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Microsoft previews 'bold' new Windows 8

Microsoft Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky took to the stage at the BUILD conference in Anaheim, Calif. to show an audience of developers the newest version of Windows. Sinofsky called Windows 8 a "bold reimagining" of the platform, saying that 1995 was the "last time Windows underwent a significant bold overhaul."

The key points of the Windows 8 experience, according to a presentation slide, are:

Fast and fluid user experienceImmersive and full-screenTouch first with full keyboard and mouseWeb of apps working togetherExperience for all PC devices and architectures

"It feels like a different system," said Sinofsky, who previously led the development of Windows 7. "It's fast, it's fluid, it's snappy, it's alive."

Start it up
The look of the thing is certainly bold and fresh, relying heavily on the Metro look previously seen on Windows Phones. The resemblance to Windows Phone goes pretty deep: Once you log in via "picture password" — a secure entry that relies on finger sketches rather than a numeric passcode — you get a Start screen that has pinned apps, contacts and data-rich tiles, just like on the phone platform.

You can swipe through multiple screens on the Start menu, moving elements with your finger. Sinofsky says — taking a veiled shot at Apple's former boss Steve Jobs, who publicly said touchscreens weren't for laptops — that "as soon as you use touch on your PC, you want it on all your devices."

You can even pinch the screen to zoom out to see all of the tiles in the whole Start menu, as you can see here:

But beyond the phone platform, as Sinofsky points out, the Start screen integrates program launching, screen-switching and gadget management.

Hardcore hardware
Every PC setting can be synced across all your machines, via Windows Live, even if one device is running an Intel-type x86 processor, and the other is an ARM-based tablet, as Sinofsky demonstrated with an ARM-based tablet (a rather thick one, seen at right).

Tablet-wise, the presentation also included a quick demo of reference tablets from TI, Qualcomm and Intel, which had an Atom-based tablet on the dais (shown at left).

Primarily, the hardware on display resembled traditional Windows machines, only thinner, shinier and slicker over all.

Even the tablet that Microsoft is giving to developers is powered by a second-gen Intel Core i5, a chipset based on traditional architecture. The 2-lb., 11.6-inch Samsung Windows Developer Preview PC has full Tablet platform and preview apps. It's got 4GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD with HDMI, sensors and a pen, plus a dock with more connectivity. It also gets a year of AT&T 3G, with 2GB monthly limit. Needless to say, this baby is not for sale to the general public. (For a good look at it, check out Laptop Magazine's hands-on here.)

All about apps
Windows 8's Start menu is not just a skin over boring old-style apps. Microsoft is already building many apps, starting with obvious ones like Internet Explorer and Music. But it's also developing "contracts," tools that let these apps work together, for sharing content across apps and out to the Internet by way of email, Twitter and other social networks. Sinofsky says the older app approach has left software in silos, whereas this system lets apps work together, regardless of when they were written.

Sinofsky did reassure people that Windows 7 apps will still run on all Windows 8 devices.

Speaking of apps, a chunk of the keynote addressed the needs of programmers — who make up the bulk of the audience. Without going into detail, the gist of the demo was to show off the tools for "rapid and scalable development of Metro style apps," while offering a "choice of world-class development tools and languages." And as we knew, there will be a Windows Store for app distribution.

A bright cloudy day
Microsoft is big on promoting its cloud services, so it's no surprise that there was a big chunk of the presentation dedicated to the cloud. Any calendar shared through Windows Live show up in a nice Metro app, and all email accounts can be synced in a mail app. But like Windows Phone, your contacts are categorized as "People" too. The Metro app shows everybody you know through Facebook, LinkedIn, plus work and personal accounts, and lets you reach them in many ways.

Photos also get cloudified. Local photos and photos on Flickr, Facebook and SkyDrive are all accessible from the same app. You can flip through photos anywhere, and as long as your connection is fast, it all feels fast and local. (SkyDrive is now standard for every Windows 8, Windows Phone or Windows Live user.) It's also easy to to send photos, regardless of their source.

When's it coming?
Sinofsky is not the kind of guy who talks in dates; he prefers "milestones." First there's the developer preview, which goes out today at (no activation, no support). Then there will be a true beta. After that, there will be a release candidate (or several), a release-to-manufacturing, and finally, general availability, when you can go out and buy it. As for when those milestones arrive, even Sinofsky may not know. "We're going to be driven by the quality, and not by a date," he said. 

Click here for Microsoft's BUILD website.

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