Microsoft made one thing clear this week -- it wants you to touch it. Ushering in three separate launches in the space of a few short days, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant's focus is on touch-enabled experiences, from desktop to mobile, and it sought to unite those disparate elements under its most ubiquitous brand – Windows.
Windows 8 is the company's latest update to its all-conquering OS, an attempt to bring Windows to more devices and form factors than ever before. Windows Phone 8 brings with it a new software core, one shared with its desktop cousin to bridge the smartphone/PC divide, and a new set of hardware requirements to help lift Windows Phones up to a competing standard with the Android and iPhone benchmarks. Microsoft also made history with the launch of its Surface tablet, one that runs Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 developed specifically for low-powered tablets. Microsoft has a game plan, and with Windows, it wants to take an even greater slice of the consumer pie by bringing as many as possible into its united ecosystem – a strategy its fruity Cupertino, Calif., rival has enjoyed great success with.
Surface with cyan cover
Windows 8 is without question the most important of the three. Windows is Microsoft's backbone, its cash cow, the one thing the company can always rely on to keep bringing in profits. There's no denying Windows' popularity – it enjoys a near 90 percent global market share – and little point succumbing to the doomsday naysayers who predict every successive version of Windows will be Microsoft's downfall. It won't happen, there's simply too many people, businesses and schools using the OS on too many devices for it to fail. To put things in perspective, Vista – which many decried as a flop for Microsoft – sold well over 300 million copies. In June this year, Apple put the total number of Mac users – across all versions of the OS – at just 66 million. In January, Microsoft claimed over half a billion licenses for Windows 7 had been sold, with that number now around 670 million. Windows 8 will not fail.
What it does do, however, is represent a fundamental shift for Microsoft, one away from the PC hallmarks of a mouse as the primary input device, moving instead towards the simplest input device of all – the human finger. Whereas Windows 7 included the basic tools for touch input, it was more of an afterthought, there to give those niche users who bought Windows-based touch devices a less frustrating experience, albeit one that was still designed with a mouse in mind. Windows 8 eschews such thinking, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Start menu. In Windows of old, the Start menu is a small pop-up that resides in the task bar, linking to search, apps and the system's control panel and other utilities. The small button with a Windows logo has become familiar, dependable and consistent across each OS release. And Microsoft has removed it.
In its place is something altogether more modern – so much so, Microsoft has named it its Modern UI, though in reality it's the Metro design language that debuted on Windows Phone 7 two years ago. The scrolling, changing, square and rectangular Live Tiles are a constantly updating, visually appealing way for Windows 8 to reveal key bits of information – weather updates, new emails, breaking news, sports stats – to users, without them needing to enter an app. Like Windows Phone, tiles constantly update with new information and the whole experience is much more dynamic and fluid than the plain desktop of old. Users scroll or swipe left and right to move between their apps, which can be downloaded from Microsoft's own app store, and includes many big names such as Netflix, The New York Times, eBay, StumbleUpon, Cut The Rope, Angry Birds and more. Key apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and Temple Run are no shows for the moment but should be there soon, though Facebook and Twitter are integrated into Microsoft's People hub, which handles users' contacts. These apps open full screen, and each features a clean, bold look designed to maximize visual appeal and ease of use for finger control.
Indeed, Windows 8 is an OS clearly designed to be used by touch, be that either a touch-screen or multi-touch trackpad. With touch, gesture support is built-in and available, allowing for a variety of neat tricks to access key functions. Swipe in from the right, and a series of five icons, or ''charms," appear, offering the ability to search, share, return to the start menu, access devices connected to your PC – such as printers, phones or a TV, both wired and wirelessly – and access system settings. Swipe in from the left to switch between apps, or swipe in from the left and back out again to view a pop-up list of your currently running apps. Swipe up from the bottom to access a contextual menu that carries app-specific commands. Swipe down from the top of the screen and drag the app to close it. The usual gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, two-finger rotating and dragging items across screen are also implemented. Users who prefer a mouse and keyboard can use the active corners of the screen.
To access charms, move to the upper- or lower-right of the screen. To cycle between apps, click in the upper-left of the screen, or move to the upper-left and drag down to see open apps. Contextual menus can be accessed by right-clicking, and apps can be closed by dragging them down from the top with the mouse. Mouse users also have a start button, or a variation thereof. Point the mouse in the bottom-left corner and a preview of the start screen appears, and clicking will take you back to it. It's not as intuitive as touch input, though, and I'd caution users who lack a touch-screen or trackpad to test Windows 8 first and see if they can adjust to this new control system – though most should manage just fine, and if anything Microsoft has given itself an excellent reason for owners of legacy hardware to upgrade, as Windows is a joy to use with touch.
For those who crave the traditional desktop, it's also still here, though in Windows 8 it takes the form of a separate app, running behind the Live Tile home screen. Gone is Windows 7's Aero UI, with a flat, simple appearance taking its place. The 2D nature is more in keeping with the bold start screen, and Microsoft has worked hard to simplify and streamline the desktop – most notable in the task manager, which no longer throws usage stats at you, instead offering a simple list of open programs and apps, and the option to stop them. Further information is kept out of sight in a menu. It can be jarring at first, switching between the modern start menu and the old desktop, but it's a transition which becomes less so with use, and multiple monitor users will appreciate being able to have the start screen on one display and the desktop on others.
Windows 8 is a bold step for Microsoft, as it has removed the familiarity that has greeted those who've purchased each release. The new start menu, a focus on touch-enabled devices, efforts to simplify and speed-up the core of the OS – these are all changes that could dissuade the average person from upgrading, especially the prospect of learning a new control scheme. However, such people would be doing themselves a disservice, as what Microsoft has crafted is arguably something great. The start screen looks incredible, with its dynamically updating live tiles and bold, stark appearance. Touch input just works, which is something that couldn't be said of Windows of old. And swiping around the OS is a real pleasure that users of non-touch devices should really try to experience. If it doesn't convince you that a touch-enabled laptop, desktop or tablet is an absolute must I'd be surprised, as, though there is definitely a learning curve, once you're over it, it's slick, intuitive and above all else fun.
IT'S NOT THE ONLY version of Windows 8, though. Windows has a sister, and its name is Windows RT. What's in a name? Quite a lot, actually. Windows RT realizes a long-held goal to enable Windows to run on ARM architecture -- the type of processors that power almost every major smartphone and tablet. The efficiency of the ARM architecture in powering mobile devices is key to Microsoft's aim to spread Windows not just in the desktop and laptop markets, but into low-power tablets as well.
Essentially, Windows 8 and Windows RT are the same. They share the same core, most of the same features, and both will run the new start screen, desktop and Windows 8 apps. The key difference is Windows RT relies solely on the Windows 8 store for its content – the ARM processors cannot run any legacy program designed just for traditional, or x86, Windows computers. Users can't download and install programs, such as Google Chrome, from the web, and can't install software from discs. All usable programs will need to be downloaded from Microsoft's store instead. However, given its focus on tablet hardware, whose users are accustomed to app stores and download-only programs, this fact should be perfectly acceptable.
Indeed, Microsoft decided the best way to display Windows RT would be to design and launch its own hardware to run it. In a first for the company, it has ignored its traditional stance as a software-only partner to OEMs and, last Friday, released the Surface tablet. A slim, 1.5 pound, all-metal device, constructed from a liquid magnesium process called VaporMg by Microsoft, the Surface was designed to show Microsoft's hardware partners what they expected from Windows tablets. It was to dispel notions of Windows tablets of old, with their styluses, sad battery life, bloated design and poor usability, and to dissuade OEMs from simply rehashing Android tablets as Windows RT devices – something ASUS can be accused of with its upcoming Vivo Tab.
With a 1366x768 10.6-inch ClearType HD display, coated in tough Gorilla Glass, front and rear HD cameras, two microphones, expandable storage using SDXC cards, stereo speakers, a quad-core Tegra 3 CPU (similar to those found in Android smartphones and tablets) clocked at 1.3 GHz, 9 hours of battery life and a built-in kickstand than spans the full width of the tablet, Microsoft should be proud of what they have produced. It's a beautiful device, and Windows RT looks gorgeous on the bright, clear display. It's no Retina display, but it's among the best available on a tablet, and the build quality is comparable with the iPad, which is high praise indeed. Microsoft has also developed the Touch Cover and Type covers. The first is a 3mm-thick cover that connects magnetically to the bottom of the device, and features a full capacitive keyboard, which Microsoft claims replicates a normal keyboard without adding any bulk to the device. The Type cover is 6mm thick, and features a full keyboard with physical keys. Both feature sensors that know when they are folded behind the device, preventing accidental key presses, and have tough, fleece-like exteriors to keep the device safe. Both are impressive engineering feats.
The Surface costs $499 for the 32GB tablet, or $599 with a black Touch cover. 64GB if storage will cost you $699. There's no 3G or LTE available, its Wi-Fi only, and prices are comparable to the iPad. Touch cover is available in 5 hues, for $119.99, with the Type available in black for $129.99. Microsoft has pop-up stores appearing nationwide for the Surface launch, as it is only available directly from them in-store or online, though in-store is the safest bet as all online pre-orders sold out, leaving new purchasers waiting 3 weeks for the next batch.
Windows Phone, meanwhile, is the relative underdog of the smartphone world. Launched by Microsoft in 2010, it has struggled to gain a strong foothold, despite critical acclaim, well-received updates and several attractive pieces of hardware. Android is the all-conquering king, and iPhones continue to attract millions each year, though with RIM continuing its long, slow slide into insignificance, the time is ripe for Windows Phone to achieve something more than single-digit market share. Enter in this year's update to the OS, Windows Phone 8, and with it the greatest emphasis on hardware that Microsoft has given since launching it over 2 years ago.
Windows Phones have been praised for their usability, with a slick, fast UI that is consistent across every device that runs it. Microsoft enabled this through a strict set of hardware requirements – all phones had to have the same type of processor, the same screen resolution, the same number of buttons and each had to offer at least the minimum set amount of RAM, camera resolution and screen size. It kept the experience consistent, but it also gave handset makers little room to play with. The first batch of Windows Phones were slick, and attractive, but, in comparison to their Android cousins, they lacked wow factor.
HTC 8X, Nokia Lumia 920 and Samsung ATIV S
That changes with Windows Phone 8. Gone is the restriction to single core processors, gone is the set WVGA screen resolution, gone are the misconceptions that Windows Phones are somewhat inferior to their smartphone contemporaries.
Nokia carries a lot of the thanks for this, with its Lumia devices invigorating a line-up of phones that were close to being stagnant. Bold design, vibrant colours, and an overall appearance that was refreshingly non-conformist. This design language, the bright colors and polycarbonate shell, have set the groundwork for Windows Phone 8. The redesigned home screen, with three sizes of Live Tiles, allows for greater customization by the user, and is complemented by new colors and themes to further add to the visual nature of each device. Microsoft is pushing Windows Phone as fun and personal, indeed they say it's the ''most personal smartphone there is." Android phones would beg to differ here, but it's hard to argue that the color and variety on offer is eye-catching, certainly more-so than the average Android or iPhone, where black and white are the norm.
There are three distinct flagships in the crop of release devices – the HTC 8X, Nokia Lumia 920 and the Samsung ATIV S. Each differs in its own way, offering a compelling choice. The HTC features the same polycarbonate shell as the Lumia, available in black, neon green, a deep purple-blue and red, has an 8MP camera, Beats Audio, an ultra-wide, front-facing camera for group shots, and a 4.3-inch 1280x720 Gorilla Glass 2 display. The Lumia 920 offers a choice of black, white, red or neon yellow polycarbonate, a 4.5-inch 1280x768 PureMotion HD+, Gorilla Glass display with a 60Hz refresh rate and super-sensitive touch, an 8.7MP camera with active Optical Image Stabilization and PureView technology, and wireless charging. Samsung's ATIV S is essentially a Galaxy S3 in Windows clothing, but that's hardly a complaint, bringing a faux-brushed metal finish, a 4.8-inch, 1280x720 HD Super AMOLED display coated in Gorilla Glass, a slender 8.7mm waist, a 2,300 mAh battery to power that big screen, an 8MP camera, and microSD support for expandable storage – a first for Windows Phone, which now supports it. All three feature NFC, 1.5GHz dual-core processors, and the usual array of sensors.
Windows Phone 8 brings other features, such as a built-in Wallet app; NFC support for mobile payments; Skype built-in to the OS; Rooms which allow for the sharing of private conversations and images with a selected group of people; Data Sense to help those with capped data limits; Kid's Corner which allows parents to choose apps, music and photos that they want their child to see, without giving them access to emails, calls or other sensitive data, in a specially-selectable place on their phone – though it can also double as a guest feature should you wish to share your phone with a friend, but not your personal data. Really, though, it's the hardware that will sell Windows Phone 8 to consumers, and, backed with an increased marketing push by Microsoft, it really stands a chance this time around. No longer are the devices standing in the shadow of their Android brethren – indeed, the ATIV S is the only device that looks as if Samsung designed a high-end Android phone and then put Windows Phone in it, but that's hardly a scathing criticism.
If Microsoft can keep Windows Phones competitive, specs-wise, and keep hardware partners putting out eye-catching, desirable handsets, maybe, just maybe we might see consumers finally coming around to the world of Windows Phone. It's a tough sell, though, given how entrenched people are in Google and Apple's ecosystems, but it'd be unwise to count Microsoft out just yet.
Windows 8, Windows RT, Microsoft Surface, Windows Phone 8 -- Microsoft's united ecosystem of devices, all running windows, all touch enabled, all working in harmony. Its Microsoft's vision for the future, and one which, like it or not, we're all going to end up being a part of. Microsoft is too important to fail and, at least with Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, it's given itself plenty of reason not to.
Windows 8 is available for purchase, though only in Pro form, at $39.99 for a digital download, or $69.99 if you prefer a physical copy. Microsoft is also offering a special upgrade offer for those who purchased a Windows 7 device after June 2, with Windows 8 available for just $14.99.