Ribbon and beginning to put it everywhere. It has already done this with Office and Windows Live, however the Ribbon appears to be included into everything down to Windows Explorer. The use in Windows Explorer worries me slightly, because at the end of the day Windows Explorer isn’t a particularly difficult piece of software to navigate. You have the core folders on the left, the current folder name at the top and the files and folders in that folder list in the area below – and there are bonus features like Copy and Paste. For most people, including myself, that really is all Windows Explorer is. Most people don’t even realize that ‘My Computer’ and ‘My Documents’ are in reality the same application.
Another change, that I am not certain about, is how the title bar in applications is going to be displayed. When the Ribbon is used, the title is centered (like in Word 2007) or gradually moved to the right of the Window by tabs on the Ribbon (like in Word 2010). However, when the Ribbon is not used the title is placed stubbornly next to the logo on the left hand side. On some, but not all, of the screen shots of Windows 8, it appears that the title is now centered. I will be quite pleased if Microsoft does go through with this, because it would be nice to have, and more importantly, would increase continuity with just about every other OS I have ever used.
The final thing that emerged today, and what inspired this article, is the Windows App Store. A screenshot shows an interface that seems to be a vague mix between Windows Live and the Mac App Store, and it appears that it will include an online store where apps can be downloaded and managed, which appears to be quite useful. I really hope that if Microsoft goes through with this, Windows installers will die. It will be nice to be able to install an application without having to worry where it is being installed, where shortcuts are going to be displayed, and which bit of endless license agreement I need to agree to. It will be nice to be able to click once on a link and instantly have the application downloaded and installed, just like on Mac or Ubuntu, which it itself has a very nice app management tool called the Ubuntu Software Center. I also hope that it will allow me to remove my applications with a click of a button too, because it is a nightmare trying to find the correct folder in the Start Menu, or having to go to the Control Panel.
I do have concerns about Microsoft making an App Store though. The first is whether it would be a commercial success or not. I am sure that many people would use it as a way of quickly downloading free applications, or finding them, but very few people actually pay for new software once they have bought a computer. They will generally buy a computer that comes with Office and Security software pre-installed, and then not worry about it afterwards. Another problem that may occur is an unwillingness to have to type in all the banking credentials into their Windows Live account, which is presumably what it will use, just to download something that costs about a dollar. Apple, of course, did not have this problem because the Mac App Store uses people’s iTunes accounts. Another concern of commercial success would be whether they make it backwards compatible, they are unlikely to make much profit if it is just targeted at one version of Windows, and I suggest that backwards compatibility to at least Windows Vista is required.
Overall, I am not entirely sure whether I am excited about Windows 8 or not. I am sure that, when the time comes, I will buy it, however at the moment I don’t think I need it, because Windows 7 is a perfectly good Operating System. If it was going to come out as soon as this Fall, I don’t think I would buy it, and I don’t think many other people would either. As of now, Windows 8 just doesn’t have enough (leaked) features to make it a viable purchase, however I think Microsoft could release it tomorrow as a Service Pack, and I would get it.