A first hands-on look at the just-released Developer Preview of Windows 8 (which became available on Tuesday night at the Windows Dev Center site) reveals an operating system poised halfway between yesterday's desktop and tomorrow's touch-screen interface. I installed it on a PC, but the OS seems built more for tablets and mobile devices than traditional computers.
Overall, the experience is aesthetically appealing, but when run on a PC, Windows 8 feels to a certain extent like two different operating systems bolted together - one for mobile and one for traditional computers.
Riding on the Metro
You boot into the main interface, called Metro, which looks remarkably like Windows Phone 7 - it is composed of big colourful tiles, each of which represents an app. Those tiles practically invite you to tap them, which is somewhat disconcerting on a traditional computer, because you need to click them, not touch them.
It's horizontally oriented, with tiles that stretch off the right edge - you feel yourself wanting to swipe to see what's there, but on a non-touch desktop, that's not possible. Instead, you use a bar across the bottom of the screen that you can drag with your mouse or whose navigational arrows you can click.
Many of those tiles, as on Windows Phone 7, serve double-duty, functioning both as icons to run apps and as displays for constantly changing information. For example, the Weather tile shows you the current weather and weather forecast, the Stocks tile shows you the current state of the stock market and stocks you've chosen to follow, the News app shows you news you've chosen to follow and so on.
Microsoft has built plenty of apps for its new interface: games, several social networking apps for Twitter and Facebook, a location-based app called NearMe and more. The apps themselves work more like tablet- or phone-based apps than PC-based apps, because they run full screen and without the usual Windows menu. The tiles' size can't be changed, and they can't be shrunk. Switching from one to the other is somewhat kludgy; the only way I could do it was by using the old Windows standby Alt-Tab.
Metro is customisable via the Control Panel tile. You can customise the lock screen, select which apps you want to appear, control app behavior (such as allowing apps to use your location) and more.
Finding the desktop
So where's the desktop in all this? It's just another app on the main screen, and not especially visually noteworthy at that, because its tile doesn't sport a big picture on it as do most of the other Windows 8 apps. It just shows a representation of the desktop wallpaper (a bare blue skyscape) with the word "Desktop" sitting in the lower left corner. Visually, it practically says, "Ignore me please."
Click it and you'll visit familiar ground, the main Windows desktop, which looks and works very much like Windows 7, with the familiar taskbar across the bottom, Notification Panel on the bottom right of the taskbar - all as usual. At first, it seems to works just like Windows 7, including taskbar thumbnails.
When you probe a little, though, you'll find some changes. The Start button works completely differently than in past versions of Windows. Click it, and rather than being presented with the usual menu of recently run applications - a search box, navigation to folders, Control Panel and so on - you instead get sent right back to the main Windows screen, the one that's full of tiles.
If you instead point your mouse - without clicking - to the leftmost bottom corner of the Desktop, a menu pops up with several options: one for search, one for changing settings, one named Share (whose only purpose appears to be to share a screenshot using a Windows 8 social networking app called Socialite), and a Devices button apparently designed for printing, playing games and sending content to others, but that doesn't work in this version of Windows 8.
When you click any of these options, a panel slides into place on the right side of the screen that lets you make any choices you need to in order to perform the selected task. Click on Search, for example, and the right-hand panel shows a search box, along with a variety of locations where you can search.
Some of the more familiar Windows applications have been updated. Windows Explorer now sports a ribbon interface, which is a great improvement over its previous version. Many features, which previously might have been hidden or hard to navigate to, are now easily accessible via five main tabs: File, Home, Share, View, and Manage. Internet Explorer is up to version 10, which on first glance looks and works much like Internet Explorer 9. Run it and you'll be on familiar ground, with the usual menu-less, tabbed interface. It supports CSS 3, HTML 5 and Flash.
Is it two interfaces or one?
The Metro interface and the traditional Windows desktop are so separate from one another that the overall feel of Windows 8 is of two uneasily co-existing interfaces, rather than a well-blended whole. For example, Metro apps run full screen only - like tablet and smartphone apps - and lack menus, while traditional applications on the desktop include menus, let you minimize and shrink them, and work just like those for Windows 7, Windows Vista and other earlier versions of Windows.
More confusing still is that Metro apps don't show up on the Windows desktop, and although desktop apps appear in Metro, they're not easy to find - you need to scroll all the way over to the right to see them. (Internet Explorer is an exception, and shows up prominently in both places.) That only reinforces the feeling that these are two separate interfaces, not one.
Because most of the changes in Windows 8 have to do with Metro and Metro apps, which are consumer-oriented rather than business-focused, it's not clear what's in Windows 8 for enterprises. Businesses will almost certainly want to use the traditional desktop rather than Metro, and nothing in the desktop at this point seems to offer them much of note. Upgrading from Windows 7 or Windows Vista to Windows 8, at least based on this first look, could become a significant undertaking for businesses because of the Metro interface, with as yet no clear benefits.
According to Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows division, this version of the operating system is a "bold re-imagination" of Windows. It is certainly different. Of course, at this point, Windows 8 isn't even beta; it's still only a developer preview - future versions may well blend Metro and the desktop more seamlessly.
These are only my first impressions; we will publish a more in-depth review of Windows 8 within the next few days. So stay tuned.