Last September, Microsoft showed off Windows 8 in public for the first time. One glance at the operating-system upgrade–heavily influenced by the company’s inventive Windows Phone–was enough to tell you that it was the most radically new version of Windows since Windows 1.0.
Back then, one glance was all that most people got. Microsoft released a rough draft of the software, but it distributed it only to developers, not to everyday folks who wanted to see the future of Windows looked like for themselves.
Today, the company is back with a further-along draft of Windows 8 that it’s calling the Consumer Preview–and this time, everybody’s invited. If you’re interested enough in operating systems to install one that’s still a work in progress, you can download this version for free and install it on any computer that’s capable of running Windows 7.
Even if you’re just as happy to wait until Windows 8 is officially finished, the arrival of the Consumer Preview is a meaningful milestone. It’s tangible proof that Microsoft is sticking to its schedule for finishing the operating system and shipping it to paying customers. If the company continues at the same pace that it did with Windows 7, it’s possible that the first Windows 8 machines could be on store shelves in time for the back-to-school season.
Last week, Microsoft briefed me on the Consumer Preview and loaned me a Samsung slate PC–the same chunky tablet it gave to developers who attended its Build conference last August–with the Consumer Preview preinstalled. Though closer to completion, Windows 8 remained glitchy and incomplete; only the most daring of souls should even consider installing it on a PC they depend on to do real work.
Spending a few days with the Consumer Preview helped me see how far Windows 8 had progressed since the Developer Preview of last August. But I didn’t get to try the most important new feature by far: The Windows Store, the built-in software market that will be stocked with thousands of third-party programs, all of which will be free during Windows 8′s pre-release phase. All in all, it was a little like getting a pre-opening tour of a swanky new restaurant–but not getting to taste any food.
I also didn’t get to test intriguing new features that let you log into any Windows 8 PC with a Microsoft Account and get instant access to your settings, applications and files, all of which are stored in the cloud–a Microsoftian counterpart to Google’s Chrome OS, and potentially more practical, since you don’t have to stay connected to the Internet to get access to your stuff.
The Consumer Preview is more fully fleshed-out than the Developer Preview, but the most striking thing about it remains the touch-friendly Metro interface. It dumps all the decades-old details of Windows–windows and all–in favor of a new look closely modeled on the interface used by Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system. It’s an interface that’s girding itself to compete with the iPad as much as the Mac, even though it’s not an iPad knockoff.
With its colorful tiles and polished animations, Metro is fluid and fun. But slathering a smartphone-style interface on top of a venerable, well-developed platform like Windows raises as many questions as it answers. Unlike Apple, which built the iPad for fingers-only use but says it has no desire to put a touchscreen on the Mac, Microsoft is trying to build a single operating system that will be pleasing in at least three scenarios:
- On conventional PCs, where you’ll control it with a physical keyboard and a mouse or a touchpad;
- On iPad-esque tablets, with on-screen keyboards and your fingertip as the only pointing device;
- On new types of devices that split the difference between PC and tablet, which may have a touchscreen, a keyboard and a mouse or touchpad.
It’s no small task, especially since Metro isn’t Windows 8′s only interface. Microsoft also has to support conventional Windows programs, which are now cordoned off in a section called Desktop.
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