Windows 8 will be radically different.
Microsoft considers Windows 8 one of the major paradigm shifts in the history of its operating systems, tantamount to the move to Windows 95 sixteen years ago. That was the first Microsoft OS to truly bid farewell to the underlying DOS command-line system, moving instead to a fully graphical desktop and windowing system. The latest change is prompted by the change in the computing landscape, with mobile, cloud, and social networking taking over. From what Microsoft has shown of it, Windows 8 seems to be an even more radical break from its predecessor than Apple’s latest release, OS X Lion, which itself is no small upgrade.
As we’ll see in the following pages, Windows 8 embraces more than the traditional PC form factors—from tablets to wall-size screens—as well as Web-based apps, multi-touch input. But despite all these changes, Microsoft’s demos of Windows 8 so far have been careful to stress that existing apps will still run, and the good old mouse and keyboard will be perfectly functional.
Windows 8 will run on non-Intel-standard chips
Probably the biggest surprise around the computing industry when Microsoft first started spilling about what Windows 8 would entail was that it would run on machines other than those using Intel-compatible processors. In particular, Windows 8 will be able to run on devices powered by ARM-based architectures. A June 2 press release from the 2011 Computex computer trade show in Taipei, Taiwan notes that, “Microsoft and silicon chip makers AMD, Intel Corporation, NVIDIA Corp., Qualcomm Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc. initially announced plans in January to work together on the next version of Windows.”
Windows 8 will use a Windows Phone 7-inspired “Metro” Interface
The kind of tablet Microsoft means when it talks about Windows 8 running on tablets, however, is not an iPad-type device. That device limits what a user can run or hook up, and even requires being synced to a real computer. A Windows 8 tablet, on the other hand, will be a full PC, with USB ports (more on that later), full multitasking, an accessible file system, networking capability, printing, and the ability to run any software anyone programs for it, not just what it’s maker allows in its app store (more on that, too).
Microsoft has demonstrated touch gestures for the new OS, including swiping side-to-side between apps (as you can in OS X Lion), a snap gesture that brings a running background app into a sidebar next to your main app, and a split touch keyboard, for easier thumb input when you’re holding a tablet.
Window 8 will have an App Store
With all the focus on tablets and what Microsoft has called a “touch-centric interface,” Windows 8′s role in the exiting installed PC base can easily get lost in the mix. We’re talking about 400 million machines, so it’s not insignificant for Microsoft to offer an upgrade path for the existing users. In the inaugural post on the Building Windows 8 blog, Windows lead Steven Sinofsky states in no uncertain terms that Windows 8 will run on existing PCs: “It is also important to know that we’re 100 percent committed to running the software and supporting the hardware that is compatible with over 400 million Windows 7 licenses already sold and all the Windows 7 yet to be sold.” The question remains, though, about what will happen to the even greater number of PCs that run earlier versions of Windows, particularly XP.
Windows 8 Will run two Kinds of Apps—New and Old
Though Microsoft hasn’t given much detail about how Windows 8 will take advantage of the cloud, initiatives like Office 365, Windows Live SkyDrive, and the Web-connected apps and tiles mentioned earlier give us some clues. Windows top-dog Steven Sinofsky specifically calls out this computing trend in his welcome post on the Building Windows 8 blog: “Storage has jumped from megabytes to terabytes and has moved up to the cloud.” And surely Microsoft isn’t blind to what Apple is doing with it soon-to-be-released iCloud service. Another clue to the importance of the cloud in Windows 8 comes from the name of one of its development teams: Windows Online.
Windows 8 will have Built-in USB 3.0 Support
When Microsoft first showed off Windows 8 at two industry conferences last Spring, many of us perked up at the point in the video demonstration when Excel was launched. What was that in the background? The good old Windows 7 interface? The demonstrators pointed out the the OS would run both a new kind of Web-technology-based app in the Windows Phone-like Metro user interfaces as well as traditional Windows apps, in that more familiar UI.
Windows 8 leader Steven Sinofsky recently published a blog post on the Building Windows 7 blog about the two interfaces of Windows 8—the Metro, mobile-like UI, and the traditional Windows desktop, which he says will be improved. He even stresses that you won’t need to load the code for the traditional Windows desktop, saving memory resources and battery usage. The post doesn’t say whether you’ll be able to run Windows 8 without the Metro UI, only using the desktop.
File Management will be redesigned
This was one of the early rumors about Windows 8 that turned out to be true. Microsoft Designers were trying to find a way to get the most frequently used file management commands out in front of the user, and settled on the ribbon—familiar to Microsoft Office and Windows Live users—as the best way to do this. The ribbon also fits in with Windows 8′s emphasis on the touch-based interface. For a more in-depth look at the changes, read Windows 8 Explorer Gets the Ribbon Treatment.
It will let you mount ISO and VHD files.
The ISO format used by CDs and DVDs includes all the information on the disc—menus as well as video and audio content. To mount an ISO file is like popping the disc into your DVD drive and reading or playing it. In earlier versions of Windows, mounting an ISO as a disk drive required third-party software, but Windows 8 will have this capability built in.
VHD files, or “virtual hard disk” files are another disk image file format, but for hard disks. It’s used by the Hyper-V and Virtual PC utilities. When mounted in Windows 8, VHDs appear as hard drives, rather than as removable drives (with the Eject option) that ISOs appear as.