October 26, 2012 9:37 AM | By Maurice Cacho, MSN Tech & Gadgets

Microsoft takes bold leap with Windows 8

Since introducing Windows 95, each iteration of Microsoft’s operating systems has been more evolutionary than revolutionary. Could this be the tech giant's most daring feat yet?


A person tries a Samsung tablet computer running Windows 8 at the launch of Microsoft Windows 8, in New York, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012. Windows 8 is the most dramatic overhaul of the personal computer market's dominant operating system in 17 years. (© AP Photo-Richard Drew)

A person tries a Samsung tablet computer running Windows 8 at the launch of Microsoft Windows 8, in New York, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012. Windows 8 is the most dramatic overhaul of the personal computer market's dominant operating system in 17 years.

Since introducing Windows 95, each iteration of Microsoft’s operating systems has been more evolutionary than revolutionary.

The start button stayed in the same place, although its appearance changed over the years. Everyone became familiar with the Desktop and how they had to double-click icons for programs, photos and other files.

Hope you’re not too used to it.

Windows 8, which Microsoft launched Thursday in New York, is a drastic change that the software giant hopes will send it in the direction consumers are going – toward portable touch-friendly devices.

“We shunned the incremental,” said Steven Sinfosky at the launch keynote.

The new operating system features a new horizontal interface that users swipe right-to-left on, revealing a stream of app “live tiles” that pump fresh, connected updates to the users at a glance, without the need for them to dive into a specific program.

Tiles can include apps or shortcuts to your favourite content, which is “pinned” to the interface from within specific apps.

The new interface with these live tiles is alive, breathing real-time updates into what used to be an ecosystem as lively as a downtown parking lot.  

Live tiles may flip through sports scores, breaking news, weather information or photos from your latest vacation to Prague – or in the Travel app’s case, photos of what that trip would look like.

Tap on a live tile and the app opens in full view.

Speaking of apps, you can buy them (many are free) from the new Windows Store. Microsoft says there are more apps in this store at launch than with any other operating system, during their respective launches.

There is actually a broad selection of titles, from social apps to recipe apps, from games to media rentals. Granted, the selection is nowhere as comprehensive as in the current Apple or Google ecosystems, but it needs to start somewhere.

And it’s not just about apps. Microsoft says old Windows 7 programs will be compatible with Windows 8.

The traditional “desktop” is still included, though it’s somewhat buried.

Windows Vista was a bit of a disaster when it came to hardware support. Consumers moaned and groaned about how their printers, scanners and webcams wouldn’t work with the new operating system.

Microsoft, however, says that won’t be the case with Windows 8. In fact, it claims that “100 per cent” of the top-selling printers in the U.S. will work with the new OS.

The overall experience is touch-centric, which is the direction Windows needed to go in so that it could compete with the likes of the iPad and Android-based tablets. That’s not to say it won’t work on traditional devices with a keyboard and mouse.

Many manufacturers are taking that into consideration, however, producing ultrabooks and laptops that feature a touchscreen along with a keyboard and trackpad.

Some devices, such as the well-designed Lenovo Yoga, flip their screens around to turn into a full-on tablet.

As Steve Ballmer said at the launch, Windows 8 is designed to adapt to both the work world of a PC and the play world of a tablet.

And then there’s Surface, a complete hardware-software tablet solution from Microsoft.

It features a 10.6-inch screen and runs Windows RT, which is a lightweight version of Windows 8 but can still run all the apps you can get from the Store.

It’s one of the few tablets where users can actually multi-task while having two windows open at the same time. And the optional Touch Cover – which doubles as a keyboard – lets consumers use the tablet like a laptop.

The Surface, which is running on a simple ARM-based processor, has a full-size USB port for attaching peripherals.

Ultimately, Windows 8 is so focused on becoming the go-to operating system for mobility that Microsoft has built an incredibly different ecosystem compared to anything it’s done in the PC world before.

Consumers will have a lot to learn. It’s as if the entertainment industry released the DVD format for the first time. As some people struggled to get over the change from VHS, the advantages of a newer, optimized medium may take some getting used to.

With no shortage of innovative devices to pick from, the challenge for Microsoft will be to sustain an unproven app ecosystem to keep consumers engaged.

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