An early, first look at Windows 8 (hands-on)

Not unlike an artfully created but tiny-portioned appetizer leading into a flavorful and filling main course that remains stuck in the kitchen, my first hands-on experience with Windows 8 left me eager for what was coming but disappointed with what was set in front of me.

Microsoft lent out Windows 8 tablets to attendees at the end of the Build conference preview yesterday, surprisingly running an earlier version of the in-development operating system than the one that had been demonstrated as functional earlier in the day.

The operating system represents a major change for the company and its fans, as Windows wholeheartedly embraces and bets on touch-screen interfaces. Julie Larson-Green, vice president in charge of Windows 8, said yesterday, “People want to and expect to be able to touch their screens.” She offered up a personal anecdote about a friend, who roasts coffee professionally and was frustrated going from the production line where the screens are touch-based to his office, where they weren’t.

I’ve had the same experience. The very first thing I did when testing out Google’s Chromebook earlier this year was involuntarily poke my finger at the screen. The expectations of smartphones and point-of-sale interactions have conditioned us to expect screens of all sizes to respond to touch input.

Whereas Windows 7 was a big change because it finally made Vista’s architecture palatable, Windows 8 is more like coming to your favorite restaurant and finding it with an entirely new decor, arrangement of tables, and expanded menu. And while we can read the menu and have a decent idea of what we’re being served, we don’t know yet the precise smell or taste of the food.

Windows 8 goes Metro

The biggest change from Windows 7 is the much-discussed Metro interface. Is it merely a touch-tacular visual skin, Windows 7 with a large, haptic Mango sitting on top? Or is more of a dual offering, giving you two different ways to interface with their programs and apps depending on how you’re using the computer at any given moment?

Cynics would have you believe the former, Microsoft the latter. The truth is hard to parse right now, although if Microsoft pulls this off, it will have effected a major change in how we interact with our computers and devices.

Frankly, Windows 7 was already a decent supporter of touch screens and gestures, so betting on mobile touch screens isn’t a massive leap of logic. What makes Windows 8 potentially revolutionary is that it’s tying Metro, the first distinctly non-Windows experience ever, to the popular adoption of touch screens. For whatever you call Metro, whether it’s Windows Phone 7’s Mango on growth hormones or a grand terminal of multi-layered interaction, Metro is Microsoft’s first major interface that does not in any way relate to the “windowed” experience from which the operating system derives its name. Microsoft is saying that traditional Windows is not enough on its own anymore.

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