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.

Users will also be able to access a set of common utilities available for Metro apps by swiping a finger to the left. This action will produce a ribbon along the right-hand side with a number of icons, or what Harris called "Charms." Charms cover common activities across all applications, such as sharing, searching or interacting with devices such as printers. Microsoft provides an interface for Metro developers to have their applications interact with these utilities.

For instance, with the "Sharing" charm, Harris showed how to share a Web page with a friend through a social networking site such as Facebook. The user swipes to get the Sharing Charm, which provides a list of applications the content can be shared through. Each application has a set of requirements for receiving shared data, called a contract, that allows other applications to provide data.

Despite its immersive interface, Windows 8 will offer the ability to run multiple applications at once. Applications can be moved to a sidebar and called up when needed. This version of Windows will offer the ability to place apps in a "suspended state," which saves their state and prevents them from making any additional OS calls, which will trim power usage.

Microsoft demonstrated a number of other new features as well. When the user first starts the device, the splash screen will show the current time, date and selected bits of personal information, such as the number of new emails, the user's next appointment and so on.

User verification can be done through a number of ways, by traditional password, by an all-numeric personal identification number, or by picture password. With a picture password, a user is presented with a familiar image, such as a loved one, and is asked to draw imaginary lines between different parts of the picture with a finger, much like a connect-the-dots puzzle. Access will be granted if the user replicates the correct sequence of moves.

The cloud will also play a pivotal role in Windows 8. Microsoft corporate vice president Chris Jones demonstrated some of the ways Windows 8 can be used in conjunction with Microsoft's Live and SkyDrive services.

Windows 8 will be able to unify cloud data from different sources. The email client can manage messages from multiple clients, and the calendar application can place multiple calendars within a single view. The contact list can combine contacts from multiple services. The instant messaging client can combine multiple services.

SkyDrive will provide a way to synchronize information across multiple devices. Photos, for instance, can be uploaded automatically from a phone or digital camera and be shared with others. Users can even use SkyDrive to access data on a remote computer.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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