Windows 8 steps beyond the desktop

Windows' new Metro interface will allow users to interact with apps by using their fingers

On the Windows computer of the future, live tiles will replace icons, touch-based gestures will replace mouse clicks and semantic zooming will replace the arduous traversal through nested menus and folders.

In a demonstration Monday for journalists and analysts, Microsoft showed off a beta of its next generation Windows OS, Windows 8. The event was held the day before Microsoft's Build Professional Developers Conference opens in Anaheim, California.

Although Microsoft has revealed many of Windows 8's features in blog posts and earlier demonstrations, Monday's presentation showed how these elements would work together as a whole.

Windows 8 is a "bold re-imagination" of Windows, said Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows division. The Windows 8 user experience will be fundamentally different than it was for earlier iterations. Users will no longer be asked to see the screen as a desktop. Nor will they find menus running across the top of boxy applications.

This change comes thanks to a new user interface, called Metro, which borrows heavily from the interface Microsoft created for Windows Phone 7, in which applications are accessed by touching tiles.

The distinction between a tile and an icon is subtle but important, according to Microsoft. "Tiles are more expressive than icons," Harris said. "Icons are yesterday's way of representing apps." Live tiles can be updated with the new information. A weather app can summarize the current weather, an email client can show how many new emails have arrived.

Tiles also can be organized into groups for easier access. Jensen Harris, director of program management for Windows, showed how users can group different sets of apps, such as games, social networking sites, work-related sites and so on. By using a multitouch gesture, a user can then "zoom out" to see all the groups, or zoom in to see a certain selection. Harris called this process "semantic zooming." Like tiles, groups can be moved around.

Apps can also be found through a search function.

The desktop presentation traditionally thought of as Windows remains part of the OS, though mostly for what Sinofsky calls "precision apps," or those that can be best operated through the precise placement of mouse clicks. Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft's own Task Manager both fall in this category. The desktop interface becomes "just another application."

Traditional desktop apps, however, will not be able to run on ARM processor-based machines, Sinofsky made clear during a question-and-answer session. Since such applications will not be able to take advantage of ARM's advanced features, such as the ability to adjust power states when not used, it would make little sense to provide a way to run such applications on ARM processors, he said.

Metro-based apps, however, can run on either x86 or Arm processors. The Metro interface abstracts both of the hardware platforms into one set of OS system calls. To build Metro apps, developers can use either the XAML framework, or a set of Web standards, including HTML5, JavaScript and CSS.

The apps themselves will be "immersive," in that they can take up the entire screen, Harris said. The desktop "chrome" framing traditional applications has been eliminated, he added. A user can swipe a finger downward to get a listing of the application's commands to appear on the bottom half of the screen.

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