Last week I attended the Microsoft BUILD conference for developers in Anaheim, California. Microsoft used the conference as a vehicle to launch several new technologies currently in development, most notably Windows 8. Keynote presentations and other information is available at http://www.buildwindows.com/ .
Windows 7 became primarily a recovery release for Windows, addressing most of the concerns surrounding Windows Vista and providing a definitive improvement over Windows XP for consumer and professional users. Windows 7 was Microsoft’s first operating system release lead by Steven Sinofsky, President of the Windows Division. That success gave him the mandate to make a bold move forward with Windows 8 with a mandate to not only move the platform forward but to provide a touch-based user experience that rivals or bests iOS and Android.
Having spent a few hours with the developer preview version I can attest that the Windows 8 touch interface, or Metro UI, is responsive, fluid and intuitive. The preview included numerous Metro-style sample applications. These applications appear as tiles in a start screen (alas, the start menu is gone). The samples were generally limited to games, internet portal apps (e.g. weather and business) and a handwriting app to be used with a stylus. A tile gives you access to the old style “desktop” for those needing a keyboard and mouse fix. The apps give you a flavor of what Microsoft is trying to achieve with Metro and some experience navigating around the tile-based interface.
I had the opportunity to discuss the new technology with a number of developers and Microsoft employees. While the buzz was palpable many struggle to see exactly where the Metro user interface fits in the business world. No doubt it makes Microsoft a meaningful player in touch screen interfaces. When it works (we’re talking Alpha software here) Metro seems as fluid and intuitive as iOS. Like its competitors, it’s well suited to simple, focused tasks that require minimal data input. Using Windows 8 on a touch screen tablet, even in its current form, is highly satisfying. However, for intermediate and advanced users who have a job to do, mouse and keyboard remain the most efficient user tools. Several times during the keynotes Microsoft reinforced this message. It will be interesting to see in the months ahead what the OS will offer for these users. Online you can already find “UI tweakers” that you can install to modify the existing Windows 8 UI to better suit power users.
While the bold announcements generated excitement, it must be noted that most of the technologies are several quarters away from being generally available. Windows 8 is rumored to be ready for market in Q3 or Q4 of 2012. Obviously Microsoft has a plan, but generally doesn’t go public with firm timelines until a certain quality standard is met.
It’s clear that Microsoft is serious about touch interfaces. I’m confident that the production version of Windows 8 will provide value for advanced users of business systems as well. The Ivara Development team will be watching this technology closely, and developing some prototypes along the way that we hope to share.