Microsoft shook the software world last June with the announcement of one of the biggest redesigns of its legacy operating system.
Windows 8, complete with support for touchscreen gestures for tablet computers and a new Metro interface, is looking to win back Microsoft’s declining market share.
To prevent another meltdown like Windows Vista, Windows 8 Consumer Preview is being offered for free to early adopters until January 2013.
System requirements are identical to Windows 7, on 64-bit systems at least: 1 GHz processor, 2GB RAM and 20GB free hard drive space. Download and configuration time on a low-end Acer Aspire was about four hours as a clean install.
Windows 8’s biggest departure from its predecessor is the tile-interfaced Windows Metro design also seen on Microsoft’s line of Windows Phone OS-powered devices.
Metro is the new predominant interface for Windows, succeeding Windows Aero introduced with Windows Vista. A Metro Start Screen, also tile-interfaced, takes the place of the start orb in the corner of every Windows systems since Windows 95. Start Screen includes apps from Microsoft’s own app store. Start Screen is a very tablet-centric design but works just fine on a PC.
Navigation is accomplished with several pop out “hotspots” located around the perimeter of the screen. Hotspots can open new tabs, switch between apps or bring up the system settings.
In addition to the start menu, the traditional Aero-interfaced desktop from Windows 7/Vista is built in. Although Microsoft is trying to make the transition from Windows 7 to 8 as easy as possible with this feature, it is disappointing that users have to leave Metro just to access basic features like the advanced settings.
A Microsoft Office refresh codenamed Office 15 is in the works for beta release this summer. Office 15 will get the new Metro interface and the new Office Marketplace for apps.
Also new is the beta of Internet Explorer 10 in Metro app and desktop versions. The Metro version is intended to make web browsing faster and more minimalistic for non-power users who only need the Internet for quick browsing.
Google and Mozilla Corp. have confirmed they are working on adding Metro compatibility to their own Chrome and Firefox browsers respectively.
A Windows 8 release preview with additional features is set for an early June release according to Microsoft. A finished product should be out around October according to anonymous industry officials speaking to Winunleaked.tk.
Microsoft is clearly switching its focus from desktop PCs to the growing tablet market. It will face stiff competition from Google’s new Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) mobile OS and Apple’s iOS which powers the iPad. Hardware makers Samsung and HP are working on a barrage of ARM-based tablets to hit the market as soon as early next year.
Microsoft’s rival Apple is also prepping its OS X Mountain Lion successor to OS X Lion for launch this summer. Mountain Lion is a modest improvement of its predecessor, which launched last July, and includes applications ported from iOS like Messages, the OS X version of iMessage. Mountain Lion beta is available to users with a $99 Apple Developer membership.
2012 looks to be a competitive year with two major software companies looking to win over users. However Microsoft will need to make Windows 8 simple enough for the average plebeian to understand if it doesn’t want its loyal customers to defect.