Inside Windows 8 – where apps rule, tablets take over and the cloud connects

  • Social networking all in one place.
  • Access files via the cloud.
  • Multi-screen versatility.
  • New-look Start screen.
  • App Store opens for business.
Date:1 November 2012 Tags:, , , , ,

Tablets have forever changed the computing landscape. Taps and swipes are all part of a whole new language (fortunately, the lexicon is usually intuitive) that has transformed the way we interact with our computers. It’s also transformed the computers themselves. And now it has prodded Microsoft, the creators of Windows, the world’s most widely used operating system, into recognising this.

Microsoft South Africa brought the media in to its Gauteng headquarters to meet Windows 8 insiders and gain some insight into the thinking behind what they are hoping will be a gamechanger.

What we learnt:
* Touchscreens are hot.
* Apps are where it’s at.
* We don’t need to be locked into one specific device.

Those of us who have gravitated towards tablets will love Windows 8’s crisp, stylish Start setup. We’ll move intuitively to find what we need in an app or setting. Hardcore PC users, by contrast, may be frustrated by having to hunt for the menus and dialogs they have grown familiar with over seven generations of Windows.

At the root of this conflict: what do we talk about going forward – programs or apps? Windows 8 uses both; apps are on the Start screen and programs elsewhere. We’ll report more fully on the details once we have spent some time with the Preview version.

In the meantime, what are the broad brushstrokes of how Win8 will impact on our lives?

The apps have it
Although the new system builds on Windows 7, retaining much of its functionality, apps are at the heart of Windows 8, says Microsoft. Social network mavens with their connected lifestyles will love the contemporary app-style operation, the inherent cloud-connectedness and the ability to synch across several, very different, devices.

More than any predecessor, Windows 8 is designed to be in tune with the requirements of work or play – or both. It brings the tablet, and indeed its functionality, closer to the PC. Yet achieving this doesn’t mean a trade-off between massive computing power and clunky operation. One thing that impressed us was just how snappy and fluid Windows 8 is, whether applied to laptops or tablets.

Our guide on the “deep dive” into Windows 8, Rajeev Nagar – a 10-year Microsoft veteran who currently works on Windows core – carried out most of his demonstrations on a prototype Samsung touch-enabled tablet. However, he says, his 2½-year-old HP notebook has been running Windows 8 very well. Here’s the interesting thing: they talk to each other. And to his other linked devices. Your photos, documents and settings are accessible on any Windows 8 PC.

Impressive security features are built into Windows 8. It’s possible to sign in using a text password, as usual. Alternatively, on a touchscreen a picture can form the basis of a graphic-oriented password based entirely on gestures.

On the business side, built-in mobile broadband features in Windows 8 add support for 3G and 4G telecommunication. The system prioritises networks that are typically less expensive and faster; Wi-Fi hotspots, if available, are automatically used. There’s also a host of improvements to security.

A fresh Start
Goodbye Start, hello Start screen. “The first thing you notice when you use the new Start screen is that you just see the content,” Nagar says. “The tiles are live.”

In prior versions of Windows, the Start button was simply a conduit. “Now, nothing stands between the content and you. The Start experience is different; you don’t have to go into an application to consume.”

They stopped short of calling it a Home screen, but the new Start screen has more in common with your smartphone or tablet than you think. It organises must-have information in one place: contacts, weather, calendar and your favourite apps. All laid out in tiles, this provides a hassle-free way to launch apps, switch between tasks, and check notifications. The tiles update in real time, too.

There’s also something strangely familiar about Charms. These small icons on the side of the screen provide a quick way to activate regularly accessed functions such as Search, Settings, Start and Devices.

Are you already suffering separation anxiety from your PC desktop? Don’t panic, it’s all there, with familiar Windows 7 settings and features, says Microsoft.

Click or swipe – your choice
You switch or combine input methods depending on what works best for you. Mouse click, keyboard tap, swipe and pinch; Windows 8 automatically and seamlessly follows your lead. It’s great for big or multiple screens. Plus, multi-screen setups can display the Start screen on one monitor and the desktop on the others.

Trackpads are another story. Because trackpad sizes vary, Microsoft is working with the big trackpad manufacturers and the OEM suppliers to come to agreement on what gestures will be standard.

The system’s inbuilt virtual touch keyboard, by the way, offers two modes. It uses either a full-sized layout for almost-normal typing, or a thumb layout with keys split on either side of the screen.

The “language” of Windows 8 includes several swipe gestures. Swiping from the right edge of the screen, for instance, reveals Charms with system commands. (Yes, the edges are “live”.) Just like with tablets and smartphones, “press and hold” will allow you to learn by bringing up details and, in some cases, a menu with more options.

A clever twist on a familiar gesture is what’s called “semantic zoom”. Normal optical zooming uses a pinch or stretch to zoom in or out on an image. Semantic zoom has an element of that, but actually changes the view to make the content easier to grasp. Typically, you’d zoom in on a group of apps to see some specifics, and zoom out to get a clearer idea of how the apps relate to each other or how they are grouped.

There are mouse equivalents, too. For example, swiping in from the left reveals thumbnails of your open apps so you can switch to them quickly. The mouse equivalent of this involves placing the mouse pointer in the upper-left and clicking to cycle through apps, or the lower-left corner of the screen to see the Start screen. You can swipe from the top to the bottom of the screen to dock or close the current app.

But here’s the great thing: you don’t have to close live apps.

“One of our key objectives was to maximise battery life,” Nagar says. So, the system automatically reallocates resources. Apps will not be just minimised, but actually disabled, if not used for a while. Windows 8’s ability to run on less power-hungry hardware means that battery life takes less of a hit anyway.

Up in the cloud
Signing in to a Microsoft account connects what you are doing on any Windows 8 device, from Start screen and themes to language preferences and browsing history. Social network connectivity links services such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter in a kind of meta-connector. Files are accessible across the likes of Microsoft SkyDrive and Flickr. That means you’re not locked in to a single PC; what you start on one can be completed on another.

Building on the cloud connectedness pioneered by its predecessor, Windows 8 uses dedicated apps to interact with existing Microsoft features such as Mail and Calendar. Mail aggregates all your accounts in one place, with the ability to pin e-mail accounts to the Start screen to show live mail without having to open the Mail app itself. Calendar does much the same from the diary point of view, with a tweak: you can set it to see upcoming appointments even on the lock screen, so you don’t need to unlock your PC first.

A mega-address book resides in the People app, which includes contacts from sources as diverse as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Gmail. There’s a big focus on the world of entertainment, with gaming via an Xbox app, plus access to music and video downloads.

What’s smart is that the apps work together. One example from Microsoft is that you can select a picture from an album in your Photos app and e-mail it to one of your contacts with a single click. There is no need to open your mail separately and attach the picture.

Let’s hit the Store
“Until Windows 7 there was no trusted repository for apps,” says Nagar. “Now we have the Windows Store.”

The Windows Store will provide thousands of apps, both free and for sale. Apps can be licensed to up to five devices.

According to Microsoft, all apps will be screened and checked for viruses. Subsequently, a review system (no anonymous reviews allowed) and a credibility or ”Like” process will create a ratings profile.

Nagar points out that a vast potential market exists, both for apps and for developers. “There are over 630 million Windows 7 licences. That is besides the vast amount unlicensed.”

And if you don’t like an app, Windows aims to address one regular concern of App Store visitors: the clutter (or nasties) left behind when a no-longer-needed App is uninstalled. “With Windows 8, the app uninstalls instantly,” Nagar says.