With Windows 8, Microsoft Learns From the Mobile Revolution

The software world is becoming an interconnected Web of services tied together within the cloud. Applications used to be stand-alone objects that did not communicate with each other and were designed to do one thing and do it well.

Then came the mobile revolution. And the cloud.

More than anything Microsoft has ever produced, Windows 8 is informed by the lessons of the mobile generation. It is app centric, gesture based and tied to the cloud. Apps are no longer static beings and user identity becomes an important aspect of the experience. Many people have been waiting for Microsoft to "get it" when it comes to mobile development. With Windows 8, Microsoft may have finally figured it out.

Windows: Still Something to Like

From a consumer perspective there is a lot to like about Windows 8. The platform is a marriage of PC and mobile operating systems and has a sleek new user interface that is more reminiscent of mobile operating systems than of the traditional Windows interface. Will Microsoft be able to make a dent in the tablet market with Windows 8? How will it fare with traditional PC users and enterprises? These are questions that remain to be answered. Microsoft took its time in rolling out Windows 8 and the full launch is not expected until later in the summer. Will it be too late for Microsoft to make a dent in the tablet market? Can it maintain its hold on the PC industry with this new mobile centric approach?

From a tablet perspective, it is hard to gauge how successful Microsoft will be with Windows 8. By the time the first Windows 8 slate arrives in stores, there will be already have been three different versions of the iPad released with another one likely right around the corner. If Windows 8 tablets do not come until the end of the third quarter beginning of the fourth this year, Google and Android have a lot of time to make up ground against Apple and cement its position in the market.

As far as the PC industry goes, the main capability of Windows 8 will be to seamlessly integrate into the Windows ecosystem. Some users are still working with Vista or XP. Will apps that come from those older platforms be able to transfer to Windows 8 if a consumer or enterprise decides to upgrade? Some of the major PC manufacturers are tied so closely to Microsoft that they will not have a choice but to make whatever Redmond tells them. A mobile-centric platform may not be an ideal environment for a PC and users may revolt. Yet, unless Windows 8 is too confusing for users to figure out, Microsoft's lead in the PC market is safe from the likes of Apple and Linux.

Cloud: Front and Center

When Microsoft released its Windows 7 marketing blitz, the message was, "to the cloud!" Whether the average user understood what that meant or not is up for debate but the lessons learned in Windows 7 have been optimized in Windows 8. Everything associated with Windows 8 starts with the cloud and how it creates connections between applications, people and services.

The cloud experience starts when the device is turned on. Users can connect their Microsoft accounts to cloud and access almost anything found on the Web or locally. That includes games, photos, files, apps as well as social services like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The cloud cuts across boundaries and devices. For instance, I can save a document on one computer and pick it up and use it from another or on a Windows 8 tablet.

This is not a new concept. By necessity, mobile devices have most of their functionality tied to the cloud as opposed to local processors and storage. What is different is that Microsoft is now tying that basic mobile concept to the PC. To a certain extent it is a play out of Google's Android and Chrome playbook. Outside of search, Google long ago figured that its future would be in mobile, Web-based solutions tied to a third-the cloud. This is especially prevalent in Google's enterprise apps services. As the enterprise is Microsoft's bread and butter, it recognizes that business must be fully ready to be mobile and connected to the same material at any time.

The cloud allows Windows 8 to start faster, run longer and be more connected because much of the processor intensive computing has been taken off the device itself. Microsoft also claims that the cloud makes the experience (and your data) more secure but that is a different discussion that carries much debate within the developer ecosystem.

Apps: No Longer Individual Islands

Microsoft touts its cloud connectivity through its new mail, calendar, photos, people and messaging apps. That includes Microsoft Skydrive that connects a Microsoft account from any device.

For the first time, Windows is an app centric model. That may seem like a weird statement but consider that much of what Windows did before was built on suites and services. Yes, there were applications involved but it was more about being platform-centric, "this is what you can do with Windows." The shift towards a mobile-like app ecosystem makes the approach, "these are the apps that can make your life better with Windows."

Applications no longer come in CD form. The Windows Store is a cloud-based repository of apps that can be downloaded on demand. The app store model is inherent with the mobile and cloud revolutions and Microsoft is finally moving to it as the de facto avenue for software dissemination.

Gestures: Marrying the PC to Mobile

Windows 8 is fully gesture based, trying to replicate the PC mouse and click world with swipes and taps. For instance, a tap on Windows 8 is the equivalent of a left mouse click on a PC, slide to drag is the same as click, hold and move. Application commands can be made from the top and bottom corners of the device.

There are several Android task launcher applications that allow users to tap or slide from the edge of a device to start a specific application. The BlackBerry PlayBook was one of the first devices to initiate actions and apps by being tapping on the fringes of a device.

As for input, a keyboard can be set up to a Windows 8 device with Bluetooth or USB or it can be fully touch based. For larger devices, Microsoft has split the keyboard into right and left hand functions. Users will understand the gesture-based commands from the time they have spent with capacitive screen smartphones and tablets.