"Windows 8 imagines the convergence of two kinds of devices: a laptop and a tablet," said Jensen Harris, director of program management for Microsoft's user experience team, in a blog post. "Great hardware like this doesn't quite exist yet, but it will be commonly available later this year."
Speculation has been building for weeks, if not months, that Windows 8 systems would be available this year. And some PC builders, including Hewlett-Packard, have publicly talked about plans for Windows 8 machines in the fourth quarter. But Harris' remarks may be the first time a Microsoft exec has actually confirmed a 2012 launch window in an officially sanctioned communication. (A Microsoft representative would not confirm this, but was unable to point to any previous instances.) Big questions still remain, however, about the styles, brand names, and prices that the first Windows 8 systems will carry.
One thing is for certain--they will be far different from anything anyone has previously seen from Microsoft. In his lengthy blog post, Harris noted that Windows 8 is designed from the ground up for a computing world that would be unrecognizable to early PC users schooled on Windows 3.0 and earlier versions.
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By the time Microsoft started to design Windows 8 in 2009, "people increasingly were doing different kinds of things with the time they spent on their PCs. And they had started to expect PCs to behave more like their phones: connected, mobile, long battery life, centered on people and activities, and keeping up with what's going on," said Harris.
That implied a number of changes for Windows 8. The most obvious is that all Windows 8 systems, whether desktops, laptops, or tablets, will by default feature a Start screen borrowed from the Windows Phone 7 interface. The Start screen features Live Tiles that correspond to and display real-time information from, apps. "Your Start screen will become a personalized dashboard of everything you care about," said Harris. "Tiles are the future and fit the way people look for fresh content in apps and websites ... Icons are yesterday's way of representing apps."
Windows 8 systems that run Intel or AMD processors, as opposed to ARM-based Windows 8 RT tablets, will give users the option to work in the classic Windows desktop environment, but it too has undergone some significant tweaks. The Aero glass interface, which debuted with Windows Vista and featured a 3-D look and feel, is gone. "This style of simulating faux-realistic materials (such as glass or aluminum) on the screen looks dated and cheesy now," said Harris.
Instead, the Windows desktop will get a minimalist treatment. Application and file windows will show less chrome, and will display white borders by default. Numerous other changes are also on tap.
Will it all be enough to make Microsoft a factor in the tablet market this holiday season? One analyst thinks it's a long shot, given that even after Windows 8 launches, the number of apps available for the OS won't come close to what's already out there for iPad users. "Such an ecosystem took Apple years to put together, starting with the iPod plus iTunes Music Store more than nine years ago," said IHS iSuppli analyst Rhoda Alexander. "It's proving to be a challenge for the company's competitors to replicate it."
iSuppli estimates that "PC tablets," mostly Windows 8 systems, will account for about 8 million unit sales next year, while "media tablets," mostly the iPad and some Android devices, will account for 197 million unit sales.
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