Microsoft’s launch of the Windows 8 operating system sometime in October this year will come at a critical time for the software giant as the market shifts from the personal computer platforms they have dominated for the last twenty years.
Earlier this month, I had a chance to get a close look at what Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer has aptly described as the "biggest deal for this company in at least 17 years."
My encounter with Windows 8 came courtesy of the team recently sent out by the software giant's head office: Anatha Kancherla, group program manager of developer experience, and Todd Rutherford, senior consumer product manager of Windows 8, and both of them were keen to display what the new system has to offer.
For the first time user Windows 8 is intimidating as the touch screen orientated Metro Interface looks nothing like the desktop layout of current versions with no Start button or “Orb” to guide the novice.
This focus on touchscreens will probably be the greatest culture shock for experienced Windows users although as most people have become used to smartphone and tablet touchscreens, the change is probably not as wrenching as it might have been five years ago.
One of Microsoft’s smart moves Microsoft is adapting keyboard shortcuts and mouse clicks to the touch screen so older tricks still work with the new system while having the advantages of a touch screen.
Microsoft are quite proud of their touchscreen features which includes what they call “Semantic Zoom” which are improved zoom and shrink functions. The touchscreen also has tricks like swiping to move to the next page of a web search or bringing up additional features on a page or document. The video below provides a good look at what consumers can expect.
A key part of Microsoft Windows 8 strategy is to have a common experience across platforms with applications, settings and data being the same regardless of the device. For that common experience to work effectively Windows 8 users will be locked into the Windows Live service, Microsoft Marketplace and the SkyDrive service.
One of the interesting features with Microsoft’s Marketplace apps is they will have licences for up to five devices, meaning the same product can be installed on a PC, tablet and smartphone with only one payment. Whether this is enough to differentiate the service from iTunes or Google Play remains to be seen.
With that online integration Microsoft have also made it easier to share files between computers. If your home PC is turned on, you can view pictures or documents that you’ve chosen to share on it. This could be a very useful built in feature for smaller businesses.
For larger businesses, it’s uncertain right now how many of Windows 8’s features and apps will be controlled out of Microsoft’s server existing management tools, however, this is one of the areas we can expect Redmond to be claiming a key point of difference against Apple and Google.
Another area Microsoft has a big advantage is in legacy applications where older software can run on newer systems. This continues with Windows 8 where any program that can run on Windows 7 will run on the newer platform.
Microsoft are going to need all the advantages they can get with Windows 8, as Horace Dediu highlighted in yesterday's edition Windows’ market position is being eroded and Microsoft has to adapt to this drift away from PC based systems.
In the business world, that move to tablets and smartphones is going to continue although Windows is going to remain the biggest software platform in the enterprise for sometime.
For corporate IT departments its worthwhile getting hold of a few copies of the latest Windows 8 Release candidate and seeing how well it integrates with the company’s existing IT infrastructure as tablets and smartphones create new challenges for networks.
While Windows 8 is a nice product, it’s going to be interesting to see how users react to the changed look and different ways that the Metro interface work. For Microsoft’s survival it is essential customers stick with the software product they know.
Paul Wallbank is a business technology writer, broadcaster and blogger and author of eBusiness: Seven Steps to Online Success. Read more of Paul's thoughts here.