Windows 8 gets dramatic smartphone makeover

Radical upgrade but some unhappy

Whatever Microsoft ends up calling Windows 8, a press event at the Computex Show in Taiwan confirms that the company has already given the next version of the world's most ubiquitous operating system a heavy smartphone makeover.

In the first of a series of videos released to the media, Microsoft's director of Windows User Experience team Jensen Harris, has underlined the extent to which the new OS will look like and probably integrate with Windows 7 Phone. Microsoft also offered further details in its Computex press event.

Gone is the 'Start' button and menu in favour of a mosaic composed of tiled applications and service icons lifted wholesale from the smartphone world. Because Windows 8 will feature a touch interface, swiping to the right one or more times brings up successive screens full of the same icons.

As with a smartphone or tablet, clicking on an app makes it fullscreen while swiping on the left side of the screen brings up other apps that are running, one by one. Each application can be resized on the screen in a variety fo ways.

As well as including a touch keyboard, Microsoft is also experimenting with a 'thumb' keypad, which the keyboard into a two thumb-accessible blocks at the left and right hand side of the screen.

As with much of the new user interface, this is clearly aimed at tablet computers, a sector Microsoft clearly sees as at least as important as the laptops and desktop computers that turned previous versions of Windows into the world's biggest OS.

Under the hood, the new OS will still run conventional Windows applications controlled through the mouse rather than touch, complete with the NTFS and FAT32 file systems. Interestingly, Microsoft clearly sees these as 'legacy' beside an as-yet unknown volume of new Windows apps that will run and behave much as they would on a smartphone.

Question marks remains. Can Microsoft serve the needs of users with one OS across so many different types of device?

Its rivals offer a clear break with desktop computing, and are less constricted by the need to convert new users from an established platform. It's also unclear whether with a growing number of mobile, tablet and smartphone-oriented operating systems available free, users will see the need to write a hefty cheque to Microsoft simply to run an operating system.

Microsoft could offer it free of charge and hope to levy a tax on the apps that run on it, but that would represent a huge change in business model. With so many devices able to access a basic suite of applications without charge, it's also unclear whether suites such as Office have a future as cloud services away outside the business sector.

It's also less than clear what sort of processing grunt will be needed to run both new-fangled smartphone apps beside older ones. Even slimmed from Windows Vista's bloat, its predecessor Windows 7 still needs more power than most tablets can offer.

What Microsoft does gains by offering people visuals on the new OS, not due for at least a year, is a critical window of feedback and the chance to adjust the design of Windows 8. That alone is a huge change from the inward-looking run-up to previous Windows releases.

The development cycle for Windows 8 is already proving controversial, especially the reported insistence that chip vendors and hardware vendors work together in a way that suits Microsoft's ambitions. Companies such as Acer have expressed unhappiness at being corralled in this way.

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John E Dunn

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