Today, at a relatively low-key event in New York City, Microsoft finally launched its much-debated Windows 8 and Windows RT operating systems. The one-hour presentation was mercifully low on hyperbole, but thoroughly expounded all the (by now well known) features of the new touch interface, as well as the remarkable variety of new devices that's coming from hardware OEMs.
The presentation was kicked off by Steven Sinofsky, President of the Windows and Windows Live Division at Microsoft. He called the launch the beginning of "a new era," and " a major milestone in the evolution and revolution of computing."
Sinofsky noted that adoption of Windows 7 has been "unprecedented," with sales of over 670 million licenses to businesses and consumers. Over a billion people are now using Windows, he said, adding that Windows 8 is "computing for the next billion people."
Sinofsky broke the announcement into three parts. First, the availability of the Windows 8 upgrade in stores and online, starting at a special introductory price of $39.99 (US). Second, the grand opening of the online Windows Store, selling the new generation of Windows 8 (‘Modern') touch apps. And third, the launch of "PCs built for Windows RT," Microsoft's new OS optimized for low-power ARM processors.
"Over 1,000 new PCs have been certified for Windows 8," said Sinofsky. These cover a variety of sizes and designs. Sinofsky emphasized that these would start as low as $300, cheaper than today's tablets. "With these PCs you get all the benefits of the tablet experience," he said, noting "These are the best PCs ever made."
As an upgrade over Windows 7, Windows 8 was claimed to boot 45% faster, run 33% faster, use 42% less memory, and extend battery life by 13%, while remaining compatible with most all existing devices and software. (Third-party benchmarks have been somewhat more conservative, but the trend is certainly a good one.)
Windows RT was covered quite separately. Sinofsky noted that this new OS had been "architected from the ground up for the ARM processor, the most ubiquitous mobile processor in the world." He added that Windows RT offers "the full richness of the new Windows experience," including a version of Office 2013 and Internet Explorer 10.
Sinofsky did note that "Windows RT is different from Windows 8. It doesn't run programs designed for Windows 7. It can only run apps that you acquire from the Windows Store." Again, very smoothly done, properly admitting the limitations of Windows RT while not letting the spotlight stray from its strengths.
A handful of new Windows RT devices was mentioned, including the Lenovo Yoga, Samsung ATIV, Dell XPS 10, ASUS VivoTab and, of course, Microsoft's own Surface for Windows RT.
Sinofsky noted that the new touch apps in Windows RT (and on Windows 8, presumably) will be "easily acquired, easily removed. They'll respect and protect your data and your privacy." This sounded at least partly like an admission of a long-standing sore point in Windows. But it's surely also a dig at Android and iOS, where phone-home apps and actual malware have been a concern.
In what way Windows apps would raise the bar was not specified, however. It will be interesting to know whether Microsoft has laid down the law with developers, or simply tightened up software interfaces. (One demo showed an app being uninstalled right from its own icon menu bar, which is certainly a step in the right direction.)
We'll also want to know more about Microsoft's policies regarding ad-supported apps, and what data they can gather for their publishers.
Sinofsky also stated that Windows RT would use existing Windows peripherals "seamlessly," and that "100% of the best-selling printers in the U.S. currently work out of the box."
This claim will definitely need some clarification. All peripherals, including printers, need driver software, and the existing drivers clearly won't run on RT. Will devices potentially work, provided that makers provide new drivers? Or will they work in a generic mode, using drivers built into RT? We'll definitely want to follow up on this one, especially given the rather limited printing capability seen so far in iOS and Android.
In the demos, the new touch UI came off very well, responding intuitively to finger swipes. The new touch-based mail, calendar and photo apps were mentioned, as well as the optional new touch-based unlock screen. Also shown was the ability to use a familiar notebook trackpad to control the interface with the same gestures as on a touch screen.
Regarding the supply of third-party touch apps, Sinofsky reported that the Windows Store has been "adding hundreds of new apps every day," and that this rate is growing. Windows 8, he said, now has more apps than any competing OS had at its launch.
Sinofsky also once more underscored what a huge opportunity Windows 8 presents for app developers. "The potential market for apps is the largest of any platform," he stated, adding that Microsoft also offered "the most favorable terms," and the widest global reach: 231 markets in 109 languages.
It's a strong story, to be sure. But the fact that the actual number of apps currently available in the Windows Store must lead us to assume Microsoft saw it as a liability. Sinofsky even disparaged any "rush to count apps." Of course, any new OS has to start somewhere. But while it may indeed be unfair to "count apps" on Day One, it's a statistic we'll all be very interested in over the coming months.
Microsoft also seemed conscious of qualms that have been expressed about the future of the traditional desktop. "The heart of the Windows 7 desktop still remains, and continues to work as before," assured Sinofsky. Nonetheless, the desktop appeared for a only few seconds through the course of the entire presentation, mainly in order to show Office 2013.
Microsoft deftly kept the focus firmly on the benefits of its new touch-based apps, while ensuring that their incompatibility with the old world of Windows hardly came up. The term ‘Modern' was never used, and in fact the all-new touch environment of Windows 8 was never referred to by any name other than ‘Windows 8.'
There was at least a quick admission that Windows 8 did ask users to re-learn a lot of their habits. "To ease the move to Windows 8, every PC will come with a simple how-to," said Sinofsky. This will show up when the user first starts up the system.
Ballmer Sums Up
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer closed the presentation. Speaking in the less-bombastic mode he's adopted of late, Ballmer said, "Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC really is," and opens "a new era for Microsoft and our customers."
"Look at all these gorgeous, gorgeous machines, and how alive the all are with activity," he added, referring to the ‘live tile' screen. "Your Microsoft account is the key to that. You log in just once and you see your device light up with your life.
"This is just a very small sample of what will be available," Ballmer continued. "These are the thinnest, the lightest and the fastest PCs ever created. Everybody should be able to find their perfect PC," whether they're looking for something "affordable" or "spectacular high-end devices."
Ballmer took time to emphasize the key competitive feature of Windows 8: integration of touch with full-blown computing. "One device now pairs the greatest qualities of the PC with the greatest qualities of the tablet experience," he stated. "Are these new designs PCs? Yes! Are these new designs tablets also? Yes! You're not going to find that phenomenal productivity experience on any other tablet."
Ballmer didn't forget to highlight Windows' traditional strength in business. "Enterprise customers will love the new Windows 8 devices," he said. "Windows uniquely gives them the tools they need to protect their corporate data, while giving employees the ability to select the devices they really want."
Finally, Ballmer also noted that people can choose Windows 8 knowing that there's a phone "designed to work in a similar way," with live tiles, support for the same Microsoft account, and the ability to sync up to the same SkyDrive content.
This is "Windows re-imagined," Ballmer summed up. "You're certainly going to hear it in our ads. It really captures what our team set out to do with Windows 8... Windows 8 really does bring together the best of the worlds: PC and tablet, work and play."
All in all, Microsoft did about as good a job on the launch as anyone could have expected. Now its going to be down to users to form their own hands-on opinion. As Ballmer said: "Seeing, touching, clicking and swiping is really believing."
Photoe and video by John Thomson