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Will Windows 8 Revolutionize Mobile Computing?

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Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Microsoft would take a 0% cut on sales of all apps through the Windows Store.

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Windows 8 is here.

At least it is if you're a developer. The official public release won't be until late next year, and the operating system is far from complete. We got a sneak peek at AllThingsD's D9 conference earlier in the year, but now we're getting a better idea of what Redmond's next big release will be like.

This week at the company's BUILD Windows developer conference in Anaheim, Calif., additional details emerged surrounding Microsoft's ambitious new operating system. The OS represents more than a concerted assault on the tablet market, but rather embodies an entirely re-envisioned and unified approach to computing that includes mobile computing.

One OS to rule them all
Windows 8 is built around a touch-interface, although it also supports traditional keyboard and mouse inputs. Touch is the preferred method since much of the UI interaction involves swiping from various sides of the screen. For example, swiping from the right brings up a vertical bar containing what Microsoft calls "Charms," including Search, Settings, and Start Screen buttons.

The OS also ties in heavily with Microsoft's revamped cloud offerings including SkyDrive and Windows Live. The company boldly aspires to run Windows 8 on desktops, laptops, and tablets, while smartphones will continue running on Windows Phone 7.

Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) has made similar incorporations by adding iOS-esque features into Mac OS X Lion, like Launchpad and "Natural" scrolling, but Lion and iOS remain worlds apart compared with Windows 8 and WP7. Microsoft is upping the ante and taking it to a whole new level by opting to group tablets alongside traditional PCs instead of with smartphones in the way that Apple does.

It's immediately obvious that Windows Phone 7's "Metro" design style spawned Windows 8. The standard Start Menu that we've all been accustomed to since Windows 95 is gone, replaced with a Start Screen bearing similar dynamic app tiles, as opposed to the static icons found in iOS and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Android. The similarities are so much more striking than what iOS and OS X share, to the point that I would even call them more integrated than Apple's operating systems.

Yes, I said it: more integrated than Apple. It feels blasphemous to say that as an Apple shareholder, but right now I'm referring to software integration and overall interface experience between all devices, and not just hardware and content integration.

Source: Microsoft press release.

Source: Microsoft press release.

Speaking of hardware …
Microsoft is really coming at this from all angles. It has built the OS to be compatible with a wide range of hardware configurations. This should come as no surprise, as Windows' rise to ubiquity in the '90s rode on the backs of numerous hardware OEMs.

Rather, the most significant compatibility built into Windows 8 is support for ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH  ) -based processors in addition to Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC  ) familiar x86 offerings. This opens many doors, since scores of chipmakers are rallying behind ARM processors as they gear up mobile designs. Demo units running on NVIDIA's (Nasdaq: NVDA  ) quad-core Tegra 3 and Qualcomm's (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) Snapdragon were proudly displayed at the conference. On the flip side, Intel just scored a mobile victory of its own by hooking up with Big G to collaborate on Android.

The post-post-PC era
Microsoft is rejecting the "post-PC" language that's been flying around of late and continues to refer to tablets as PCs. That may seem like a minor semantic distinction, but Windows 8's philosophy truly challenges the notion that PCs are dead. Windows 8 feels like a PC operating system built for tablets -- it cold-boots in less than 10 seconds.

It even includes native backwards compatibility with Windows 7 applications, something an iPad can't even do with Macs -- there's no app for that. However, ARM-based tablets won't be able to run traditional legacy applications because of the different processor architecture, which could potentially create some fragmentation within the platform. The company did mention that Metro apps will be able to be ported to ARM-based systems and that Office would probably get a Metro revamp.

Furthermore, the upcoming Windows Store will sell both Metro-style apps alongside traditional Win32 programs. Microsoft will be taking a 0% cut of sales on legacy apps through the Windows Store but will reportedly match Apple's 30% cut on Metro apps.

The Samsung-built device that was handed out to developers on the first day of the conference is unmistakably a tablet, yet also unambiguously a PC. 

Brave new world
I think Windows 8 will be a winner in the tablet market, though I do have some reservations on how the OS will fare in the traditional desktop and laptop segments, since the UI is so heavily geared toward touch. Say what you will about Microsoft being late to the mobile party -- and I'll agree with you wholeheartedly -- but Windows 8 is something we haven't seen out of Redmond in years: innovation. Windows 8's audacious redesign is so distinctive that it might just revolutionize how we compute.

What do you think about Windows 8? Can it give Apple a run for its iMoney? Share your thoughts in the comments box below.

Fool contributor Evan Niu owns shares of ARM Holdings and Apple, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, and Qualcomm and has bought calls on Intel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Intel, NVIDIA, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, writing puts in NVIDIA, creating a diagonal call position in Intel, and creating bull call spread positions in Microsoft and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 17, 2011, at 5:49 PM, TMFNewCow wrote:

    Update: There was some confusion over the Windows Store. It seems that Microsoft won't take a cut on legacy apps but will take a 30% cut on Metro apps.

    - Evan

  • Report this Comment On September 17, 2011, at 6:33 PM, cool8man wrote:

    Anyone who says we haven't seen innovation from Redmond in "years" has obviously never tried Windows Phone 7, Zune HD, Windows Media Center, Xbox Live, Kinect, Surface, etc.

  • Report this Comment On September 17, 2011, at 7:23 PM, CMFSoloFool wrote:

    I like what Microsoft is doing, but wonder if they can make a sustained push into the mobile/tablet market. The tablet and mobile space are not just about the OS, it also requires very innovative hardware, and very tight integration between hardware and software. That said, I have seen exciting and new demos at Microsoft labs this past week and I am encouraged that hardware vendors are working diligently to bring new and meaningful ideas to market, with Microsoft.

    The next 12-18 months will tell us whether Microsoft can make the grade or not.

  • Report this Comment On September 17, 2011, at 8:44 PM, peanutgalerygeek wrote:

    It may not change the way how we do computing but it may keep Microsoft from becoming COMPLETELY irrelevant. Good. That would be 2 US companies that between them would run the world of personal computing and I'm ALL for that.

    Sounds like maybe a reason to buy MSFT. It doesn't have to beat AAPL, just stay in the game.

  • Report this Comment On September 17, 2011, at 11:20 PM, Foolorama wrote:

    An interesting development surely. Microsoft (along with everyone else) is at least beginning to recognize that singular function interface (single function app buttons) lends itself to good UI design. Users, who are not computer nerds, do appreciate the clarity from using singular function interfaces like iOS.

    Clearly, there is a trifurcated market between PC users (in the business and other fields), tablet and smartphones. So the big question to me is the better parsing - between PC and Tablet/SmartPhone - as Apple does; or between PC/Tablet and Smartphone as Windows 8 is currently parsed.

    Only time will tell, but I'm thinking that Apple's model is closer to the sweet spot...

  • Report this Comment On September 18, 2011, at 12:32 AM, baldheadeddork wrote:

    "I think Windows 8 will be a winner in the tablet market, though I do have some reservations on how the OS will fare in the traditional desktop and laptop segments, since the UI is so heavily geared toward touch."

    I've seen a lot of reporters who weren't at the conference say this, but in reality it's not a big deal. Laptop and desktop installs of Win8 will still have the traditional desktop and start menu available. You can see it in this video beginning at the 5:06 minute mark.

  • Report this Comment On September 18, 2011, at 7:55 AM, bugnuts wrote:

    More noise about vaporware to keep the PC crowd hopeful. Microsoft excels at making promises about world-changing products ... and then delivering a middle-of-the-road, compromised product. I don't see that pattern changing.

  • Report this Comment On September 18, 2011, at 12:02 PM, RudeAwakening wrote:

    Everyone seems to talk about how Microsoft may take a bite out of Apple with their new OS. To me the most likely place they might grow will come from the Google OS. Apple OS figures count 100% on their own hardware sales so Microsoft has no opportunity there, but I think Microsoft has a chance to move in on Android now that Google has purchased Motorola. I am sure some of the other hardware builders will be listening to Microsoft's pitch as the don't want to be dependent on a competitor for their OS. If Google tries to be Apple I think they will end up hurting their own advertising business which it their bread and butter.

  • Report this Comment On September 19, 2011, at 11:53 AM, techy46 wrote:

    "continues to refer to tablets as PCs" Yes, the PC's dead is really the PC's mobile isn't it. All that rhetoric created by te Apple adveertising machine seems passe. You can have the same user experience on all your personal computers including notebooks, phones, tablets and towers and can run W8 apps anywhere. Gee, open software innovation with open hardware from Microsoft the company that invented open software. Apple will keep selling glitz and glame just like BMW, Rolex and Tiffany.

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