Windows 8: Microsoft's vision of a post-PC future?

Warning: Windows 8 looks very different than Microsoft's past operating systems. At an unveiling Wednesday, the company explained that Windows 8 is designed to run on all sorts of desktop and mobile hardware. That adaptability might give Microsoft a leg up in the tablet arena.

Windows 8 sports a new look, one designed for both PCs and tablets – and moving from one to another.

After months of hype, we have finally seen the face of Windows 8 – and it looks like a pretty big step forward. Microsoft unveiled its newest operating system on Wednesday during the keynote of its BUILD Conference, focusing on Windows 8's tile-based interface, multitasking prowess, and adaptability to tablets and computers alike. This is not Redmond’s first foray into the tablet market, but it's the first time that early impressions have been overwhelmingly positive. Let’s break Windows 8 down a bit.

The keynote today confirmed that the system requirements for Windows 8 will be lighter than those for Windows 7, so it'll be able to run on plenty of legacy hardware – even relatively anemic first-generation netbooks should be able to cope. On the software front, Microsoft says any program that runs on Windows 7 will work on Windows 8, and applications won’t be restricted by device (in other words, any program that runs on Windows 8 will run on PCs and tablets alike).

Remember the much-hyped Metro UI, with its sliding panels and widget-like interface? It’s a centerpiece of Microsoft’s visual approach here – but users will also be able to switch between it and a plain-vanilla desktop view on a whim. Services such as mail, photos, and chat have been reskinned to mesh with the Metro look, and there’s a focus on sharing and social networking baked in throughout Windows 8. This extends to tight integration with Web services such as Facebook and cloud storage such as SkyDrive.

Microsoft also revealed more about the Windows 8 App Store, which is more or less a direct competitor to Apple’s offering. Redmond also promises that apps submitted by developers will go through a “transparent” approval process – perhaps another jab at Apple, whose approval system has frequently been criticized by developers for being too opaque.

The beta version isn’t out yet (and no release date was announced at the conference), but Microsoft did make a developer preview available starting on Wednesday evening – and early impressions have been positive. Peter Bright at Ars Technica praised Windows 8’s adaptability to both PCs and tablets, noting that it “works well for all input devices, both new and traditional. The operating system doesn't work identically, but it does work, without incurring any penalty for preferring one mechanism over another.” That kind of platform agnosticism is central to Microsoft’s vision for Windows 8, and it seems to be a popular strategy so far.

What do you think of Windows 8? Eagerly anticipating its arrival – or do you have some ideas for how Microsoft could be doing it better? Let us know in the comments.

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