Windows 8

You can have your cake, and eat it too, but only after it is fully baked. This is my one-sentence summary of the first day keynote sessions from Microsoft’s Build conference.

Build replaces the long-running Professional Developer Conference (PDC), with the most visible change being a ton of Metro-style branding: bold colours, strong typography, attention to detail. Elements which, if I’m completely honest, Windows developers have not been well known for. You’ll recognise the Metro design style if you’ve seen a rare Windows Phone 7 device in the wild.

Despite some poor sales numbers, the look and feel of Windows Phone 7 has been widely praised. Microsoft have taken this onboard, and applied the Metro look and feel to Windows 8 – bringing about the biggest change to the world’s most popular desktop operating system since Windows 95 shook up the Windows 3 design. The new face of Windows 8 is a touch-centric home screen populated with “tiles” instead of icons. Each tile is active and full of information. It feels clean and sparse, while at the same time being informative and information-rich. I’m not the only one (http://daringfireball.net/2011/09/metro) that likes this new interface and sees it as a geniune challenge to Apple on a tablet.

Windows 8 Start ScreenIf this gorgeous new start screen is your cake, what happens when you eat it? Hit the “Desktop” tile, and you get more cake: the familiar Windows desktop. A few elements have been refreshed, but otherwise it appears identical to Windows 7. The main difference is that hitting the Start button takes you back to the new start screen, rather than popping a menu.

From what I have seen, most (if not all) applications that run on Windows 7 will run perfectly fine on Windows 8 in this “desktop” mode. Of course these “legacy” applications are not designed to be operated by touch, so there is some genuine awkwardness when switching from the Metro aplications and layout to (for example) Skype or Outlook in desktop mode. However, the truth is that Windows 8 can present both a fantastic finger-centric tablet mode and a mouse/keyboard centric desktop mode in the same package. And both work extremely well. Certainly well enough that we can cope with using standard Windows applications until they are ported and redesigned for the new Metro look.

Hardware

I sit here typing this on a Samsung Series 7 Slate device. One of around 5,000 devices handed out to all attendess of Build. The device comes pre-loaded with a “Developer Preview” verison of Windows 8. Speakers have been at pains to point out – frequently and forcefully – that this developer preview is not ready for prime-time. It’s not even complete enough to earn the Beta label. When will it be ready? Steven Sinofsky (President of Microsoft’s Windows division), earned one of the loudest rounds of applause for his statement that the release date will be driven by quality, not deadline.

The device is certainly up to snuff for developers, sporting a quad-core Intel processor, plenty of RAM, and a solid state drive. Size and weight wise, it’s certainly no iPad, but the story is that we’ll see more iPad-like form-factors when Windows 8 is running on low power ARM chips, as opposed to the hot and heavy Intel i5. Having said that, I’m getting a good 4-5 hours of battery from this device, which is acceptable.

The Windows 8 build on this device works. Barely. It’s rough around the edges and not something I’d give my Mother, but it’s good enough for me to use on a day-to-day basis. The best thing is that the Developer Preview build comes with Visual Studio, meaning we can develop applications for Windows 8 right on the device. Think about that for a moment: a full-featured, modern tablet device that is powerful enough to run Visual Studio 2011, Microsoft Office, and probably anything else you can throw at it.

Developers Developers Developers

From a developer (and user) perspective, I came to Build expecting to be disappointed in at least some way. There were rumours of the demise of development languages, or of developers being forced to adopt HTML and Javascript as a platform for Windows applications. There was the concern that the design of Windows simply wouldn’t work on a tablet.

I’m still trying to process what we were told instead: develop in whatever language you are comfortable with. We can use the traditional C++, c# or Visual Basic languages, and now HTML/Javascript. The new Windows Runtime (aka WinRT) replaces Win32, and is designed to expose its features in a language agnostic way. This means as features and functions are added to WinRT, they will be available to developers regardless of which language they are developing in. Microsoft are staying true to their developer-first ethos: all supported languages are first-class citizens in WinRT land.

But developers don’t get away scott free: similar to Windows Phone (and Apple’s iPhone and iPad), Microsoft is requiring a more thorough attention to detail from developers. Developers get design templates that help them develop good-looking apps from the outset, and all new Metro-style apps will be vetted by Microsoft for bugs and security compliance before being allowed into the Windows Store.

The development tools have been updated with the new release of Visual Studio 2011. Most changes are incremental, but the package gets major updates to web development and 3D game features. In both cases developers get incredibly deep debugging features. Effectively we can look at the outcome of our development work, then easily drill back through the running software to see the code that created the element we are viewing – whether that be a pixel on a 3D game screen or an element on a web page. Not an entirely new feature, but the way it has been implemented makes our bug-finding easier than ever before.

Let them eat cake!

So overall, this is a solid, impressive release from Microsoft. Let’s see a Metro-fied desktop and some polish before we reach a definitive conclusion, but for now I come away hugely impressed.

Yes, the Windows 8 cake is certainly not yet baked, but the recipe looks delicious, and the cooking smell coming out of the giant Redmond oven is intoxicating.

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