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Windows 8: Microsoft restarts its operating system efforts (an analysis)

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Update 2011-09-16:A Windows 8 keynote review by a JavaScript programmer and Apple user

Make no mistake: Windows 8 means that Microsoft is completely rethinking its operating system efforts, from the ground up. Ballmer wasn’t kidding when he called Windows 8 Microsoft’s riskiest product bet, back in October 2010 [4].

Windows 8 in a nutshell

The Windows 8 start screen.

Windows 8 contains a completely new subsystem which is almost a new operating system. Its characteristics are:
  • Write applications in HTML5 and JavaScript. Microsoft’s recently introduced CSS3 Grid Layout [5] is the perfect technology for laying out the GUI of such applications.
  • New user interface: that looks very much like the Windows Phone 7 UI, scaled up to desktop size. Along the way, much of the complexity of the desktop has been dropped: overlapping windows, special side bars, etc.
  • New kind of window management: Each app can be displayed as a tile on a start screen and full screen with no chrome around it. Tiles are sold by Microsoft as superior to icons, not without justification. They are somewhat between an icon and a full-screen app, occupying more space, but also displaying more information. A tile could also be seen as a widget mode of an app. Apart from a way to switch between apps, the other main ingredient for window management is that apps can be displayed side by side, with an optional way to let one of the apps dominate the screen while the other acts as a helper. This should take care of three scenarios of using applications:
    1. Full screen: the most common or “iPad” way.
    2. Side by side: if you need two apps to get your work done. E.g. to use a text editor to transcribe a video.
    3. Small helper: if you need something visible all the time, but in the background (weather, stock market, etc.). It seems that the helper app adjusts its UI to the smaller size (similar to how it adjusts to the dimensions of a tile). For this scenario, Microsoft could in principle also add a side bar with tiles, but chose to keep things simple for now.
    Scenarios (2) and (3) are currently completely ignored by user interfaces that don’t have windows (tablet Android, iPad iOS).
  • Touch-optimized: All user interface elements are designed for touch use (large enough to be easily tapped with a finger etc.), but apps will be true hybrids. They work just as well with touch as they do with keyboard and mouse.
In addition to the new layer, existing Windows applications can be run side by side, with some applications, such as Office, getting touch optimizations.

The News application (left) running as a helper for a movie player app (right).

Comparing with the competition

In the area of tablets and desktop computers, which is becoming more hybrid by the day, Microsoft faces major competition. There are many similarities between what the competition does and what Microsoft has in mind for Windows 8.
  • Google: especially technology-wise, Windows 8 has more in common with Chrome OS [7] than with Android. But Chrome OS is not touch-optimized.
  • Apple: Mac OS X Lion’s [8] attitude of bringing iPad innovations to the Mac mirrors Microsoft’s efforts. It is very much possible that Apple will eventually support hybrid apps that are both touch and mouse-enabled and thus run on both Mac OS and iOS.
  • HP/Palm: With WebOS [9], Palm has proven that you can quickly implement a completely new user interface framework if you rely on web technologies. One great feature of WebOS is that you can program the UI of your app so that it dynamically adapts to the size of the device (think phone versus tablet). WebOS apps do not yet run on desktop computers, but that will soon change.

A flawed response to the iPad?

Gruber contends that Windows 8 is not a good way to compete with the iPad [3]:
The ability to run Mac OS X apps on the iPad, with full access to the file system, peripherals, etc., would make the iPad worse, not better. The iPad succeeds because it has eliminated complexity, not because it has covered up the complexity of the Mac with a touch-based “shell”. iOS’s lack of backward compatibility with any existing software means that all apps for iOS are written specifically for iOS.

There’s a cost for this elimination of complexity and compatibility, of course, which is that the iPad is also less capable than a Mac. That’s why Apple is developing iOS alongside Mac OS X.

I would argue that the compatibility layer with old applications is just a stopgap measure (think Mac OS X Classic Environment), until there are enough new-style apps. Nothing prevents Microsoft from dropping that compatibility layer on tablets. Maybe not at the beginning, because they probably see it as a selling point, but possibly later. On the other hand, much will be contingent on how Microsoft evolves Office, where they might not be brave enough to cut off the ties with the past.

The ability to seamlessly switch between touch and a pointing device might well be a key feature in the future, because it allows you to use the same device in both a mobile and a stationary setting [6].


These are exciting times. It is nice to see the four major operating system vendors Microsoft, Apple, Google and HP innovate in the desktop user interface domain which had grown stale after almost two decades of incremental changes. Interestingly, Microsoft uses web technologies to restart its efforts. After HP/Palm, Google, and Microsoft, Apple is the odd man out not using HTML5 and JavaScript. Windows 8 will probably come out sometime in 2012 (MS does not yet say when, but mentions in the video that it will show more of Windows 8 “over the next year”, meaning that it probably won’t be released in 2011). Another intriguing tidbit is that Windows 8 will run on ARM processors which opens up possibilities for tablet hardware.


Related reading

  1. Previewing ‘Windows 8’: Article by Julie Larson-Green, corporate vice president, Windows Experience.
    Official Microsoft article plus video – a refreshingly pragmatic web page that directly links to an iOS-friendly mp4 file and a YouTube(!) video.
  2. Exclusive: Making Sense of Our First Look at Windows 8 – AllThingsD
  3. Daring Fireball: Why Windows 8 Is Fundamentally Flawed as a Response to the iPad
  4. Ballmer: our biggest gamble is the 'next version of Windows' | Electronista
  5. CSS3 Grid Layout is perfect for webapp GUIs
  6. The three contexts of device interaction
  7. A few thoughts on Chromebooks and Chrome OS
  8. A few thoughts on the October 2010 Apple event
  9. A preview of webOS 3 and where it’s better than the iPad