Windows 8’s Look and Feel: It’s New. New, New, New, New, New!

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This post originally appeared on Technologizer.

Well, gee whiz. At the D9 conference yesterday afternoon, Windows honcho Steven Sinofsky presided over the first good look anyone outside of Redmond has gotten at “Windows 8.” And it turns out that it has a strikingly new user interface. Maybe the most strikingly new one it’s gotten since…well, Windows 3.0 back in 1990. (Windows has added plenty of new features over the past twenty years, but the basic metaphor has barely budged at all.)

In short, Windows now has a touch-first user interface that looks a lot like Windows Phone 7, which means that it draws on ideas that originated in the iPhone without mindlessly mimicking them. The Windows 7 keyboard-and-mouse world is still in there, but it’s subsidiary. That’s Microsoft’s apparent intent, anyhow.

Here’s a video Microsoft included with its blog post about today’s reveal:


Reacting to this will require a lot of mental processing, but here are a few initial thoughts:

This is going to run best on PCs which don’t exist yet, for the most part. Something like an HP TouchSmart will be well-suited to it. Possibly a convertible notebook along the lines of a Tablet PC, too. But I can’t quite see how it’ll make sense on a garden-variety notebook or desktop. Or, for that matter, on a garden-variety tablet–at least if you intend to run old-style apps as well as touch-centric ones. It wants a new type of computer.

This is going to run best with apps which don’t exist yet, for the most part. Microsoft’s demo includes IE 10, which is designed for the new interface. Cool. But what about Office, Photoshop, Firefox, Chrome, Quicken, AutoCAD, Norton Antivirus, and thousands of other apps which are meant for the keyboard and mouse? Are their creators going to rewrite them? If not, will they feel like second-class citizens even if they’re the first apps that most of us call on?

This could be like oil and water. There aren’t a lot of examples of technology products doing things two different ways and succeeding. (Exhibit A: Tablet PCs.) Doing one thing really well is a far safer bet. (Exhibit A: The iPad.) But Windows 8 makes no sense unless it’s really pleasing with a keyboard and mouse, and equally pleasing with touch. I’m not predicting that Microsoft will fail to pull it off–just saying that it’s created a gigantic challenge for itself.

This sort of explains why Microsoft hasn’t shown interest in Windows Phone 7 tablets. It looks like a Windows 8 tablet that runs on a low-power chip like one based on ARM architecture will provide an experience similar to why the Windows Phone 7 tablets some of us have been wondering about would provide. Or it’ll try to, at least.

This can’t be forced down anyone’s throat. Microsoft gets to give Windows a new interface, but it doesn’t have any say about whether people use it or not. We won’t know if this thing is the future until it hits the street. And the one thing that every PC user on the planet has in common is that we know how to use a keyboard and mouse. People could choose to avoid the new user interface. Or they could choose to avoid Windows 8, period.

This is a lot like Apple’s OS X 10.7 Lion. Both are desktop operating systems that show heavy smartphone/tablet influences.

This is nothing at all like Apple’s OS X 10.7 Lion. Apple remains adamant that touch doesn’t work on a traditional computer like a Mac or a typical Windows PC. Microsoft appears to think that touch can become the primary interface.

This is fun. Windows Vista was a Windows with no vision. That didn’t work. Windows 7 is a Windows that just tries to be a more civilized, pleasant Windows. That works quite well. Windows 8 could be a big bet on the future of computing–the first Windows designed for the post-PC era. We don’t know anywhere near enough about it yet to form any conclusions about its chances of success. But it won’t be boring.

Microsoft says it’ll have more to show at its BUILD conference in September. I hope to be there. In the meantime: what are your first impressions?

This post originally appeared on Technologizer.

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