This past week Microsoft released the Consumer Preview version of Windows 8, which is the version that Microsoft intends end users to try. The previous version of Windows 8 was only expected to be installed by developers. You can download and install Windows 8 Consumer Preview on any PC that is capable of running Windows 7.
Microsoft has influenced our understanding about personal computing more than any company. When most people think about a personal computer, they envision a Windows desktop. Consequently, the changes coming with Windows 8 will have a huge influence on what we think of personal computing in the future. Ironically, Windows 8 shows the influence that mobile computing is now having on desktop computing.
I’ve installed Windows 8 Consumer Preview in a virtual machine running on my Macbook Air using Parallels Version 7. Besides some erratic behavior with the mouse cursor, I have found Windows 8 to run very well on the Macbook and I think it is fast enough to be used as a primary system on this machine.
The Microsoft video below provides an overview of Windows 8. If you have never seen anything about Windows 8, and the very first time you see it is on a computer, you will likely find it to be shockingly different from previous versions of Windows. Microsoft has moved the familiar Windows desktop user interface to the background and put Metro in the forefront. Metro is the user interface that Microsoft developed for mobile devices.
Metro first appeared on the Zune HD media player and was then used for Windows Phone. Microsoft’s original mobile products, which I wrote several books about, closely aligned to the traditional Windows UI. With Metro Microsoft finally accepted that the original Windows UI was not optimal for smartphones, or for that matter any device with a touchscreen. Metro is a brand new UI built from the ground up to be used with touchscreens.
In Windows 8 the start button and corresponding start menu, which Microsoft first introduced with Windows 95, is replaced by a start screen. Tiles, which look like multicolored squares and rectangles, appear on the Windows 8 start screen. You tap or click on a tile to launch an app. Like with Windows Phone, many of the tiles display content, for example the People tile displays recently posted status updates.
Another significant difference in Metro is that left/right scrolling dominates throughout. Of the things carried over from the smartphones to the desktop, this left/right scrolling is probably going to be the must controversial and frustrating for long time desktop users. On a smartphone it makes sense to swipe left and right to move through screens and pages of content as that is simply faster to do, but on a desktop, particularly one without a touchscreen, it may not translate very well.
If you see someone using Windows 8 on a device with a touchscreen, you will see how easy it is to navigate through the environment. Special functions are also available when you swipe from the left and right edges of the screen, as well as swipe from the bottom up or the top down.
Of course, these special swiping gestures are not available on a device without a touchscreen. Instead, you activate these functions by moving the mouse cursor to the four corners of the screen. Moving the mouse to the bottom left of the screen and clicking returns you to the start screen. The upper left enables switching between apps, the upper right opens the “charms” bar, which is button bar of additional functions, including settings.
The Macbook Air has a large, multi-touch trackpad that helps in moving left and right, which you can do by simply sliding two fingers at a time left or right. I think that large multi-touch trackpads will become popular for Windows laptop computers. I also think that Windows 8 will put a premium on learning keyboard shortcuts for fast navigation. People who have strong opinions about how a desktop computer user interface should work will probably not like Metro on a desktop, while others will likely find Metro to be more friendly, and thanks to live tiles more personal, than previous versions of Windows.