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.