Ahead of its Autumn release, Chris Jones casts his expert eye over a preview of the new Windows 8 operating system.

A preview of the Windows 8 home screen

Despite ever-increasing sales from Apple, Microsoft continues to dominate the computing industry. However, there is one sector that Microsoft has been slow to capitalise on: the mobile and tablet market. With an estimated 91% of desktop computers running on a Windows operating system, you might expect a similar dominance in the mobile phone market. This is not the case. In fact, Microsoft’s meagre mobile market share in the past three months was around 1.9%. This is a minuscule figure when compared to the market leader – Google’s Android operating system – that runs on 51% of all mobile devices sold last quarter. So what is Microsoft doing to capture the attention of the public and entice them away from their Android or Apple devices?

Well, they have just recently announced that they are working on what they have very imaginatively called Windows 8. You may think, “What does a next generation PC operating system have to do with mobiles?” The answer is: Windows 8 will run on all devices, including PCs and mobiles. This will be a first for the technology world and could, quite possibly, bring a new level of integration between our own favourite devices. With phones and laptops running the same operating system, it could pave the way for easier inter-communication and simpler management of our own personal data.

It is true that we can already share data between devices with add-on programs such as Dropbox. But this is a third party application that requires signing up for an account; installation on each individual piece of kit; uploading the data to their storage ‘cloud’ from one gadget – thus enabling the data to be downloaded on others. If this was already built into the operating system, in a few clicks or touches, we could access any of our files on any of our devices running that operating system.

The only reason that Windows 8 will be able to compete with Android and iOS5 is that there will be a version compatible with ARM processors; the processors that most mobile gadgets use. These work in a different way from the processors found in PCs, to increase the battery life of portable devices.

But what of Apple? Surely they already have a neat solution for integrating their iPhones, iPads and Macs? Sure, when you plug your iPhone into your Mac everything synchronises and you can do exactly the same thing if you plug your iPhone into a Windows PC. There is even an iCloud that will do the same job as Dropbox. In terms of ease of use then, Apple does seem to be the best option currently. But if the iPhone experience is so perfect, why are users “hacking” them to give more control over Apple’s operating system?

So what will make Windows 8 different? I downloaded Microsoft’s free evaluation (pre-Beta) version, which is available online, to find out. The actual installation and setting up of Windows 8 was straightforward and pretty quick. There are numerous new features in Windows 8 but the first change I noticed was start-up time. If you have ever compared a Mac starting up to a Windows machine, you will know that it is like comparing a Bugatti Veyron to a bicycle in a half-mile drag race. But amazingly, Windows 8 seems to have a drastically decreased start up time compared to its predecessors. It is still slower than OS Lion but Windows 8 certainly wins the ‘most improved’ award.

By far the most noticeable difference occurred when I clicked on the start button. Instead of the usual mundane menu appearing, a sea of green swept into view with various sizes of tiles containing apps. The tiles are fully customisable and the whole interface looks completely different to any other. There are the obvious apps like Internet Explorer and Tweet@rama for Twitter, but there are not many third party applications as of yet, due to the fact that the operating system has only recently been released for developers. You may think that Microsoft will have some amount of catching up to do to reach Apple’s 500,000 apps available. However, there is an app called BlueStacks that will allow any app from Android’s store to run on Windows 8, boosting Windows 8’s app count to 400,000; significantly evening the odds with Apple.

Overall, I was very impressed with Microsoft’s Windows 8. Nonetheless, as I sit in front of my laptop, I feel that it would be better suited to some sort of touch screen interface. That’s acceptable for tablets and mobile phones, but what about the laptop and desktop? They are not dead yet. I’m sure the next generation of these will also include touchscreens but until then I wouldn’t upgrade or convert. We must also bear in mind that Windows 8 is a work in progress.

So will Microsoft catch up with its competitors and reign supreme in the mobile market too? Let’s hope we find out by the time that the bicycle finishes the race…


Chris Jones

Image credit – Chris Jones