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Windows 8: a reimagined OS with touch screens in mind

An example of the Start screen for Windows 8.


It's that time again. Windows 7 is two years old, and that means the next version of Windows is merrily percolating – and generating such enthusiasm that Microsoft managed to sell out its recent BUILD developer's conference without publishing a word about content.

At the conference, Microsoft unveiled Windows 8, and although the shiny stuff has been grabbing headlines, there's plenty under the bling to interest business.

But let's start with a bit of the shiny.

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After the super-speedy boot (demo systems came up in the blink of an eye), the first thing that grabs you is the user interface (UI). This ain't your typical Windows. The new look, entitled Metro, with its colourful live tiles, is reminiscent of Windows Phone 7, not PC Windows. As such, it's an ideal interface for use with a touch screen. During BUILD, Microsoft presented each paid attendee with a Samsung tablet running a developer's preview version of the system.

The company has reimagined navigation with touch in mind, developing gestures that will be consistent throughout. Flick a finger from the right edge of the screen, and a menu of five icons, called Charms, appears. These icons – Start, Search, Share, Devices and Settings – also pop up if you point your mouse at the bottom left of the screen, where the Start menu appears on previous versions of Windows.

Swipe from the top edge down or bottom up, and you'll see what Microsoft refers to as "chrome" – buttons, tabs, menus, and other pieces of the UI. With Metro-style apps, these elements are hidden so the app can use virtually every scrap of the screen to display its content.

Since most touch screens tend to be used in landscape orientation, layouts are mainly horizontal and can be scrolled through with a quick swipe anywhere on the screen but the edges. The operating system supports multi-touch, if offered by the hardware, so you can, for example, drag a tile up and scroll the rest of the screen beneath it rather than resorting to the old-fashioned drag and drop if you want to rearrange things. Swiping from the left side of the screen lets you cycle through all open apps.

Microsoft presenters repeatedly demonstrated that the old mouse and keyboard are well supported too, with lots of keyboard shortcuts.

The familiar Windows desktop is still available, but as an app, not as the primary operating environment. Traditional Windows apps can be installed, and are also given a tile on the Metro start screen. The desktop does have one wrinkle that may frustrate users: Microsoft has opted to use its Ribbon menu interface (first seen in Office 2007) throughout.

All this adds up to some challenges for business. There will be a learning curve. There will be confusion. Users of Windows Phone 7 will have a slight advantage, since they've already been using the Metro interface.

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However, there are also advantages for business that make this OS well worth checking out.

First, security. Windows 8 will include a full anti-malware component based on its Defender software. That doesn't mean you're stuck with it; it will gracefully disable itself if you install another product.

The boot sequence has been altered to load the anti-malware software much earlier, to prevent something from sneaking in while the machine is unprotected. Microsoft will also support a technology called UEFI that replaces the old BIOS (the software on a chip that starts the operating system load) with a more secure method that prevents malware from grabbing control of the system at the pre-boot stage.

Two related features will save a ton of time and tears when a computer is misbehaving. "Refresh" preserves the user's settings and files, then returns the operating system to a known good state. "Restore" takes things a step further, wiping all vestiges of the user from the machine and returning it to its pristine state, ready for redeployment. That pristine state is defined by the administrator, so it can consist of a fresh operating system load, complete with company standard applications, all configured in the company-approved manner. The demo at BUILD took about six minutes to restore a computer.

Microsoft only mentioned management via group policy in passing, but it did say that there's a new version of the Windows PowerShell scripting language coming. PowerShell is used by administrators for both desktop and server management.

Windows 8 will run on the same hardware as Windows 7, and should perform better, since things like memory management have been significantly improved.

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Bear in mind that the version of Windows 8 presented at BUILD was an early one. Things will change. But if you want to play with the developer's preview, you can download it here. Just remember, it's pre-release software. Don't try to use it for production. It will crash. It will do rude things. But it will also give you a preview of the future of Windows.

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