Microsoft breaks with PC world, reinvents itself with Windows 8

September 21, 2011

Last week, at a large developers’ event, Microsoft formally introduced its next operating system to the world, and it’s nothing like the Windows you’re used to.

It’s clear the company has watched and learned as Apple stormed into the marketplace with the iPhone and iPad. Microsoft’s new Windows 8 looks and feels like it’s built from the ground up to do away with the noisy, dated interfaces of the desktop computer, replacing them with a touch-friendly experience that’s focused on a new way of computing.

In fact, the PCs used for application development, which were handed out to attendees, weren’t really PCs at all — they were touchscreen tablets made by Samsung. No keyboard, no mouse. No kidding.

Among the hundreds of changes to the operating system, there’s one that stands out: Microsoft has almost completely reinvented the way you interact with Windows.

Windows 8 is largely based around a new user interface concept Microsoft calls “Metro.” If you’ve seen one of the company’s recent phones, you’ll understand it immediately.

If you haven’t, imagine a colorful, horizontally scroll-able page filled with touchable squares (Microsoft refers to items in this grid as “tiles”). Inside those tiles, you see applications or data that is continuously updated with information such as sports scores, weather or incoming messages. To navigate around or open applications, you perform finger gestures (little swipes) on the sides or bottom of the display. It’s extremely slick and very well-designed.

So it would seem that Microsoft is about to turn a big corner. I’ve used Windows 8, and I can tell you that’s a revelatory experience for a Microsoft product. The operating system, which is a year away from public release, feels completely fresh. It’s fast and clean, and intuitive. I would describe it as beautiful and sometimes even . . . magical.

That’s a big deal for Microsoft, which has long been associated with an ugly and inelegant operating system.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch.

Microsoft can’t or doesn’t want to let go of the underlying Windows you’ve come to know, and sometimes while using Windows 8, you find yourself jarringly bounced back to the old, familiar desktop environment. Microsoft touts this legacy interface as an asset, but I think new users may perceive it as something else entirely — a messy relic. And a confusing one at that.

The iPad isn’t successful just because Apple knows how to market or design products. In some ways, it’s the anti-PC — and that’s really appealing to users who have grown up battling software updates and viruses.

But based on what I’ve seen and heard, Microsoft is clearly not ready to make a clean break with the Windows of today, and that could be problematic for the Microsoft of tomorrow.

If you look at a graph of Apple’s stock price overlaid against Microsoft from the past 10 years or so, you see something stark and obvious: About halfway through the decade, Apple begins to break from what was a neck-and-neck race, buoyed by the iPod and iTunes. In 2007, right around the launch of the iPhone, the company jumps off like a bullet. From then on out, it’s a steep and dizzying ascent.

Microsoft shares, on the other hand, remain at nearly a flat line. I say nearly because it has actually dropped in value.

Apple has succeeded where Microsoft has failed because of its willingness to take risks and because of its uncanny habit for predicting what users want before they know that themselves. And that’s what makes Windows 8 so frustrating.

Microsoft has produced an operating system advanced enough to not just see around the bend, but to be what is around that bend. In many ways, the Windows 8 interface outclasses what Apple and Google are doing in the tablet space by being cleaner, simpler and more intuitive.

But Microsoft has to go all the way. This cannot be a half-step or a feint. If the company believes in the new product it has built, it needs to make it the focus of the Windows experience, not just an afterthought or view you can casually switch in and out of.

If you want to out-Apple Apple, then you need to have the audacity to believe you’ve got a better idea than the rest of the other guys.

And this time Microsoft, you just might.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge, a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and former editor in chief of Engadget. He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and has appeared on CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg TV and G4’s “Attack of the Show.”

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