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BW Businessworld

Opening A New Window

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Every time Microsoft comes out with a new version of Windows, someone will claim this is the biggest thing since Windows 95. With so many biggest-thing-since-Windows 95s, it's amazing then that Windows is kind of the same. Well, Windows 7 was a turning point, and with it, the operating system (OS) went lightweight and touch-enabled, comfortable working on resource-skimpy netbooks, but robust enough to handle the workload of a desktop.

But if you are plopped in front of a computer running Windows 8, you would be forgiven for wondering what new system faces you. Windows 8 looks completely different. It looks completely beautiful. If you like coloured squares and rectangles, that is, and it seems most of mankind does. Honestly, looking at how much people like the iPad, Flipboard, with its neat layout, Pulse news reader and other apps, it would seem that human beings just love coloured tabs and tiles. I know I do.

Windows 8 will have a Start page filled with live tiles that not only show you updated information but lead to the content inside if you touch them. And touch is the operative word here because Windows 8 is more enabled for the touchscreen experience than Windows 7 is. In this, Microsoft admits to being inspired by the iPad — and there is nothing wrong with that.

Although in India we are fond of saying "Ah, how many people have the iPad and how many will," the truth is that the iPad has indeed shown how we can interact with a device and it has disrupted the way things were. So, it is only right that Microsoft, who came up with the tablet form factor long ago, should try and reclaim its lead in this space. If it can. If not, it's in some trouble as PC sales get smacked hard by tablets — mostly the iPad. For now.

If you have seen a smartphone with Windows Phone 7 on it, you will have a good idea of what the ultimate Windows 8 will be like. That's a problem, though, because there aren't very many Windows 7 phones. Microsoft is taking ages to really get them out there (with Nokia waiting patiently for the action). The problem is it looks like Microsoft plans to take just as long with Windows 8 — late next year. Over a year is a long time in technology and one can't say how the dynamics may change by then.

The demo video of Windows 8 shows an enticing OS. It could work with a touchscreen PC or a tablet. Even older systems are said to be able to handle the OS — and new ones, including those build on ARM processors. On a regular PC, you can use a keyboard and mouse and still be able to work on Windows 8; though with considerably less pleasure. So, it will be the same kind of system working across smartphone, PC and tablet.

While all that sounds very nice, the problem is no one knows quite well what lies behind the proverbial choli. We can see that things are organised in big, clear, friendly spaces. We can see the multitasking revolution and there will be lots of beautiful full-screen apps, and natural gestures such as swipes will make things happen, including in Internet Explorer 10. A differently organised on-screen keyboard is meant to be easier to use.

Amazingly, though, if you want to return to Windows 7 on your PC, you can. You can also run "older" applications such as Excel alongside new apps — on the same open screen, in fact. And this is baffling. What's Windows 7 doing sitting inside of Windows 8 when 8 is supposed to be lightweight? Is the lovely interface just a layer on top of what is already there? And if so, why take so long over it? There are other big questions: is Windows 8 a tablet-optimised system being used to a PC; treating the PC like one big tablet? Or is it the operating system we have all known tweaked and prettied up for the tablet? Or is it just borrowed off Windows Phone 7?

If Microsoft wants to fight Google's Chrome OS and Apple's iOS, and join the tablet game and become a significant player in the smartphone space, it really can't afford to wait until the end of next year. Because, to put it bluntly, the others are already here.

Microsoft is trying to reinvent itself around touch in a world where touch is becoming our way of interacting with devices. And so it should. Ninety five per cent of the world uses Windows — individuals, enterprises and institutions. There will be much adjustment needed if one is to move forward with new technology. In today's world, we need competitors, not monopolies. So, I really do hope Windows 8 turns out, sooner or later, to be the fabulous product it looks.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com

@malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 20-06-2011)