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Microsoft previews Windows 8 for tablets and PCs

Windows 8 start screen

Microsoft offered up a preview of its next operating system, which is being given the code name Windows 8 for now, and which is set to run on both tablets and PCs.

One operating system for tablets, laptops and desktops; one operating system that will work by means of a touch interface, or with the traditional mouse and keyboard.

At first glance, Windows 8 looks a lot like the Windows Phone 7 operating system, which has its roots in the OS found on Microsoft's iPod challenger that never caught on as hoped -- the Zune.

"Windows 8 is a reimagining of Windows, from the chip to the interface," said Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Windows experience, in a blog post. "A Windows 8-based PC is really a new kind of device, one that scales from touch-only small screens through to large screens, with or without a keyboard and mouse."

Larson-Green, alongside Windows unit President Steven Sinofsky, showed off the under-development Windows 8 at the All Things Digital Conference conference on Wednesday, on a tablet.

The new user interface uses a "start screen" which offers up a series of live tiles for applications that show up-to-date information -- much like Windows Phone 7's OS. Tapping on any of the live tiles takes a user into that app, while a swipe from the sides (right, left, top or bottom) will bring up various menu options (somewhat similar to the tactic Research In Motion uses on its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet).

The apps from the live tiles that Microsoft showed off launched in full-screen modes, much like a tablet or smartphone and less like a PC. And Microsoft also touted a system they had to easily switch between open apps, all running at the same time, simply with swipe gestures and with no need to return to the start screen.

Windows 8 running two apps at the same time on a tablet Two apps can even run in the same window view -- a feature that other tablet operating systems have yet to offer.

The touch-centric apps shown off, Larson-Green said, run on HTML5 and JavaScript (running on Internet Explorer 10 behind the scenes), allowing developers to use the same tools to build apps for Windows 8 as they use to build websites. These apps are "Web-connected and Web-powered apps" that still have access to the full PC -- a sort of hybrid between a Web-based app and a native desktop app.

If a user prefers the less touch-centric user interface, the old task bar along the bottom of the screen and the traditional Windows start button in the lower left corner of that bar can still be used as an alternative, Larson-Green and Sinofsky said at the conference.

And indeed, the old Windows does appear to be there, likely making Windows 8 not a completely new OS from the ground up, but rather a new user interface put on top of Windows as consumers already know it.

Windows 8 running Microsoft Word and showing its file system When Larson-Green tapped to open Microsoft Excel at the conference, it was still usable with touch input, but the familiar task bar and start button popped up, looking just like a Windows 7 desktop.

And with a swipe, it was back to Windows 8's live tiles and other full-screen apps.

Windows 8, while it will run on tablets and PCs, will give users more options when it comes to attaching peripherals to devices, such as external hard drives, printers and scanners, and it will also give users more access to the files they have by still using a viewable file system like Windows and not keeping files confined in apps themselves in the way that iOS and Android do, Sinofsky said at the conference.

While Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, said recently that Windows 8 would arrive in 2012 on PCs and tablets (all claims that Microsoft later retracted, before saying Windows 8 would run on tablets and PCs Wednesday), Sinofsky and Larson-Green declined to offer a specific date or year when Windows 8 would arrive.

"Right now we're focused on getting the release done and the next milestone for us is the developer conference in September," Sinofsky said at the conference. "Every two to three years is a good release."

Which, with Windows 7 having been released in 2009, could peg Windows 8 for 2012.

Below is a video demo of Windows 8 posted by Microsoft on YouTube on Wednesday.

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

Images: Screenshots from a Microsoft demo video of Windows 8. Credit: Microsoft

 
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