A deep dive into Windows 8 Developer Preview

After spending several days using Microsoft's new OS on a PC, what will you find?

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Microsoft has made some small attempts to bridge the gaps between the interfaces. Metro and the Desktop share some basic navigation -- for example, in both of them, when you move your mouse to the bottom left of the screen by the Start button, you get the previously described options menu, along with the date and time, and notifications such as whether you're connected to a network and the power state of your computer.

Windows 8

When you mouse to the bottom left of the screen, new options appear, along with the time and notifications.

This is a good way to try and create commonalities between two very different interfaces, but it doesn't always succeed. In the Metro interface, the options are context sensitive, so when you're in an app and click Settings, for example, the settings will relate to that app. However, if you click Settings on the Desktop the results always pertain to the Desktop, whether or not you're currently using an app.

Windows 8 and the cloud

Windows 8 is clearly being designed with the cloud in mind as well. After installation, you're asked to enter a Windows Live ID, or to sign up for one if you don't already have one. Your Windows 8 machine is then linked to Microsoft's cloud-based Live services, including Windows Live SkyDrive, which is expected to become the central location for your files.

On this Developer Preview running on a PC, however, only a few cloud services were available, something that will likely change in the future. In the Metro interface, when I clicked Control Panel, I found Sync PC Settings, which are designed for a cloud-based world in which people use multiple devices, including Windows-based PCs, tablets and smartphones.

By default, Sync is turned on, which means that your global settings -- such as app settings, screen lock picture and themes, browser settings, taskbar and Windows Explorer settings, and some passwords -- are automatically synced among all your devices. You can decide whether to sync devices that use a metered data plan.

Surprisingly, nowhere could I find settings for automatically syncing actual data and files via Microsoft's cloud storage service Windows Live SkyDrive. Possibly that will appear in a future Windows 8 version.

Two ways to use Internet Explorer

Windows 8 Developer Preview comes with not one, but two versions of Internet Explorer 10, one for the Metro interface and the other for Desktop. The underlying engine, which supports CSS3, HTML5 and Flash, is the same for both, but the surrounding interface is dramatically different.

Windows 8

Windows 8 has two versions of Internet Explorer 10. The version shown here is the Metro version, designed for tablets.

In the Metro version, you browse full screen, with no controls immediately visible for typing in a URL, adding bookmarks, refreshing a Web page or switching between tabs. Right-click anywhere on the page, though, and those controls appear at the top and bottom of the screen. The top of the screen shows clickable thumbnails of all open tabs. You click on the X to close the tab and click the + to open a new tab, at which point a screen appears that shows pages that you frequently visit, as well as sites that you've pinned so that they're always visible whenever you open a new tab. These pinned sites also appear on the main Metro interface.

Windows 8

The Desktop version of Internet Explorer 10 looks and works like Internet Explorer 9.

The Address Bar appears at the bottom of the screen when you right-click; it lets see your current URL and typing in a different one, go forward or back, refresh the current page, pin the current page, findtext on the current page and switch to the Desktop version of IE.

The Desktop version of IE 10 looks and works much like Internet Explorer 9, with the usual menu-less, tabbed interface.

Because the underlying engine is the same, if you switch from Metro to the Desktop version, the Desktop version will have all of the currently open tabs, current URL, and so on.

The bottom line

Windows 8 on a desktop feels very much like a transitional operating system, attempting to bridge traditional PC-based computing and mobile computing done on tablets and smartphones. Even after several days of use, the experience was slightly awkward, and I never got over the feeling that I was using two separate operating systems -- Metro and the Desktop -- joined together by a slender thread.

I expect that tablet and smartphone users will rarely make their way to the Desktop, especially with the recent announcement that Microsoft will be developing a Metro version of Office.

In fact, based on this early Developer Preview, there may not be much for enterprises in Windows 8. Upgrading from Windows 7 or Vista to Windows 8 would likely be a problem for businesses because the Metro interface is so different from earlier Windows versions.

Given the amount of resources that Microsoft has spent on Metro, and the few it appears to have expended on the Desktop, I wouldn't be surprised if the Desktop will eventually fade away in future Windows versions. The main screen you boot into in Windows 8, Metro, calls out for a touch interface -- and Microsoft is clearly betting that touch-screen PCs will eventually become standard.

If that happens, and when there are Metro versions of applications such as Office, the Desktop will become even less important than it is now in Windows 8. Windows 7 may well be the last time that Windows' longtime primary interface, the Desktop, has center stage.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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