Windows 8: Microsoft’s Saving Grace?

If you’ve turned on the TV in the past month and kept it on long enough to see a commercial break, you’ve likely seen one of Microsoft’s catchy ads for its new tablet/laptop hybrid, Surface.  The focus of the ad is the flashy new Surface, but placed somewhat inconspicuously on the screen of every tablet is an odd, tile-based operating system known as Windows 8.

Think back to a time when your family would get a new Dell, HP or Compaq computer and you’d have to get used to the odd quirks and intricacies of the new Windows 95, 98 or XP. These live tiles and edges of the new Windows 8 would have sent ten-year-old you into a brain-busting tailspin. Microsoft has been phasing in a new style of operating system, beginning on Windows Phone, that is centered on these live tiles, which are constantly-updating windows into the various facets of your online life – a live-action dashboard, if you will.

In the words of Fast Company’s Austin Carr, “Operating systems have largely seen only incremental innovations since Windows 1.0 and the original Macintosh…Windows 8 rips that blueprint to shreds.” Windows 8 will live or die by these tiles, and by the edges feature, which are both drastic changes to a well-established product.

The idea behind the tiles is that instead of moving in and out of apps as you need them (think of clicking on Twitter on a smartphone, then hitting “home”, then entering Notes), live tiles put everything you need on the “Start” screen directly in front of you.  Just by looking at the Start screen (the Start menu is no more), you’ll have real-time updates from your email, weather, personal calendar and finance portfolio, among others.  One of Windows 8’s trademark features is the “People” hub, a tile that, once integrated, displays all of your social media updates in a small, easy-to-use live tile on the Start screen. Instead of maneuvering back and forth between different applications, everything is laid out in front of you.

Another hallmark of the new Windows operating system is the edges feature.  Edges are difficult to describe without video or actual experience, but the idea is that by swiping into the display space with a mouse or a finger, you can bring in any feature on the computer to share screen space with what you’re doing.  For instance, if you’re in your music library, you can swipe in a third of the screen to be your email, and another third to be a webpage.  All three will function so that you can be receiving new email, loading a webpage and scrolling through your music simultaneously. Another function of the edges is the replacement of  right clicks. Instead of getting a menu next to where you clicked, right-clicking now produces a context-specific menu at the previously-hidden bottom edge of the screen. Different app windows are available along the hidden top edge, and the right edge houses access to “share” features, as well as device controls and access to the Start screen.

None of this means that you can’t use apps or software the way you used to.  It is still possible to jump fully into a Word document or Internet Explorer or any other app.  The desktop is another classic Windows feature that has survived the morph. A non-live tile on the Start screen leads users to a familiar screen that can be personalized with icons and shortcuts. Microsoft has learned from its mistakes, and its placement of the desktop as a secondary feature is a testament to the growing popularity of tablets and the multi-touch interface that will soon replace point-click user interaction.

This is the biggest Microsoft launch since Windows 95. With recent abject failures like Microsoft’s tablets of the early 2000s (remember the Microsoft Tablet PC? Didn’t think so), the Zune and Windows Vista, Microsoft needs a big winner, badly. The company has poured millions of dollars into developing and marketing Windows 8, which industry experts predict will have most success in the desktop and laptop markets.  By pushing the Surface so aggressively, though, Microsoft seems to have taken aim squarely at Apple and the iPad in hopes to carve out a significant market share among tablets.

Though the learning curve will be steep and some of the features are complex, Windows 8 is an innovative, quality product that has the potential to revolutionize operating systems and change the way we interact with computers.

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