If Apple's Lion OS X dipped its toes into the tablet-as-primary-computer pool, then Microsoft's Windows 8 just dove in headfirst. Though Lion added several touch-based ideas to the Apple operating system, Windows 8 is a touch-based operating system, totally created and optimized for use without a mouse or keyboard.
Everything about Microsoft's leap from Windows 7 to Windows 8 is huge, daring and bold. It has put all of its eggs in the tablet-is-the-future basket, making Lion's so-called "iOSification" of its desktop OS seems cautious and half-hearted in comparison.
When Microsoft unveiled Windows 8 to developers in Anaheim on Tuesday, it showed off a radical overhaul of its operating system that was designed primarily for use on tablets and PCs with touchscreen monitors. According to Microsoft, Windows 8 users on PCs will be able to switch seamlessly between two views: a classic "Desktop View," which looks much like the current Windows 7 start-bar-and-icons homescreen, and the new "Metro View," which looks like a larger, more fleshed-out Windows Phone interface, only for tablets, and emphasizing screens and boxes that can be slid, expanded, zoomed on and generally controlled by finger gestures.
Microsoft appears to be pitching this tablet-friendly "Metro View" as the primary interface for the new Windows, with the "Desktop View" left behind to mollify those who don't take to the changes right away. At the Build Conference keynote where Windows 8 was unveiled, it was almost 90 minutes before we were shown a screenshot of Windows 8 running "Desktop View." All of the emphasis -- and all of the excitement -- is surrounding "Metro View" and the slide-glide-and-zoom of the radical new Windows look.
The Metro View of Windows 8 is the Windows of the future -- it was displayed on Samsung tablets, desktop PCs, slates, laptops and everything in between at the Build Conference. When tablets overtake desktop PCs (a Fujitsu study puts that shift in the 2016 range), Windows slates (and smartphones, and PCs...) will almost certainly be running an operating system that resembles Metro. Microsoft has already begun phasing in this look with its Windows Phone devices, whose user interface resembles the Metro design. Perhaps soon we'll see all kinds of devices running a unified version of Windows.
Microsoft's Vista operating system, which went up for sale in 2007, was another radical overhaul of Windows that prompted fierce reactions from critics. The new look of Windows 8 is similar to Vista in that it is splitting its potential users into very defined (and very vocal) camps.
One reason for the outrage is this: It was natural that Mac's Lion software inched toward a more slate-friendly interface, given that Apple has shipped 75 percent of the world's tablets in 2011. Microsoft, on the other hand, is currently shipping 0 percent of tablets worldwide, making the tabletification of Windows so surprising and upsetting for some. Windows slates are non-players on the market right now, so why rush in with the tablet software before they know whether or not their tablets can sell alongside the iPad? And who the heck owns a touchscreen PC, anyway?
Regardless of sales figures, Microsoft has readied its operating system for the long haul. Apple may have the tablet market share, but what it does not have is an operating system that is prepared to be the OS of choice for consumers who want to use a tablet or touchscreen PC as their primary computing device. iOS is too lightweight, and Lion is still too dependent on the mouse-and-keyboard. So, where Apple has integrated several key features of iOS -- pinch-to-zoom, the "iPhone/iPad view" of Launchpad, several multitouch gestures -- into Lion, Microsoft has created what is an entirely new, tablet-and-PC-friendly operating system for Windows 8. Using Lion as a touch-only operating system seems unlikely, if not impossible, while Windows 8 has been designed from the ground up for just such an experience.
In short, Microsoft has sprinted ahead of Apple in its readiness for the desktop apocalypse: Whenever tablets and touchscreen PCs take over, Microsoft will be locked, stocked and prepared.
Is Microsoft winning a race that doesn't even exist yet? Probably. Again, if Fujitsu is correct, it will be 2016 before tablets overtake desktops, at which point Windows 8 will already have been replaced by one or two new Windows editions. And what's more, Windows 8 is not expected to be ready for release to the public and big business until late 2012, by which time Apple could have already merged iOS and the Mac OS (according to one analyst's prediction), thereby erasing whatever time advantage Microsoft may have gained with its flashy announcement of the Windows 8 Developer's beta.
Still, for now, Microsoft is out in front, ahead of the curve. Windows 8 is kind of like a hipster operating system at that point: It was optimized for tablet-as-primary-PC use before the trend emerged. But, again, whenever that grand unification of smartphone, tablet and desktop comes, Windows 8 has taken more steps in that direction than Apple's Lion--despite its elegant integrations of some iOS features.