Yesterday, at the Wall Street Journal’s “All Things D” conference, Microsoft’s President of Windows and Windows Live, Steven Sinofsky, showed the world a preview of Windows 8 (officially, that’s the code name). And in a YouTube video, Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management for Windows User Experience, provides his own detailed Windows 8 demo that you can check out right now. What both men showed us was an early preview of a next next version of Windows that looks a lot like Windows Phone 7, complete with Live Tiles and a superior touch UI. What this new version of Windows also does is run honest-to-goodness Windows applications. So we can work as well as play, on desktop PCs, laptops, or “slates,” supporting both keyboard-and-mouse and touch as input mechanisms. This comes pretty close to the model I hoped for in my Redmond Review column “Tablet Toast or Slate Salvation” back in February.
What I like best about the Windows 8 approach is that the Windows team took the “Windows Phone vs. Windows” question and changed it from confrontation to unification. Lots of smart people in the industry have talked about the iPad as having appeal for casual consumption but having a weaker story around content creation and actual work. This forces people into a fragmented world of having separate devices for each mode (consumption and creation). And this has forced me to go back to my laptop for lots of things, using my iPad less with each passing month. I think we need an OS, and devices, that can work in both modes, that can be versatile without being compromised. What we saw yesterday’s demo proves that Microsoft is attuned to precisely this goal and that, in terms of delivering on it, we can certainly say “so far, so good.”
The Metro UI definitely seems to be the star of the show now; Joe Belfiore has championed it on the Windows Phone platform, and it seems to have influenced Sinofsky’s vision of Windows proper. And what’s interesting there is that Joe Belfiore used to head up the effort around Windows Media Center Edition, where Metro first achieved some prominence. Media Center was in many way brilliant, but the fact that it was a mere shell on top of Windows was a big drawback. That message seems to have been received in Redmond, and it came up explicitly in the All Things D interview with Sinofsky: the new Live Tile UI is not a mere shell. It is Windows. When Microsoft listens to the market’s critique and then builds new technology that is sensitive to it, the company is at its best. This is one such case.
I do have some concerns and questions though. For example, in the Sinofsky and Harris demos, when Excel is shown running as a conventional app, what actually seems to be shown is Windows 7 running in its own window (albeit borderless), and I have have a sneaking suspicion (though no knowledge) that’s it in a Virtual Machine. Within that window, the start button, task bar, and everything else that is part of the standard Windows environment shows up. It doesn’t really seem integrated at all…it’s as if we’re running a terminal emulation window but we’re looking at the Windows 7 UI instead of the IBM 3270. I have to believe this is going to evolve and get better though. Using a VM and sharing drives with the host is not integration; it’s side by side execution.
I may not be comfortable with each thing I’ve seen of Windows 8, but I am very encouraged by the totality of what I have seen. Microsoft is playing to win. And while victory is far from assured, it sure is nice to see Redmond aiming high.