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Windows 8 features explained: What’s new and how it works

Windows 7 is embedded inside


We’ve saved the most interesting feature for last. Unlike Apple, which has three distinct platforms for applications now — iPad, iPhone, Mac OS X — Microsoft is taking a Sauron approach to the expanding market of device sizes and shapes: It is developing one operating system to rule them all. Windows 8 is being designed around flexibility so it can run on all types of devices, from heavy PCs, to netbooks, to touch tablet computers, and maybe even TVs and phones, though they haven’t mentioned support for these two platforms. Unlike Apple, which will destroy features and product lines as its CEO sees fit, Microsoft seems reluctant to leave any device unaccounted for, nor any user preference.

As demonstrated, Windows 8 actually comes with a full version of Windows 7 inside of it (or an interface that looks identical to W7), for backward compatibility. It has a desktop, start menu, and the ability to open any apps you wish. As we’ve already heard, even this retro compatibility desktop will have some minor design upgrades, including slightly enhanced touchability (Windows 7 is not very touch friendly due to its tiny icons and complex menus). We’re guessing that its final style will be tweaked to better match the flat, colorful, boxed look of Windows 8.


The screenshot above shows how easily Windows 7-style apps can interact with Windows 8. By swiping from the left, you can bring in a W8 app just as I described in the section above. The only difference is how old and strange the Windows 7 app looks compared to the new “Metro” user interface of Windows 8 (we’ll describe its origins below). While many desktop users and businesses may choose to continue using the old interface, we’re guessing that tablet users will stick with what’s new, for the most part.

Is backward compatibility a good idea?

Some critics like John Gruber have pointed at Microsoft’s decision to support its legacy applications while also pushing forward with a completely new look and design is a “fundamentally flawed” idea. Gruber argues that Microsoft can’t hope to introduce a new simple OS if it plans to make so many trade-offs by supporting old code. “Windows 8 is trying to have it all, and I don’t think that can be done. You can’t make something conceptually lightweight if it’s carrying 25 years of Windows baggage,” said the Apple blogger.

Windows expert Paul Thurrott sees it as a bold step forward: “I’m suddenly excited again about the future of Windows,” writes Thurrott. “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.”

There are upsides and downsides to this approach. On one hand, Windows 7 compatibility will allow Adobe to keep pumping out expensive versions of Photoshop and other companies can continue writing complex applications for Windows. However, it may also hamper the overall forward motion of the OS if a lot of apps don’t make the switch and streamline dated, bloated interfaces to take advantage of touch and the design of Windows 8. Necessity breeds demand, and we’ve already seen some decent video editors pop up on iOS and Android. Hopefully developers will approach Windows 8 enthusiastically.

HTML5 apps, just like Chrome OS

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Microsoft is trying to battle iOS and Android with this new version of Windows. However, it also seems intent on fighting a smaller war with Google’s ChromeOS, a new OS that runs completely off of the Web with a browser. It’s an interesting, if still limited, concept, and Google’s first Chromebooks haven’t actually hit store shelves yet, but Microsoft is already showing that it plans to cede no ground to Google. One thing that has some analysts excited and others scared is that, while it has legacy support for Windows 7, all Windows 8 apps must be developed using HTML5, an Internet programming language. It appears that the company is trying to make sure that apps better blend in with its new design style for the OS, but it’s also assuring a lot of cross compatibility with other operating systems and a heavy focus on the Web, much like Chrome OS. For all the developers who have been writing in Silverlight or other languages, Microsoft may limit your apps to the browser. Or it may announce support for more languages in the coming months. We’ll just have to see. In any case, it’s looking like HTML5 is really taking hold.

Exciting and scary


Some of you reading this have never used a PC that didn’t look like Windows 95. For those who haven’t used a smartphone yet, and likely some who have, it is probably difficult to imagine using a PC with an interface like this. Everybody hates change, to a degree. We get used to things, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, and we don’t want them to change. Whether we like it or not, the market is changing, and Microsoft is doing its best to get ahead of the curve and change right along with it. If Microsoft doesn’t make a move, it’s likely that one of its competitors will. In many ways, they already have.

While we may rebel at the idea of the traditional desktop going away, we have to also face facts that traditional PCs (and even Macs) are not as natural and easy to use as many newer touch-based interfaces. They may be able to do a lot of things and we may be used to them, but a good proportion of computer users still don’t entirely understand the directory system inside a PC (though most understand “My Documents.”

The PC is getting its first makeover in the Post-PC world. We don’t yet know if Windows 8 is a good idea or if the public will embrace it, and certainly the purple background has got to go, but we applaud Microsoft for trying something new. Risky, but new. For the first time, Microsoft’s major consumer products — Xbox, Office, Bing, Windows, Windows Phone, Zune — all seem to be on the same page, and will be offering a somewhat similar user experience that is unique to Microsoft.

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