At its BUILD conference in Anaheim, California, Microsoft senior managers spoke at length about the features of the new version. A good side-effect of this conference was the provision of an early developers' build of the operating system for download and evaluation. (You can get it here.)
Windows 8 has an entirely different interface from all previous versions. A significant strength of Microsoft has been its ability to provide backwards compatibility. It is venturing out into the open this time - its new avatar, called Metro-style , will require the rewriting of all applications in order that they will work. But old applications will work as well, though they will lack the new features.
The interface (screenshot below courtesy of Microsoft Australia) resembles that of Windows Phone 7 - both the open source GNOME desktop and Ubuntu GNU/Linux have already gone a similar route and are being used in the real world while Windows 8 will likely make it to release in 2013.
You can use gestures to put two applications side by side on Windows 8; you can also switch to the traditional Windows desktop (screenshot on Page 2) for the older applications. Once one goes to the old desktop, one click on the Start menu button brings one back to the new interface. Any old applications - meaning those that are not written to function in the Metro-style environment - installed will have shortcuts on the panel at the bottom of the old Desktop interface.
There is a great deal of emphasis on touch but it is difficult to visualise desktop or laptop users reaching out to touch the screen. The O-S seems aimed at tablet users more than anyone else.
The control panel looks new but there is a link to the old-style one right at the bottom of the screen.
It is difficult to evaluate the possibility of success or otherwise of Windows 8 but it is certainly stuck in some kind of logjam over at Redmond. Let me explain.
When Microsoft released Vista in 2006 it was the result of five years of hard work. Vista turned out to be a dog, a very sick one at that, and it soon became apparent that something would have to be done to save the company's already tattered reputation.
Windows 7 had to be rushed into release. Given the Vista debacle, only some brave souls opted to make the upgrade to Vista; some were forced into it by having this dog installed on new hardware by default. Their fate is unknown. Take-up was nothing about which to tell the neigbours.
Only now is Windows 7 being taken up by businesses. Upgrading is a long and costly process - new hardware costs a penny, though not as much as it used to, and training workers is a disruptive proces - and with business conditions being what they are worldwide, it is unlikely that Windows 7 take-up will accelerate.
At the BUILD conference, Steven Sinofsky, the president of the Windows and Windows Live Division, said that 450 million copies of Windows 7 had been installed worldwide and that consumer usage had, for the first time, exceeded that of Windows XP. That means less than half of Windows users worldwide have moved to Windows 7.
Windows 8 should be here in early 2013. It will thus be interrupting the Windows 7 show. Which one should Microsoft concentrate on? Windows 7 requires 8 GB of memory to run at a fair clip; this means that the 64-bit version will have to be pushed as the 32-bit version can only handle 3Gb of memory. (Screenshot below shows the old interface on Windows 8 and the start button)
But the 64-bit version of Windows 7 suffers from dodgy drivers; a classic example is the driver for the touchpad on the Lenovo ThinkPad. I tried out Debian GNU/Linux on this laptop and, with the little thinkpad utility installed, the touchpad works as it should. (I have a MacBook available for comparison.) With Windows 7 64-bit, the touchpad is jerky and painful to use.
This means there is a lot of work to be done to push Windows 7. And then there is more work to be done for Windows 8. And profits cannot drop, because the share price will go down. And...
Microsoft has a long, hard road ahead as it tries to battle rivals, maintain marketshare and also keep the bottomline looking good. Windows and Office are still the main cash cows for the company as they have always been. Chief executive Steve Ballmer has a tough gig over the next five to ensure the company's dominance - or just its survival.