Shock: Windows 8 optimized for desktop tablets

Why the default user interface for desktop Windows 8 looks a lot like Microsoft's Windows Phone 7

Microsoft demonstrated the next version of Windows this week, and the operating system has an interface almost nobody expected or predicted.

The default interface for Windows 8 will look almost nothing like Windows 7, but will look and feel a heck of a lot like Microsoft's cell-phone operating system, Windows Phone 7.

What's going on here?

Way back in February 2007, I told you about the coming era of touch-screen desktop computing -- "an iPhone the size of a big-screen TV." I asked: "Will the desktop version of this third-generation UI come from Apple, or Microsoft?"

After four years, we still don't know the answer to that question. Apple could still beat Microsoft to the punch.

But this week we learned that Microsoft intends to ship the first desktop touch tablet version of Windows next year. More importantly, we know how Microsoft is going to manage the jarring transition from second-generation WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointing devices) computing to third-generation MPG (multi-touch, physics and gestures ) computing.

To gently-but-aggressively transition the Windows world to the next generation of computing, Microsoft is going to do something I hadn't even thought of: Microsoft will get millions of users to interact with their touch interface without touching. Windows 8 will combine the gestures and eye candy of tomorrow's touch tablets with the clunky mice and keyboards of yesterday's PCs.

A proven strategy

When Microsoft transitioned users from DOS to Windows back in the early 1990s, they made Windows a "shell" on top of DOS, but made the Windows UI the default. (Note that the less aggressive, legacy-friendly alternative to that would have been to ship DOS with the Windows shell as an optional application.) Microsoft didn't force everyone to suddenly abandon DOS and the DOS applications they had invested in. Anyone who wanted to launch and run a DOS program could do so, but in a DOS window within the Windows shell. Microsoft's strategy paid off, and Windows adoption happened quickly.

Microsoft plans to do exactly the same thing with Windows 8. The new operating system will default to the next-generation shell -- the Metro UI, which first showed up in the Windows Media Center, then the Zune, then Windows Phone 7.

That's right. When you install Windows 8, you'll be greeted not by a "desktop" with icons, but to a "personal mosaic of tiles," according to Microsoft's demo video. These are like icons in functionality -- when you click or tap them, they launch the associated applications. But unlike icons, they display data from the applications. In Microsoft's example, the e-mail tile shows new messages. The calendar tile shows today's appointments. A "My Investments" tile displays live stock prices. A Twitter tile shows a recent tweet.

The interface is so new that applications will have to be re-written for it from the ground up, just like DOS applications had to be re-written for Windows. These new applications will have interesting qualities. For example, they'll be written in either HTML5 or JavaScript. They'll launch full-screen, just like apps on an Apple iPad tablet, but will also optionally run two at a time, side-by-side. And even if you're using an old mouse-and-keyboard style desktop PC, the apps you'll use will be "designed for touch." You can cycle through multitasking applications with a simple swipe-from-the-left gesture.

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