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Windows 8 Preview: An Analysis of the First Public Unveiling

On June 1, 2011, Microsoft unveiled some of its plans for Windows 8, its next Windows client release, for the first time. This unveiling included a public appearance from president Steven Sinofsky, the man most directly responsible for Windows, but also a video in which Microsoft Director of Program Management Jensen Harris directly manipulates what appears to be a touch-screen-based PC running Windows 8, and running through various new features. (I say "appears" here because the PC interface he's using is literally identical to the one that Sinofsky showed on stage separately. This leads me to believe that it could be a non-functioning demo or, at the least, a custom-made and static Windows 8 desktop.)

What I'll do here is examine what Harris shows off in the video, which you can and should watch for yourself on You Tube. This includes both the visuals and his explanation of what we're seeing.

For starters, I have some history with Mr. Harris. In fact, you do as well: He was a guiding hand behind the revolutionary and innovative Ribbon UI that Microsoft debuted in Office 2007. And for you history buffs, it was Sinofsky who was then in charge of Office (in his pre-Windows days) and signed off on the Ribbon. So Jensen and Sinofsky obviously have some history. And it was previously known that members of the Ribbon team had moved over to Windows to work on Explorer shell changes. So what we're seeing here is obviously some of the fruits of that work.


"The first thing you're going to see when you start a Windows 8 PC is the Start screen," Harris says. Technically, that's not correct at all: The first thing you're going to see is the Welcome screen. And then the logon screen, with an associated password (not used in the demo video). And then the Start screen. Harris navigates to the third of these screens very quickly, using an upward swipe to go from the Welcome screen to the logon screen, and then a keyboard tap (most likely Enter) to get past the logon screen and to the actual Start screen.




The Start screen appears to be a horizontally oriented take on the Windows Phone 7 Start screen, and that is apparently by design. (This raises an interesting issue: If you are using Windows 8 on a tablet on slate PC and physically oriented the device so that the screen is in portrait mode, will this new UI also pivot so it can be used in that way? Below, I've mocked up a "screenshot" of what that sort of display could look like, assuming it's possible.


"The Start screen is this personal mosaic of tiles," Harris explains. "Every app on your system is represented by a tile. Tiles are better than icons, for a couple of reasons. They have a little more space for the app to show its personality. The weather app can just show you the temperature without you having to open it."

A couple of points here. Previously, it was believed that this tiles-based UI would be the default on iPad-style slate PCs but would be optional or hidden on other, more traditional PC form factors. But Harris' comments--"the first thing you're going to see when you start a Windows 8 PC"--suggest otherwise. This could in fact be the default UI in Windows 8, period. That is very, very interesting and somewhat exciting. And it makes Sinofsky's comments about Windows 8 being a "reimagining of Windows" and "the biggest change since at least Windows 95" ring true. Yes, the traditional Windows desktop is still available under there. And yes, all existing Windows applications will still work (and provide some very basic tile representation on this screen). But this new Start screen is a big leap from the old-school Windows desktop. As a huge fan of Windows Phone and simple UIs, this looks and feels right to me. I hope it really is the default UI for all PC-based versions of Windows 8.

Second, tiles don't provide "a little more space" than traditional icons, they provide a lot more space. In the Harris demo, most of the tiles on the default Start screen are the so-called "double wide" (rectangular) tile, as I call them in Windows Phone, but there are smaller, "single-wide" (square) tiles as well. These tiles use an elegant Segoe-based font, as on Windows Phone, in varying type sizes, various graphic elements, and background images to provide what is indeed a "mosaic" of information. It's a very attractive display.

Third, the screen you see there scrolls horizontally, similar to Windows Media Center in Windows 7, and not vertically as on Windows Phone. So as you swipe from right to left, more screens of tiles swing into view.

So, what do we see here exactly?

On the first Start screen, there are 10 tiles, 8 of which are "double wides" and two of which are the smaller, square variant. These tiles break down as follows:

Hotmail. A mail tile representing a single Hotmail account with a preview of the most recent unread message in the Inbox.

Messenger. A Windows Live Messenger tile with the most recent social networking-based activity displayed.

Calendar. A calendar tile (it's not clear which account it's tied to, but let's assume Windows Live Calendar) displaying the most recent event.

Internet Explorer. This square tile links to Internet Explorer 10.

Me. As on Windows Phone 7, Windows 8 will provide access to a special "Me" tile that represents the user. I'm speculating here, but this most likely links to your user account information in Windows, though in Windows Phone this tile is used to access your own contact card.

Pictures. Will Windows 8 use the "hubs" concept from Windows Phone too? I bet it will, though in the context of Windows 8, this might simply mean a renaming or rebranding of the Pictures library, which in Windows 7 is an aggregate of the user's My Pictures folder and the Public Pictures folder. But it's the display that matters, and I think we can expect this to look nothing like a traditional folder view in Windows 7, but rather a color screen with large tiles. This will be true of all of these UIs.

Store. Long rumored, Windows 8 will include a link to the Windows Marketplace, Microsoft's online store for Windows-based apps.

Contact card. As on Windows Phone, Windows 8 allows you to "pin" favorite contacts to the Start screen. The tile for such a pinned contact will display that contact's last activity online, in this case a recent Tweet.

Weather. A weather tile that displays the current temperature, weather conditions, and a three day forecast.


The second Start screen, which Harris reaches by swiping horizontally, provides secondary system tiles as well as installed apps. Obviously, the entire structure of these Start screens will be customizable, as on Windows Phone, so you can organize tiles into the grouping and arrangements you prefer. The following tiles can be seen on the second screen:

Music. As with Pictures, I'll guess that the Music library is being renamed to the Music hub in Windows 8 to provide some consistency with Windows Phone. However, the tile looks different: It's a double-wide tile with its own set of "sub tiles" representing album covers.

Video (sic). This should read as "Videos," not Video, but either way it's the new Videos library, which will be getting rebranded here. Also, while it's unclear what media player Microsoft will use in Windows 8, a later playback screen suggests it will look a lot like the Zune player in Windows Phone, with just a few, large onscreen playback icons. There's also a peek at what I now think of as the Videos hub.



Control Panel. A simple link to the Windows Control Panel interfaces.

Desktop. A double-wide tile that will trigger the traditional Windows desktop display.

Microsoft Word 2010, PowerPoint 2010, OneNote 2010, Excel 2010. These four tiles are meant to represent what happens when you install a traditional Windows application (one that is not Windows 8 aware) on Windows 8: You get plain, nondescript, square tiles with a simple application icon and name.

News. An RSS aggregation utility.

"We've introduced a new platform, based on standard web technologies," Harris continues, discussing the underpinnings of this new user experience. "So HTML 5 and JavaScript. And it allows the millions of developers who know how to use those technologies to create a new kind of app for Windows 8.  These apps are fullscreen, beautiful, they are designed for touch. But of course they work great for mouse and keyboard as well, if that is what you have."

This is a major piece of news. One of the issues when you move to an overly simplistic system like the iPad is that you lose fine-grained control over onscreen positioning, making it impossible to recreate apps like Photoshop. So while this new UI in Windows 8 is at least as attractive as any iPad UI--more attractive, I think--it doesn't limit you to what you can accomplish only with your fingers on the screen. Suddenly, Microsoft's confidence that it is going to catch up in this market doesn't seem so misplaced, does it?

Here are the full-screen UIs Harris shows off in the video




Also of note is the onscreen overlay that appears over these new full-screen apps. This UI provides wireless and battery life indicators, the time and date and, separately and on the right, Search, Share, Start, Connect, and Settings icons. You activate this display by swiping from the right side of the screen to the left; tapping Start returns you to the Start screen.


Indeed, this edge-swipe movement appears to be the key to navigating between running apps. Do so from the left edge of the screen and it acts like the Windows Flip (ALT + TAB) action in Windows today. "We wanted to make it really fast and fluid to get between your running apps," Harris says. "You just take your thumb or finger and, from the side, and just swipe it in. As I do that, I can run back through my list of running applications."


You can also snap running apps to the edges of the screen in order to run two apps side-by-side in Windows 8. Again, the implicit comparison here is with the iPad, which cannot present two different app UIs at the same time. "One of the nice things about a PC is that you can do two things at once," Harris continues. "We created a feature called Snap. I swipe in my thumb from the side of the screen, but now instead of moving all the way into the center, I'm going to pause for a second ... and snap it into place."


You can then resize the visual area each of the apps--one on the left, one on the right--so that one or the other takes up more space. "You can choose which app is big and which is small," Harris says. "So with just one simple gesture, you can snap one app next to another app."


Next, Internet Explorer makes an appearance. If you were following along with the Windows 8 revelations that Rafael Rivera and I published two months ago, then you won't be surprised by the Spartan new Internet Explorer 10 "touch-first" UI. It supports tabs, a touch keyboard, UI elements (tabs, browser navigation, address bar, and so on) that fade away when not in use, and more.



There's also a "thumbs layout" for the touch keyboard which is designed to save some arm strain, since a large virtual keyboard requires a lot of reaching to hit the middle of the screen. But this keyboard isn't really new: It first appeared on Microsoft's ill-fated Ultra-Mobile PC design, which was itself an evolution of the Tablet PC UI.



As for backwards compatibility, Windows 8 also runs existing Windows apps, of course, and Harris showed off a Windows 7-like desktop (that I have to think will be getting at least somewhat restyled) and some Windows applications like Excel 2010. There's still a file system underneath, as with today's Windows, and access to the contents of other PCs on your network. It's a Windows PC, of course.

The nice thing about running these applications under Windows 8, of course, is that they integrate with the new capabilities. So while running a traditional application such as Excel 2010, you can style swipe from the edges of the screen to switch between running apps, and can optionally snap them to the sides of the screen.


As with Windows Phone, Microsoft will be integrating Windows 8 with various online services and will provide APIs so that third party developers can link Windows 8 to other services. In this way, you can access, say, photos on your PC and on other PCs on the home network, but also photos stored online in services like Twitter and Flickr. "We made it easy to get photos from one app to another app," Harris explains, showing how you can even multi-select photos from a variety of sources simultaneously.



"This is the new version of Windows," Harris concludes. "It's going to run on laptops, it's going to run on desktops, it's going to run on PCs with mice and keyboards, it's going to run on touch slates, it's going to run on everything, hundreds of millions of PCs powered by this new interface, this new platform."

Microsoft promises that what we've seen so far is just a "small taste" of the changes to come. But admit it, you can feel it. You can feel how exciting this is, and how much better this is than anything in the market. Don't believe me? All you need to do is consider this: Both Apple and Microsoft are confronted by a similar challenge with their traditional desktop OS in that the products are mature and already full-featured, making any meaningful revision challenging. So both Apple and Microsoft are quite naturally looking towards ever-more-popular mobile platforms for inspiration. Apple describes its next Mac OS X release, Lion, as "the best thinking from iPad, brought to the Mac." But what they've come up with is a Mac-based version of the horrible iPad "grid of icons":

Mac OS X "Lion"

Spare me. And compare that to the wonderful new Windows 8 Start screen. Which of these UIs is beautiful and innovative? Which of these UIs would you rather use? 

Windows 8 Start screen

That's what I thought. And like you, I'm suddenly excited again about the future of Windows. As with Office and Windows Phone before, Microsoft has taken something we thought was already mature and complete, driven it in a wonderful new direction, and shamed the competition in the process. For all the hand-wringing over Microsoft these days, this company can still surprise and bang out compelling user experiences. I can't get enough of this stuff.

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