Is Windows 8 really that different?

There is a lot of discussion in the tech world about just how different Windows 8 will be.  Microsoft has a blog dedicated to explaining the new features that are coming. Some people are excited, others are leery.  So, is Windows 8 really that different?  As with many questions, the answer is both yes and no.

Evolution, not Revolution

First, lets talk about what is not different.  The same Windows that we have used for the last several years is still under the hood.  Version numbers can tell you a lot about how big a change the creator of the software believes it to be.  Here is a list of the last several versions of Windows with the product name and the internal version number:

Product Name Microsoft Version Number
Windows 2000 5.0
Windows XP 5.1
Windows Vista 6.0
Windows 7 6.1
Windows 8 6.2

Want to go back further? Check out the full list starting with Windows 3.  If you want to see it for yourself, go to Start and then Run and type “winver” and press Enter.

This is why drivers built for Windows 2000 also worked on XP, they were basically the same operating system.  If your software works on Windows 7, it should work on Windows 8.  It is just the next iteration.   It even comes in both 32-bit and 64-bit (which surprised me a little, I figured that Microsoft would drop 32-bit).

Windows 8 DesktopAs you can see from the screenshot on the right, the desktop remains mostly the same.  You can still pin programs to the task bar and manipulate the windows of individual programs.  There are two key differences.  The first is that Windows Explorer gets the Ribbon that Microsoft first introduced with Office 2007. (Head to the Windows 8 blog for a full explanation.)  The other key change is the removal of the Start button.  In the next section we will take a look at the new Start screen which replaces the Start menu, and I will discuss the merits of that change.  Removing the Start button completely I think is a bad idea, it took me a while to figure out how to get to the Start screen since there is no button.  There are two ways that I have found to activate the Start screen.  The first is to put your mouse in the bottom left corner where the Start button used to be.  The second is to right-click in the bottom right corner which is the “metro” way to do it.

Bring on the Revolution!

The biggest change coming in Windows 8 is the idea of “touch first.”  In the old days of DOS, the keyboard was king.  Then with Windows the mouse started to take over, and many programs were written in such a way that a mouse was almost a requirement to navigate. With Windows Vista, Microsoft brought the keyboard back in for power users.  Even though there have been “tablet” versions of XP, Vista, and 7 they all really required a mouse (or a stylus that acted as a mouse).  With Windows 8 Microsoft is “reimagining” Windows where the primary input is a touchscreen.

Windows 8 Metro Start MenuTo support this new viewpoint, the Metro interface from Windows Phone is being brought to the PC.  The Start menu has been changed to use the full screen.  Rather than just having a list of programs in folders, each program is represented by a live tile where it can also give you alerts (for example, Outlook can tell you how many new messages you have).

I will admit that when I first tried out the new Start screen I was not too impressed.  It looked nice, but was a pain to navigate.  It seemed more “touch only” than “touch first.”  Two things have changed my mind.  First, I realized that I was navigating it with a mouse when I don’t even do that in Windows Vista or 7.  I pressed the Windows key on my keyboard and started typing the program that I wanted.  Worked even better than Windows 7.  Second, I read an article by Ed Bott on customizing the Start screen. I currently use a program called Fences to manage my Windows desktop, but with Windows 8 I was able to do that right on the Start menu.  Suddenly the Start screen was rather nice.

Metro, WinRT and Windows RT

The Metro look of the Start screen is not only a new way to navigate Windows, it is also the way that Microsoft sees you using Windows going forward.  Metro Apps will be full screen immersive programs that are also designed around “touch first.”  Metro is also known as the WinRT or Windows Runtime.  Microsoft is encouraging developers to write for this platform, so more apps will be coming out that are metro-ized..  They can be downloaded from the Windows store and kept updated like you can do now with the iPad and the iTunes store.  For early adopters of Windows 8, a lot of time will be spent in the desktop app, where they can work with Windows as they traditionally have.  Over the years though, new programs are going to be written for metro and people will find themselves on the desktop less and less.

A new version of Windows is also being released called “Windows RT.”  This will be the version of Windows 8 written for the ARM processor.  The primary form factor will be the tablet and it will have many of the advantages of the iPad: low power, light weight, instant on, etc.  It will come pre-loaded with versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.  Although you will be able to get to the desktop for administrative tasks, it will only run Metro apps.

Speaking of Windows versions, there will only be two main versions in addition to Windows RT: Windows 8 for home and Windows 8 Pro for business.  Basic, Home Premium, and Ultimate have all been dropped.  For a full listing of what is included in each, take a look at the Windows team blog.

Speculation

The rest of this is my pure speculation.  It may come from things I have read, or simply a dream I had last night.  I couldn’t tell you for sure, but here is where I think things are going.  As I have proof, I will try to fill it in.

Microsoft is really embracing the Metro interface.  It was first introduced with Windows Phone 7 and now we are seeing it as the primary interface in Windows 8.  Even the next version of SharePoint is getting some of it.  Back at the beginning of 2009 Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced a vision to expand Windows to the three screens: PC, phone & TV.  Since then, the iPad has brought in a fourth screen, the tablet.  Let’s take a look at what is happening across those screens:

Is Metro just a look?  Frankly, that would be enough.  If customers can move from computer to phone to tablet to TV and interact with all of them the same way, that would be huge.  It would vastly increase ease of use because you interact the same way.  I think it will go farther than that.  My gut says that WinRT will eventually be supported on all four screens.  If a developer writes an app for one, it will work on all of them.  Buy an app from the Microsoft store on your phone and use it on your TV.

With Windows 8 Microsoft is making more use of the personal cloud.  You can use your Windows Live ID to sign into your computer.  If you move to another Windows 8 computer, your apps and settings come with you. You can use SkyDrive to store pictures and documents from within apps.  What if all of that easily transferred to your phone and your TV?

(Update: Yesterday I downloaded the Visual Studio 11 Beta Product Guide found on the beta page.  There are two sections that I want to quote here that I think prove my point above.

Under “Platform Experience: Portable Libraries” [pg 31 & 32]

Visual Studio 11 Beta provides tooling to develop for several different platforms, including the desktop, web, Azure cloud, Windows Phone, and Xbox 360. For developers who needed to develop across these platforms by using previous versions of Visual Studio, code had to be recompiled for each target platform, thus creating many versions of the same application logic, each of which needed to be maintained separately, duplicating the effort required when fixing bugs or changing the business logic of an application.

Visual Studio 11 Beta includes support for portable libraries that can help to resolve this problem. A developer can create a library based on the Portable Class Library project template. Using the template, the developer creates a project and chooses the target platforms. The code is automatically restricted to the functions that are common across these platforms. For example, string concatenation is the same across platforms, and so is permitted in a portable library, while file system access can be different and so is not permitted.

Portable libraries are binary portable assemblies, meaning that you can copy the same assembly to multiple platforms without recompiling. In the event of an update, you simply recompile the portable library once and deploy it into all of your applications. In this way, developers can build and reuse a portable core of their code and then for each platform build only what is necessary to conform to platform-specific conventions. This enables you to consolidate key investments and fixes in a single piece of code.

Under “Windows 8 Applications are Mobile and Scalable” [pg 44]

Applications can roam. Windows 8 enables applications to synchronize their state with another device via the cloud. For example, a user can install the same application on their PC and their smartphone, run the application on the PC, and perform some work. The user might then leave the office, but transition to using the application on their smartphone while accessing the same data. At home, the user may then switch to another PC and continue running the application, again with the same state and data. The different form factors and capabilities of devices such as PCs and smartphones are not a barrier to well-designed Windows 8 applications. The controls available to Windows 8 developers enable you to build applications that can operate equally well whether they are running on a touch-based device or a computer that relies on a keyboard and mouse to provide input.

When you use the Windows 8 controls, animations, behaviors, and layouts, you can design applications that retain their functionality and appearance regardless of the aspect ratio, resolution, or orientation of the device screen, or user input method. The Windows 8 scaling system keeps your applications working perfectly on devices with different display sizes and pixel densities.

What does all of this mean?  The first quote is from the developer experience.  Not everything is running WinRT yet, but it is easier to write an app for multiple Microsoft platforms at the same time.  The second quote is about how to write an app for Windows 8.  If written correctly it can not only go between Windows 8 computers, but even to a phone.)

Further Reading

Here are a few articles that I have found to be helpful as I have explored what Windows 8 is all about:

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5 thoughts on “Is Windows 8 really that different?

  1. I really liked “It may come from things I have read, or simply a dream I had last night!” You have given a great summary and ideas for what to be looking for. Thanks!

  2. Only in Computers would Version 6.1 be named 7!

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

  3. It may come from things I have read,…or the fumes from the burrito KT didn’t finish, having it’s effect 13 years later…either way, thanks for the info. I’ll be keeping my eye on this as a unified Microsoft look on four screens would seriously ramp up the competition with MAC.

  4. This was an excellent summary of what you have been telling me over the last few months. Thanks for boiling it down for me.

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