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The next great OS could be . . . a touched-up Windows 8?

Windows 8's new Start page is central console whole Windows experience. Whether you're running tablet or desktop these live tiles

Windows 8's new Start page is the central console to the whole Windows experience. Whether you're running on a tablet or a desktop, these live tiles are the new face of Windows.

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Updated: November 18, 2011 12:22AM

It’s important not to get too excited by an advance demo of something that won’t be released for another year. Microsoft’s unveiling of Windows 8 was a well-rehearsed, expensively-produced and exhaustively-planned show that ran for more than two hours in a room full of 5000 Windows developers. When the new OS actually ships, it’ll have to prove its worth in a far more hostile environments: the cubicles, hotel rooms, and kitchen tables of ordinary users.

Still, what does it say if a company goes to all of that trouble and fails? Too many times the show ends, the tent still smells of dog and pony sweat, and the audience members are left thinking just one thing: “Oh, those poor engineers. What are they going to do for work once this whole project gets cancelled?”

But that’s not what happened on Tuesday at the BUILD conference. I’m very, very excited about what the next edition of Windows could bring. I’m also very confused, and concerned that all of these terrific ideas will never take flight thanks to all of the baggage that Microsoft is forcing it to carry.

Is Microsoft moving into the tablet space? Of course. They almost have to, thanks to the immense gravity well that the iPad has created. But the company has obviously learned from the many other companies who’ve crashed and burned by designing “me, too” tablets and multitouch operating systems.

In many ways, Microsoft’s tablet strategy is the opposite of Apple’s. Instead of building and maintaining two separate operating systems, they’ve designed a single OS that runs on everything. Both your cheap iPad-style Windows 8 tablet and your $5000 water-cooled desktop war machine will start up the same way: in less than ten seconds, and depositing the user in a new Start screen that’s tastefully festooned with live tiles representing apps, people, and other things you want to work with and keep an eye on.

Welcome to Metro

Behold, the new “Metro” interface. Its chief thematic rule seems to be to not put anything on the screen that the user doesn’t need to see in the current context. When you’re not actively using your PC, the screen is a piece of interactive art that (via its app tiles) gives you an at-a-glance overview of your world. Tap a tile to open an app. Swipe upward from the bottom of the screen and an App Bar rolls up, containing application-specific functions. Swiping in from the right reveals a vertical ribbon of “system charms” that take you to Windows-wide functions (like Search, Sharing, Settings, and a hotbutton back to the Start screen). Any of these can also be engaged via keyboard hotkeys.

Fundamentally, apps designed to work in this Metro scheme adapt themselves to the situation. In the Start screen, your Mail app articulates itself as a live tile that patiently tells you how many new emails await and who sent you the most recent message. Tap or click on it and it expands into an elegant, streamlined fullscreen mode. What if you’re watching a movie, but you want to keep an eye on your Inbox? Mail can also become a single column of messages -- like what you’d see on a Windows phone -- pinned to the screen as a sidebar.

All of these modes are designed to work independently of the size, shape, orientation, and resolution of the screen. An app’s developer defines a generic grid for the app’s various elements, which Windows 8 then uses to rearrange items when a tablet user flips the device from portrait to landscape mode, or when the app finds itself running on a dinky netbook screen instead of a panoramic desktop display.

Metro-based apps can articulate themselves one more way: simply as features that they “lend” to other apps. One of Apple’s publicly-demoed features of the upcoming update to iOS is the ability to share things via Twitter. It exists because Apple hardwired Twitter right into the OS. In Windows 8, that same feature is available to you because you happen to have installed a standalone Twitter client on this machine. The Twitter app’s developer added a few lines of code that allows Windows to offer those core Twitter features system-wide, wherever it’s appropriate, without exiting the original program.

Metro is, first and foremost, visually quite beautiful and it’s easily the match of anything that’s ever come out of Cupertino. Five minutes into the demo, I felt like I knew the short list of intuitive gestures that bring it to life. And although it’s impossible to get a sense of how well all of this would work through a keyboard and mouse, similar experiences with Mac OS X Lion have all gone well. Like Windows 8, Lion is wired to the gills with multitouch and also allows apps to have fullscreen modes. By the end of my first day with Lion, navigating through apps via taps and swipes of my notebook’s multitouch trackpad came naturally. By the end of my first week, I’d learned all of Lion’s keyboard shortcuts that seemed like they were worth knowing.

A promising Windows solution - until 7 shows up

So I’m at least optimistic that Windows 8 might truly be a successful hybrid tablet/notebook/desktop OS. The hardest thing to get right -- as so painfully demonstrated by Android tablets -- is the multitouch component and to date, only Apple and Microsoft have been able to demonstrate a clean and appealing approach . . . even in video demo form. Windows 8 looks to me like it could be a comfortable OS to operate while standing or sitting in a commuter rail train.

It also earns applause for the way it apparently brings all boats running Windows into the same harbor. There will always be limitations to how useful a netbook can possibly be. But Metro means that a word processor running in fullscreen mode on a 1024x600 pixel display will offer mostly the same experience as it will at 1920x1080. The larger display will just feel roomier, and the larger screen size enables certain features that are impossible to support on a small display, like that “sidebar pinning” feature. Potentially, Metro could bring new credibility to a class of cut-rate devices that have never deserved much respect.

That said, please do keep flitting back to the first line of this column. A demo at a developer conference is merely an expensive way for a company to give its own wishful thinking shape, form, and sound. For all of this to work, Microsoft will need to navigate a lot of variables. All of those developer will need to get excited and climb on board the Metro express early. Hardware manufacturers will need to produce tablets and notebooks and desktops that deliver on the promise. Microsoft showed a two-year-old netbook which they claimed was running Windows 8 but who’s anybody kidding: this is a new OS for new, or at least new-ish, hardware. It remains to be seen if credible Windows 8 hardware can be made and sold for anything close to netbook prices.

Also, it’s not as though Microsoft put on a flawless demo. Metro is the swift, graceful center of the Windows 8 experience. But the traditional Windows interface is still right there, like a mud-coated crocodile lying in wait at the water’s edge as the thirsty baby gazelle draws closer.

The good news is that all legacy Windows 7 apps will continue to run, though of course they won’t gain the multitouch and Metro features of Windows 8 apps.

The bad news is that Microsoft has lacked the guts to cut the cord entirely. Every time the classic Windows 7 interface pops up, it looks like a drunken uncle at an otherwise elegant family wedding. Here’s where the live demo started to break down. Microsoft proudly showed off Windows 8’s (comprehensive) power management features by calling up the Windows Task Manager. Would it be a beautiful Metro-ized tile, like all of the System settings panels they’d shown off? No: SPLAT. It was an old Windows window, plopped right on top of that lovely Start screen that I was still admiring.

At one point, even the familiar Windows taskbar skidded across the bottom of the screen, looking damned ridiculous. It broke me from my adoring dream state and restored the sense of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot that I rightly and wrongly associate with Windows.

But is that a real problem? It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t even beta software. It’s a pre-beta edition designed solely to allow developers a first shot at learning an entire new means of writing Windows software and mastering a brand-new design vocabulary. Windows 8 is feature-incomplete and it’ll will inevitably undergo many changes before it ships.

Nonetheless, it points to the great difficulty Microsoft has in bringing the platform forward. Microsoft shouldn’t allow Windows 8 to become contaminated by the past; at some point, they’re simply going to have to announce a clean and final break with previous versions of Windows. This is another thing they’re going to need to copy from Apple. Mac OS has undergone at least two complete schisms in its history (first in its transition to a Unix kernel, and then to Intel CPU architecture) and iOS never had any binary compatibility with the desktop OS to begin with. These moves inconvenienced many but it’s the only way to keep on a forward trajectory.

Apple has a luxury that Microsoft doesn’t have: complete control over the entire hardware -- and now even the software -- food chain. But at minimum, Microsoft needs to come up with a better way of accommodating old apps that haven’t been updated for the Metro UI.

It could be as simple as just forcing Windows 7 apps to run fullscreen. Or better, Windows 8 could just banish those old apps to their own separate virtual display, where they can’t contaminate the new Metro UI and where everything behaves as it did in the olden times. This space would even have old Windows XP-style wallpaper.

That’d be completely appropriate, as any “Twilight Zone” fan would readily agree: the sooner Billy Mumy can wish these old apps into the cornfield, the better.

Not so fast

So yes, I’m keeping in mind that all of this was just a demo. But it was a good demo, one that makes me eager for the competition to come. Because if Microsoft and the maker of Windows hardware can pull this off -- if, my pretties, if -- it puts Apple in a much tighter spot than they’ve been in since before the Second Coming of Jobs.

Apple was aggressive in wiring up Mac OS X Lion for multitouch. They’ve also realigned their entire notebook line to put the focus on their ultralight, ultraslim MacBook Airs. The 11-inch model is only slightly larger than an iPad; I can even carry it in the same little purse designed for my iPad. Its battery lasts half as long, but 5-6 hours is still good enough for a full afternoon’s work. It doesn’t have a touchscreen, but it has an enormous multitouch trackpad and you don’t need to use it for very long before gestures replace the most productive chunk of the Mac interface’s language.

The cheapest 11-inch Air is plenty fast enough and it has plenty of storage, for a secondary computer. And at $999, it’s not really that much more expensive than an iPad that’s been outfitted for that same kind of second-string duty. There’s a $150-$250 price difference, but the MacBook Air and the iPad solutions would still be well above the “budget” price range for portable computers.

I have an 11-inch Air on loan from Apple and an interesting thing happened during the month I was actively testing it: my iPad mostly stayed at home. Before the Air arrived, my iPad was my designated ultralight computer. If I needed a change of scenery and wanted to spend the afternoon working inside a coffeehouse, or even if I was leaving the house for an overnight or a weekend trip, my iPad (plus my Bluetooth keyboard and a little planning) could easily do the job of my 15-inch notebook, given that I’m using iPad apps that are file-compatible with my desktop apps.

But with the 11-inch Air in the house, well, why take something that’s almost a real MacOS computer when an actual MacOS computer barely takes up any more room?

It illustrates the potential of Microsoft’s Windows 8 game plan. Apple has explicitly rejected the idea of a unified OS. But the more I think about a single $1000 device that works beautifully as a streamlined multitouch tablet and will function flawlessly when running desktop apps, the more eager I am to get my hands on a Windows 8 slate and test the reality against the ideal. To be determined: can anybody build a computer that’s powerful enough to run a desktop operating system, and yet behave in an iPad-like way? Meaning: battery life of eight hours, minimum, silent in operation, and which doesn’t get much hotter than 98.6 degrees even when doing something that’s CPU-intensive? Microsoft has ported Windows to low-power mobile ARM processors, so . . . maybe. But the first wave of consumer Windows 8 computers will receive unprecedented scrutuiny.

A flawless hybrid tablet-desktop OS might be an impossible ideal anyway. Just for starters, getting a community of developers to commit to an idea as radical as Windows 8’s Metro UI, when the classic Windows interface is right nearby and such a proven, familiar quantity, is like referring a soccer game between a team of ducks and a team of cats. And Microsoft isn’t willing to knock them around for their own good. Apple has no such reservations, which is part of why they’ve enjoyed so much success over the past few years.

Even if “one unified tablet and desktop OS” is an unattainable goal, though, Microsoft will succeed in putting a serious hurt on Apple’s business if a Windows 8 tablet comes even close to the mark.

But enough about Apple. There’s one clear loser in all of this: Google.

Android is a terrific OS on a phone but on tablets, it’s been a complete shambles. Every Android-based tablet released thus far has been a functional and commercial disaster, posting insignificant sales and rebuffing every attempt I’ve made to find something nice to say about it. “Nice try,” I say, sincerely hoping Google learned enough to make the next edition a lot better than this. If a friend told me he planned to buy an Android tablet I’d commit myself to stopping him, owing to the same humanist impulse that would make me seize a child’s collar and yank him from the path of an oncoming truck.

Google isn’t staffed by a bunch of dummies. They could have turned Android tablets around. It would have taken them a year or two, or three, and their engineers would need a pep talk from Oprah plus a colossal butt-kicking from Mike Ditka. But if Microsoft gets any traction with Windows 8 and they can sell it on cheap, reliable tablets, Google won’t have that kind of time.

It’s as though Apple and Microsoft have thrown the concept of the Android Tablet out of a skydiving plane before it was really ready to jump. Android’s main chute has just failed and now Google has to choose its next move very, very carefully because the ground is rushing up fast.

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