On a sunny Wednesday afternoon at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona, Microsoft execs offered another preview of Windows 8, the redesigned, touch-friendly, Metro-fied operating system that the company plans to release later in 2012. They also announced that a Consumer Preview -- a fancy phrase for "Beta Version" -- was now available for everyday users to try out on their home machines, as a way for PC owners to get acclimated beforehand to the giant sea change coming to their computers later this year.
The last time we saw something new from Windows 8 was way back in September, when the Red Sox were still in playoff contention and when Microsoft released a Developer's Preview of Windows 8, available for potential app designers to download, tinker with, and hopefully write some programs for. Five months and dozens of breathless posts detailing the process on the official Building Windows 8 blog later, the trademark "Metro" look remains the same -- big, colorful tiles that the user can swipe and touch, similar to the way one would on a Windows Phone device -- as does Microsoft's emphasis on cross-platform compatibility: Windows 8 works just as well on a desktop as it does on a tablet, or an all-in-one computer, or a laptop, we were told again and again.
So what, exactly, is new? What has changed since our last feature article about Windows 8, which details the major features, applications and design updates from Windows 7 to Windows 8?
First, and arguably most importantly, Microsoft revealed a wide commitment to the Cloud. Upon start-up, Windows 8 users will have the option to log-in through the cloud using a Windows Live ID: This makes their email, calendar, contacts and anything they've stored on SkyDrive available to them on any machine they sign into and also automatically syncs all of that stuff across all of their devices. Windows PCs still dominate the market in a way that Windows Phones and Windows tablets do not; syncing email and contacts and the like from your primary device -- statistically, probably a Windows PC -- could be a selling point and a huge boon for Microsoft's tablet and smartphone business in the future.
Speaking of the great cloud: We also got an in-depth look at the Windows App Store -- er, Windows Store with apps -- in the Consumer Preview. Just like on OS X, you'll be able to download apps from both Microsoft and third-party developers; these apps, which will range from games to utilities to productivity software -- can likewise be synced across all of your devices. In the CP of Windows 8, only free apps will be available for download, as paid apps will likely arrive with the official release later in the year. Microsoft is actively trying to entice developers to program Metro-style apps for Windows 8 to fill out this Store of Apps, having offered cash prizes and free Samsung tablets to developers in the past.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer has been the subject of mockery, ridicule, and even a practical joke claiming that its users were mentally deficient. Internet Explorer 10 has been totally redesigned as a full-screen Metro application for Windows 8, and its "Platform Preview 5" ships with the Consumer Preview you can download today. Like much of Windows 8, IE10 looks more like a mobile application than a desktop app, again blurring the boundaries between smartphone, tablet, and desktop computer.
Finally, Microsoft says it has made a number of usability changes, making both touch and mouse-and-keyboard use easier and more accurate. According to Engadget, President of the Windows Division Steven Sinofsky said that over 100,000 changes to Windows 8 have occurred between the Developer's Preview in September 2011 and the Consumer Preview announced on Wednesday, and many of these are likely small tweaks aimed at refining the overall experience of using Windows 8.
That said: This is still a Beta version, so it's likely there are still undiscovered kinks and flaws that still need to be corrected before the official release. The brave and the curious, however, can download the Consumer Preview from the Microsoft website here and are encouraged to report all such bugs to Microsoft.
And if you just want to look but not touch? Well, here's a "Product Demo" of Windows 8 from Microsoft:
And here are all the big, big changes coming to Windows 8 soon, from our September slideshow on the subject: