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Windows 8: the wow starts now?

The “ow starts now” was my reworking of Vista’s tagline, but with Windows 8 and RT that both blend Microsoft’s tablet magic with the full power of a desktop OS, delivered in an amazing variety of form factors, sizes and styles, the Windows 8 wow finally gets to truly start now.

Microsoft has finally launched Windows 8 overnight in the US at a New York event (which you can watch on this Windows 8 Launch event webcast), in Australia at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion and in another 138 markets around the world, in 37 languages, finally bringing Microsoft’s “reimagined” vision of a Windows that blends a full-screen tablet environment with the existing Windows desktop more seamlessly and with the most heightened touch accuracy than ever before.

Microsoft has also had to do so while ensuring that keyboards and mice remained first class citizens, giving those without touch screens full access to the results of all of Windows 8’s touch controls through keyboard shortcuts and right mouse clicks.

Although Microsoft has tried doing this to achieve the kind of success Apple enjoys with its iPods, iPads and iPhones with most seriousness since the Windows XP Tablet initiative Bill Gates launched in late 2002, with the failed UMPC market move that unfortunately had the resource-heavy Vista as its “mobile” OS in 2006, Tablet efforts with Vista and then some more serious improvements tablet PC improvements with Windows 7, true success has taken Microsoft more than two decades of trying.

Microsoft first had to make the breakthrough with Windows Phone 7 and the Metro interface, which itself was seen earlier in Microsoft’s Zune product line – if not in Microsoft’s Windows Media Center even earlier.

But once Microsoft finally made the move to create a new version of Windows Mobile (now known as Windows Phone) to run on ARM chips, something WinCE and WinMo had long done, with the Metro interface (as it was called at the time) moving front and centre at last, it was only a matter of time before a Metro tablet arrived too.

Clearly, however, Microsoft could not simply abandon its desktop Windows users, or its rich software library of apps. It was too late to make a device with tablet-only interface and work towards blending two operating systems together as Apple is doing with iOS and Mac OS X over time.

Microsoft needed a blended OS to follow Windows 7, and Windows 8 is exactly that – Redmond’s best ever effort at completely integrating a tablet and desktop-class OS, while also introducing even better multitasking, allowing two Metro/Modern UI apps to share a single screen in 1/3rd and 2/3rd screen size panes, and even to have either of those panes representing the traditional Windows desktop.

It’s something that no iPad or Android tablet can do, despite the faux twin-screen multitasking on a very small and select number of Samsung’s own apps its Galaxy Note 10.1 is seen doing in TV ads.

On that note, given the Note 10.1’s ability to have those select apps display in a dual-screen mode where both apps equally share two halves of a screen will emerge in some Windows 8 update, even if it means developers need to ensure apps display properly in that half-screen pane size – currently only Windows desktop apps can be used with Aero snap to achieve the half/half effect.

Microsoft’s Australian launch focused on the consumer aspects of Windows 8 – the new Start screen, logging in with a picture password, where you swipe over elements of a photo with only swipes you know, then surfing in IE, gaming action with Fruit Ninja, then Westvaco's Modern UI banking app. We see the Charms menu being swiped into action, we see Windows 8's People app in action, a search for Guy Sebastian in the search "charm" and results in Xbox Music where Sebastian's latest album Armageddon can be played, with his Battle Scars track chosen to demo.

We got to see the Windows desktop for a short while, with the explanation that the interface was familiar to everyone, but as you can imagine, the absence of the traditional start button was skipped - as was naturally any mention of both free and paid Start button replacements.

We got to see a demo showing various apps running side by side - in this case, Battlescars playing in a 1/3rd side window with playback controls while other apps could be run in the 2/3rd section to the right.

The JetPack Joyride game was demo'd, looking just as you'd expect it to from iOS, followed by watching the a clip of the Battleship movie in Windows's video player, and then having that video "sent" by an Xbox SmartGlass app (in the only SmartGlass demo) for playback via an Xbox 360 from where it left off when playback was stopped on Windows 8 itself.   

Soon after this the Windows 8 demo ended, and a brief series of questions began - plenty more continues on page two, please read on!

The first question was about the lack of a traditional Start Button, followed up with requests for information on how how quickly apps would appear in the Windows Store, how Microsoft was going to best explain the differences between Windows RT and Windows 8, and RT's inability to run existing Windows 7 desktop software, as well as how much and when a full, non-upgrade version of Windows 8 would appear.

Microsoft’s representatives Pip Marlow, Microsoft Australia MD and Time Flemmer, head of the Windows division, didn’t give actual answers relating to the actual questions, instead referring to 400,000 Windows developers worldwide and 38,000 in the AP region and that new apps were arriving every day.

There was no mention of the 7,873 Windows 8 “Modern UI” apps in all parts of the Windows Store worldwide, of which 4,516 are in the US, according to a Mashable report quoting Directions on Microsoft analyst Wes Miller.

Mr Miller noted that 88% of those 7,873 apps “worldwide” are free, while 83% (3,743) are free apps in the US store – but no word from Microsoft or its local PR people as yet to a follow-up question on the number of apps in the local store.

That said, Microsoft has been pushing developers to create Windows 8 “Modern UI” apps since the developer preview of Windows 8 late last year, and with Windows 8 finally at retail and set to start selling in big numbers over the next couple of months, the opportunity is undeniable and is expected to grow relatively quickly to truly start rivalling Android and the even more app-laden iOS (coupled with the ever growing range of Mac OS X apps in the Mac App Store).

Still, Microsoft locally could only point to “new apps arriving every day”, clearly saving a big announcement of various app thresholds being busted through for the future.  

Microsoft’s Windows 8 press release also states that “With the official opening of the Windows Store, users will also have access to a wide range of apps.

In terms of Microsoft helping to explain the difference between Windows RT and Windows 8, a difference Microsoft obviously tried downplaying by mainly showing the Modern UI full-screen with multiple-app on the screen at the same time and full multitasking capabilities beyond that of iOS or Android that exists on both Windows 8 and RT versions during the demo, Microsoft said that 4000 retail sales people have been trained, that Windows RT was designed for “thin and light and impressive battery life” and that Microsoft’s own website has lots of information to differentiate between the two operating system.

Microsoft also spoke about consumer choice and a focus on inexpensive upgrade versions of Windows 8 Pro available at AUD $14.99 for those who'd purchased a Windows 7 machine from June 2 2012 to January 31, 2013, or for AUD $39.99 as an online download, or AUD $69.99 as a "boxed" upgrade in stores on DVD.

What wasn't mentioned at the launch was that many retailers are already selling Windows 8 Pro boxed upgrade for AUD $58, while Officeworks in Australia announced not long after launch that it was going even better and charging approximately ten dollars less still at AUD $48.72.

We’re clearly going to see a heck of a lot of advertising and promotion around Windows 8 (alongside its new Windows 8 ambassadors, see below) showing just how seriously Microsoft and its retail partners are taking the opportunity to upgrade as many Windows XP, Vista and 7 users as possible to the brand new super-fast Windows 8 experience - noticeably boosting performance even on older hardware when compared to Vista and even Windows 7 – and shining even more brightly when used with Windows 8 certified touch capable hardware, of which a vast array and many variants are now available at retail – with Microsoft saying in its press release that “more than 200 devices, including Surface, will be available to Australian customers”.

In the press release, Microsoft Australia MD Pip Marlow states that: “With the launch of Windows 8, Microsoft is unveiling a reimagined Windows to the world. Whether you want a tablet or a PC, whether you want to consume or create, whether you want to work or play – Windows 8 delivers a personalised experience that fits your unique style and needs.

In addition to live demos of Microsoft’s Surface Tablet and Windows 8/RT at “pop-up stores” in various Westfield Malls in various parts of Australia, Microsoft has also partnered with “eight inspiring Australians who use technology to connect with the things they love across work and play”.

Microsoft says these eight Windows 8 ambassadors represent “a variety of passions and interests from sport, food, fashion and the great outdoors” and “will feature in official Australian launch activities from 26th October, 2012”.

The Australian Windows 8 Ambassadors are as follows:

Sport: Rick Kelly (V8 Supercar Driver), Ellyse Perry (Australian cricketer/footballer)
Food: Ben O’Donoghue (Chef/TV Presenter, Anthea Leonard (Sweet Art Owner)
Fashion: Jenny Manik Mercian (Jewellery Designer), Josh Goot, (Fashion Designer)
Adventure: Jessica Watson (Sailor), Cas & Jonesy (Adventurers)

Microsoft’s websites have also now finally been updated to promote Windows 8, and no longer Windows 7, as you can see at the Windows section of Microsoft’s Australian site here.

While there will be plenty of Windows 8 demos in retail stores across Australia in addition to Microsoft’s “pop-up” stores in Westfields to promote the Surface Tablet, which is only available to buy from Microsoft’s own site, those wishing to buy and immediately download the AUD $39.99 upgrade for Windows XP, Vista and 7 users can do so here.

The Windows 8 Pro upgrade box can also be ordered online from the same location, or picked up in retail stores, while those wishing to take advantage of the Windows 7 upgrade offer to Windows 8 Pro for those who purchased a Windows 7 PC between June 2 this year (2012) to January 21 next year (2013) for the lower price of AUD $14.99 can do so here.

As noted in my very recent “Windows 8 – great or grate?” article, Windows 8 has a very short learning curve, whether you’re using keyboard and mouse only, touch only, or any combination of all three, and is a genuinely excellent blend of tablet and desktop OS.

It’s a very worthy successor to generations of previous tablets, and while it took Apple to deliver a product that finally and belatedly woke Microsoft up on how to best deliver a fully multi-touch capable computer with twin tablet and desktop interfaces on its own, copying much of Apple’s strategy while being unquestionably the strongest at living with its rich OEM ecosystem delivering so many Windows 8/RT form factors on the most unified and user-friendly Windows yet.

There’s a real chance that Windows 8 and RT devices really take off in 2013, quickly delivering a massive user base that could stretch into the hundreds of millions, in what will be a result that developers simply cannot afford to ignore.

Such a large market would help to match up and mobilise as much of the billion-plus Windows userbase as possible to counter the threat of the 200-million strong iOS userbase, which is a fifth of Microsoft’s own and growing fast.

It will even help create new “first mover” opportunities for those able to really deliver excellent game-changing apps that challenge the current app status quo on iOS, Android and the traditional Windows desktop, threatening an eventual sheer force of numbers despite being so “late” compared to Apple and its 5 year history of ever better and usually ever thinner and lighter range of iDevices.

Yes, there is a Windows RT and Windows 8 divide when it comes to desktop apps, and who knows – perhaps a selection of ARM-based desktop apps which are ports of existing apps may appear in the future – think perhaps a far more toolbar laden and feature packed Adobe Photoshop for RT desktop in addition to any Photoshop super-lite/express “Modern UI” version which would be equivalent to that on iOS.

But that’s certainly not on Microsoft’s radar right now, with RT tablets limited to the small selection of Windows’ existing desktop apps (File Explorer, Notepad, Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Calc, Paint and a few others), but as the Windows Store grows, and especially if it grows quickly, it’s not meant to matter.

After all, brand new 2012 1.8Ghz dual-core Intel Z2760 Atom processors are now available which power the full Windows 8 x86 experience and run all existing Windows 7 software, and while they’re likely to be more expensive than ARM versions, the Asus VivoTab has 10 hours of battery life with another 9.5 hours delivered via the clip-on keyboard and mouse trackpad.

It’s limited to 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD, costing approx. $1099 with keyboard from memory of a conversation with an Asus person at Asus’ launch of Windows 8 and RT products, although Asus’ press release states the VivoTab price with Windows 8 is still to be announced, while the VivoTab running Windows RT starts at AUD $749 – a price that certainly is competitive with the high-end iPad models.

After the Q&A was some demo time, where a stack of Windows 8 devices were available to play with, including at least two Microsoft Surface RT tablets, two touch covers and one type covers.

Details and much more all concludes on page three, please read on!

The Microsoft Surface RT's touch cover was quite easy to type on, but as I’d only had a few minutes to play with it I naturally made a few errors here and there, mostly it seemed from the touch cover not recognising I’d pressed a key.

Naturally, the type cover delivered an instant boost in typing accuracy, but I’m sure that with a bit of practice I’d be able to type very well on the type cover – I can already do so on the iPad’s on-screen touch keyboard.

That said, being able to depress a key is still the most “natural” typing experience for anyone that has grown up with traditional keyboards, making the type cover a very clever and potentially very popular add-on for at least some Surface Tablet users.

So, Windows 8 is here, as is Microsoft’s first truly viable and seemingly destined to be very successful full tablet experience, yet one which fully transforms into a fantastic keyboard and mouse experience for those without touch technology.

It does so without denying keyboard and mouse users access to the Modern UI start screen that’s easily arguably much better than the Start button – with third-party paid and completely free Start buttons available to bring the old Start button back, letting you use either or both Start environments in unison as you see fit.  

It’s certainly a must-see OS for existing Windows users, many of whom will upgrade to the new OS at some point, despite the ever growing appeal of Mac OS X.

And, it has to be said – if your computer system is running smoothly and securely, and you’re happy (or at least mostly happy) with all your apps as they currently are, there’s no great rush or urgency to buy now, whether on Harvey Norman’s profitable multi-month or multi-year interest free terms, or not.

Indeed, if everything is running smoothly, there’s even the case NOT to upgrade, but simply to leave it all running perfectly as is, and getting a new Windows 8 computer instead to run side-by-side until your transition to the Windows 8 side of the force is complete.

Still, I have upgraded a small number of test subjects (of various ages including a 65 and 75 year old) to Windows 8 Pro over the past couple of months since RTM, none of whom had touch capable screens with all simply using the traditional keyboard and mouse, and it has been the most trouble-free, support-free, hassle-free couple of months ever after initially upgrading existing Windows 7 systems directly to Windows 8 (after a full file and image Windows 7 backup).

I then showed these users keyboard shortcuts (printing out a list from various lists online) and showed and had the users go through mousing to the corners for multitasking, charms, both Start buttons, running apps in 1/3rd and 2/3rd split screens, where settings were, how to turn off and on…

These users were quick to learn, and while it may well take some longer, the basics of using Windows 8 really are basic and fast to learn – you don’t have to be a genius to quickly learn and unmistakably remember corners and trying the right mouse button to activate touch swipe or hold-able options.

The iPad mini is going to absolutely rock and sell in huge numbers, but both Windows RT and 8 are legitimately rocking large for the first time ever at exactly the same time, while also seeing what should be plenty of upgrade activity especially as people see how Windows 8 works for others and how especially easy it is for Windows 7 users to upgrade without having to re-install apps (generally speaking, as there may be some exceptions that need re-installation afterwards).

Vista and XP users can upgrade and save their data but will need to find their installation CDs, DVDs and purchased online downloads to re-install onto Windows 8 thereafter.

So, with the new iPads and Macs, new Windows 8, Surface Tablets and OEM designs, and from Monday, new Nexus smartphones and tablets alongside new Windows Phone 8 smartphones, late 2012 is seeing on heck of an amazing tech-tonic shift giving enjoyment to all no matter which platform they choose – if any of the new platforms is chosen yet at all.

Now that all the major players have built very tempting devices for late 2012, consumers are clearly coming to buy, with the biggest question over which platforms gain the largest number of users in the fastest time frame, something we’ll all be very keen to see in early 2013 when we’ll hopefully be getting some firm numbers – and throughout 2013 as we see three platforms with more competitive wow starting now than ever before!


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.