Sep. 13, 2011 at 6:42 PM ET
When I first saw Windows 8, it looked like Windows Phone OS glued to a traditional Windows desktop. Yuck. But a deeper dive by Windows boss Steven Sinofsky has helped me understand why Microsoft did that, and I admit it's compelling. Though not without inherent dangers, Windows 8 does seem to address issues that go ignored by Microsoft's competitors — including Apple.
Building a full-blown computer OS that runs on thin machines and plays well with fingers is only half the challenge; Microsoft is taking this opportunity to orient Windows more closely to the Internet, tie in social networking features that have genuine value, and allow apps themselves to interact with one another across the platform, whether on the computer or in the cloud.
This is no desktop of files, intended for you to push around in your little dreary garden. Instead, it's based on the assumption that your computer is a dynamic extension of a changing world, and that you yourself are a node in a vast social network. If that sounds crazy when referring to a Microsoft-built PC operating system, it kinda is.
(I should say off the bat that msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, but that has no impact on my coverage or commentary of Microsoft or its competitors — as people who have read our glowing reports of Apple products or Android devices are surely aware.)
Oh that Internet
Web browsers are great, but if the explosion of smartphone apps tells us anything, it's that the Internet is far greater than the World Wide Web. Our phones are constantly telling us stuff, so why does Internet integration on our desktop OS amount to us hearing a beep when we get an email? While the old Windows' desktop OS relies on specialized, often third-party applications for Internet activity, the new Windows Phone-inspired Windows 8 Start screen is covered with "live" tiles, each representing an application, a photo album, a news feed, or even a person. More importantly, each can show the current status of your calendar, your music player, your local weather.
Reviewers including myself have said many kind words about the Windows Phone platform because of this, and bringing it to Windows will give it an advantage over even the most recent version of Mac OS X, Lion. (And if you mention Widgets, you get sent to your room without supper. Apple needs to create a user experience that is conducive to Internet content, not layer on a bunch of third-party thingamajigs because they can't.)
Social is as social does
While there's a lot of social buzz that amounts to nothing, the deep integration of social tools inside the operating system, mobile or desktop, makes a ton of sense. Apple has built it into iOS 5 for iPhone and iPad, but beyond a few Facebook-friendly tools in Address Book and iPhoto, the Mac desktop does not integrate with established social networks at all.
Windows 8 doesn't just feature Facebook and LinkedIn contacts in its People contact book, it lets you anchor people on your Start screen, see status updates and share across multiple social networks from all over the OS.
When it comes to photos, Microsoft has integrated Facebook and Flickr at the core, letting you see images stored on your accounts, other peoples' accounts, and up on your own SkyDrive cloud storage account, along with your local photos. The focus is on looking at pictures, which is vastly different than Apple's iPhoto, which at its heart is a photo management system. Evidence of this is the fact that while it can upload to Facebook, it won't show you anything else that's up on Facebook.
Now Photo Stream, the upcoming photo element of Apple's iCloud, could be Apple's trump card here, but I don't think so. As far as I can tell, it doesn't pull photos from social networks, nor does it push photos out to them. It's cloud-y, but in a sort of isolated way. So much of iCloud seems to involve management of media, documents and contacts across my multiple devices via Apple-built tools, rather than sharing content to many people across multiple platforms, or bringing in content from elsewhere.
Apps aren't islands
The sneaking suspicion I get, whether I'm in iOS or the Mac OS, is that Apple wants apps to be isolated experiences. That's not a bad thing — the New Yorker app has quickly become one of my favorite apps precisely because it duplicates the singular experience of reading a New Yorker article. But Microsoft's view of the next wave of apps is that there will be more consistency and even interaction between apps.
It starts simply, with a standard pop-up menu of "charms," including search, share, settings, devices and Start. An app can use the operating system itself, for instance, to share content to Twitter. Settings automatically pop up the app settings plus one-touch access to system settings. Developers will also be able to write apps that can store content to your SkyDrive cloud account.
There's no telling how much developers will take advantage of these tools — and there are developer tools for the Mac that do awesome things too. But my instinct tells me that, while Apple is busy encouraging developers to chase their dreams and create unique experiences, Microsoft will probably try to corral developers and work with them to create more unified experiences.
Microsoft's tough decision
When Microsoft set out to design Windows 8, it faced a pretty daunting decision: Put its mobile OS on tablets, or rewrite Windows entirely so that it would be as good on thin touch tablets as it is on a big honkin' PC. That latter choice is waaay harder, but Microsoft has global dominance on the Windows side, and pretty much zero traction on the phone side. A PC is still what most computer companies want to sell, especially the ones that are crazy jealous of Apple's products (and profits). So as a long-term strategy, leveraging its huge Windows base to grow a tablet business makes more sense.
Apple on the other hand saw tremendous momentum with the iPhone, and as such made the logical move to put a variation of iPhone software on the iPad. It's done an admirable job growing that OS for a larger screen, and I look forward to the arrival of iOS 5, which will address some of the concerns. Windows 8 may show some iPad shortcomings, but its squarely targeting the Mac OS.
When Steve Jobs introduced Mac OS X Lion, he billed it as a way to bring the tablet experience to the standard computer. With the app Launchpad, full-screen apps, apps that resume right where you left them, all orchestrated by multitouch gestures on a touchpad, it certainly gets closer. I don't even begrudge Apple's decision to avoid touchscreens on laptops — I don't think it matters too much. But as I said, re-creating the tablet's look and feel is only half the battle.
Not totally sold on Windows 8
While I have outlined what's promising in Windows 8, I have fears about how it will be used once it's launched. Beneath the slick Metro look and feel is something that resembles all too well the older Windows interface. That is a must for Microsoft to guarantee compatibility with any app that ran on Windows 7, but that might be its Achilles heel. If developers keep writing for the classic environment, we'll be kept from the new fresh user interface. I can sense major headaches if half of my apps are Metro and the other half are Windows 7.
And if we must have full-blown Windows on our tablets, will our on-the-couch reading reveries be interrupted by an obnoxious pop-up request from Adobe to update Flash for the umpteenth time? The reason I love my iPad is precisely because it's not my computer.
Finally, will Windows 8 be able to meet the requirements set by the iPad, that a great tablet must be incredibly thin yet deliver 10 hours of uninterrupted battery life? This is of course the great concern, shared by Microsoft and its fans and foes alike. But that really will be the dealbreaker. If every Windows 8 tablet weighs two pounds and lasts less than five hours of battery life, all this goodness will be wasted.
More on Windows 8 from msnbc.com's Technolog: