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Goldstuck on Gadgets

The next Windows

Windows 8 was unveiled ‚ at least in preview form ‚ for the developer community last week. What does it mean for users and for Microsoft? ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK explores its significance.

Last week saw the preview of the way more than a billion people will be using computers a couple of years from now. The next version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, Windows 8, was partly unveiled at the BUILD conference in California, to show developers the environment in which they would be operating.

And the future, it’s clear, looks a lot like the tablet computer and smartphone.

Every previous version of Windows had a screen littered with Icons, but very little content. Windows 7 featured the predecessor to apps ‚ called Widgets – on the home screen. But, in the half-hearted way they were implemented, these proved to be more of an irritation than attraction. The next version will see a screen containing live content, with an emphasis on user-friendly access to news, entertainment and business or leisure applications.

(See the full details revealed by Microsoft here: Microsoft showcases Windows 8.)

It’s going to take more than a year for Windows to come to market though. That will have the anti-Microsoft lobby jeering gleefully, but they should hold their sniggers. Microsoft learned from the disastrous rushed roll-out of Windows Vista ‚ two operating systems ago ‚ that rushing a product to market can all but destroy the brand. They took their time with the current version, Windows 7, and the market rewarded them with lavish praise and purchases.

Analysts argue that the delay will hurt sales of the current version, as the corporate market holds off on adopting it in favour of waiting for the new one. But that is an absurd argument that has already been disproven in the world of laptops and phones: when people need a new device or application, they will buy it.

Thanks to the competition, though, Microsoft has learned another key lesson: the developer community is all important. Both Apple and Google have built up seemingly unassailable positions in the apps market ‚ with a combined billion apps available for their iOS and Android operating systems ‚ thanks to a close relationship with the developer community.

Microsoft is getting the developers on board early, and enthusiastically. It no longer sees itself competing with outside developers, as it did as recently as three years ago. The more it embraces developers, the more it reaps the rewards of a richer ecosystem for users. And that’s where you and I eventually come in.

The Windows 8 style interface will probably appear on smartphones first, followed by tablets and finally laptops and desktop computers. That means a steady process of familiarisation, rather than the big-bang style of Apple’s the-world-changes-today announcements. That, of course, is also why Microsoft is seen as far more boring than Apple!

The new Windows will include almost every imaginable input option, such as mouse, keyboard, touch screen and virtual keyboard. Only voice and gesture control are missing for now, but don’t be surprised to see them pop up.

In a similar way to which apps are at the centre of the touch device user experience today, the new version of Microsoft’s browser, Internet Explorer 10, will be focused on web sites integrated with the Windows user interface. They will live alongside the apps that will be both pre-installed and downloadable, and apps will be able to draw information from each other ‚ overcoming a major current limitation across all operating systems.

Microsoft’s cloud service, Windows SkyDrive, will be built into the system, playing catch-up with Apple’s iCloud.

Microsoft also promises an instant-on world, meaning you switch on the computer, and it is immediately functional, as opposed to the interminable boot-up process we still suffer today. Again, playing catch-up.

‚We reimagined Windows,‚ said Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division at Microsoft, at the event. ‚From the chipset to the user experience, Windows 8 brings a new range of capabilities without compromise.‚

The proof of the pudding, as the ancients used to say, will be in the eating. Just because Microsoft says it has reimagined its products doesn’t mean it will capture the user’s imagination.

* Thanks @stubusa for some of the stations on the list (see his column here.)

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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