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Microsoft’s Windows of opportunity into booming tablet market

Microsoft has been virtually shut out of the exploding market for touch-screen tablets

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2012 First published in Business in Vancouver October 23, 2012 Issue #1200 High Tech Office column

Have you marked October 25 in your calendar? That’s the date Microsoft launches Windows 8 – The Next Generation. It’s promising to be the biggest change for Windows ever. Or at least since Windows 95.

Many users might wonder why a new Windows is needed. Windows 7 was released in July 2009 to generally positive reviews and is now running on a majority of systems though many Windows users – especially in businesses – continue to run 2002’s Windows XP.

The answer is tablets. The market for traditional Windows-using desktop and laptop computers is stagnant, and even though Microsoft has long included tablet support in Windows, it’s designed for stylus, not fingers. Microsoft has been virtually shut out of the exploding market for touch-screen tablets.

Windows 8, though, redesigns the user experience – what Microsoft calls the Modern User Interface (formerly called “Metro”) features screen elements big enough for easy finger manipulation on touch screens.

While Windows 8 is not yet – as I write this – officially released, Microsoft has made a 90-day trial version freely downloadable. I’ve been running it on a variety of platforms, most recently on a (very nice) Envy Spectre XT 13” laptop loaned to me by HP.

Like other lightweight ultrabooks, the Spectre XT uses a speedy solid-state drive for storage. That enables Windows 8 to start up in about 20 seconds, revealing the new interface: no familiar desktop wallpaper, task bar and start menu. Instead, the start screen displays pages of tiles – replacing desktop icons.

The resizable tiles can be rearranged like dominos, some of them – weather, news, stock price apps, etc. – continuously updating information.

Apps designed for the Modern UI run full screen with new bigger user interface elements. If you’re running Windows 8 on a desktop, laptop or on some tablets, you can also run more traditional Windows software – these old-style applications also get tiles on the start screen.

Click on one of these or the “desktop” tile and you’re back in a Windows 7-style environment: wallpaper, taskbar and the like. But no start menu; Microsoft wants you to start using the Modern UI. (Hint – tap the Windows key on your keyboard to pop back to the Windows 8 Start Screen.)

The result is a bit schizoid. Sometimes your programs display the new look, sometimes the old. There are two separate versions of Internet Explorer: a traditional one and one designed for the new interface. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in one, other times the other.

I haven’t had the opportunity to try Windows 8 on a touch-screen or tablet system; people who have generally report liking the experience – at least when running software designed for the new interface.

A catch: only tablets with traditional Intel-style processors will run the full Windows 8; these will be able to run both new software and traditional (less tablet-friendly) software, though you’ll want to have a keyboard and mouse or touchpad handy to do that.

Other tablets will use the same sort of processors used on iPads and Android tablets, offering less raw power but better battery life. These will run so-called Windows RT – no, I don’t know what it stands for – and will only be able to run software designed for the new interface.

While the new interface was designed to be fingertip friendly, some find it awkward on non-touch hardware – like the computers on all our desks. I don’t share that opinion. What it is is different.

A new action: point your cursor to the bottom right corner to bring up what Microsoft calls “charms”: a set of context-dependent icons. To shut down: bring up the charms and click on the settings icon. Not entirely intuitive.

I like the new interface, but the steep learning curve is going to discourage adoption. My prediction – despite a reasonable $49 price, relatively few Windows 7 users will upgrade and as the many XP systems still in use get long in the tooth, businesses will prefer to replace them with Windows 7. The tablet market? We’ll have to wait and see.

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