A new version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, dubbed Windows 8, hits store shelves this week — but it’s no ordinary update.
The new software looks completely different from its predecessors. There’s a variation of it that won’t run any programs designed for previous versions of Windows. And because the software was designed to be used on touch-screen devices, Windows 8 will take Microsoft’s operating system to places it hasn’t been before, including on tablets comparable to the iPad and new types of computers that blur the lines between tablets and laptops.
“This is definitely the biggest change in the user experience of Windows since Windows 95,” said Steve Kleynhans, an analyst for technology research firm Gartner.
Even before the final version of the software has been released, its big changes have drawn skepticism from analysts and customers and criticism from tech reviewers, including this reporter. Some analysts have gone so far as to compare it to Windows Vista, the much-pilloried version of the operating system that came before Windows 7 and was largely ignored by corporate users.
“If you have Windows 7 today on a non-touch-enabled PC, I would say there’s not an overwhelmingly compelling reason to upgrade to Windows 8,” said Al Gillen, an analyst with tech research firm IDC. “I think lot of business users will see it that way.”
The biggest difference for users is Windows’ new interface. Gone are the familiar start button, start menu and — at least at first glance — the traditional Windows desktop. They’ve all been replaced with a new interface designed around application “tiles” arranged on a plain background.
The tiles work like program icons: you click — or tap — them to launch a program. But unlike traditional Windows program icons, the tiles can work like widgets, displaying small tidbits of updated information. For example, the email tile might display your latest message, or the calendar might show your next appointment.
But the interface — which Microsoft formerly called “Metro” — has other differences from the traditional Windows desktop. Unlike the traditional Windows interface, the new one doesn’t support overlapping windows or the ability to view more than two programs on the screen at one time.
And the only programs that will work with the new interface are ones that either come pre-installed or that users download from Microsoft’s new online Windows Store.
On most editions of Windows 8, users will still be able to access a traditional desktop and run older Windows programs. They can even launch those programs from the new interface, but when they do, they’ll be taken to a version of the old desktop, in which they can see more than two applications and have overlapping windows. And they can’t configure Windows so they see the desktop when they start it up; instead, they’ll have to go through the Metro interface.
The new interface “is a huge change,” said Mike Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent analyst firm. “It takes away things that have been in Windows almost since the beginning.”
On one edition of Windows 8, called Windows RT, the break from the past is even more pronounced. This edition of the software was built to run on devices using ARM processors. These are the low-power chips that come from a variety of manufacturers and underlay the iPad and most other tablets and smart phones on the market.
Windows RT has the same Metro interface and will run the same Metro programs that are available for other editions of Windows 8. But it can’t run any older Windows programs. Also, unlike other versions of Windows, the only way to get Windows RT is to buy it pre-installed on a tablet or PC; Microsoft won’t be selling a separate version that users can install themselves on machines they already own.
Windows RT will include a version of Microsoft’s Office suite of productivity programs. But that version won’t include the email program Outlook.
Given its limitations and differences with other editions of Windows 8, calling this edition of the operating system “Windows” has the potential to confuse and frustrate customers, analysts have warned.