Windows 8 Goes Far Beyond The Typical Operating-System Update

Nov. 20, 2012
Love or hate it, Windows 8 has arrived and will have a major impact on a wide range of computing platforms, from the desktop to embedded devices.

Love or hate it, Windows 8 has arrived and will have a major impact on a wide range of computing platforms, from the desktop to embedded devices. It was a massive undertaking because it’s not just an operating system. It’s an environment that incorporates major components such as Internet Explorer.

It needs to be fast, secure, and power efficient while providing a good user experience, functionality that programmers can exploit, and features that network managers and CIOs can live with when hundreds or thousands of machines come into play.

It’s going to take some time to see where Windows 8 has succeeded, where it dominates, and what misses arise, but it will have a significant effect on the computing industry. It’s also an overall improvement over Windows 7, which has been successful in the marketplace too.

The Windows 8 user interface is more touch friendly. It likely will be of use to embedded developers, especially those creating kiosk applications (Fig. 1). It’s also one of those aspects of Windows 8 that garners kudos and catcalls, depending on the user’s reaction to the interface.

1. Windows 8 greets users with a new layout changing how users interact with the system. It is designed to be more interactive and touch friendly.

The new user interface is likely to feel better to those who haven’t used Windows before. Unfortunately, the operating system’s popularity could work against itself, especially in the business environment where rote beats features.

The Windows desktop remains, but it’s hidden behind the tiled start screen. Even the Start button has been removed from the Windows desktop, although dozens of free and paid applications provide a replacement for those of us who depend upon it. Some keyboard jockeys may prefer those apps to the new complement of available accelerator keystrokes.

Windows 8 Hardware

One major driving force behind the changes in Windows 8 was the touch interface popularized by smart phones and tablets. That isn’t to say that Windows has been devoid of touch support in the past. In fact, all-in-one PCs with touch interfaces have been around for years with varying levels of success, primarily due to the cobbled user interface support, from virtual keyboards to scroll control.

The problem in the past was spotty support from the hardware, operating system, and applications. Some applications took advantage of the interface features, but most did not. This changes with Windows 8 because of tablets (see “Tablet Tsunami: iPad mini, Surface, And Others”).

Microsoft has deviated from its usual policy of providing just software to deliver the Microsoft Surface tablet (Fig. 2). The company still has a lot of hardware partners, and many are providing tablets as well. For example, Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yogo 13 acts like a tablet or a laptop, depending on how you fold it (Fig. 3).

2. Microsoft delivers Windows on its own hardware. The Surface tablet can also work with a keyboard that doubles as the screen cover.
3. Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga 13 can stand on its own, fold into a tablet, or open into a laptop running Windows 8.

One thing that is less apparent with regard to hardware is Windows 8 support for UEFI and secure boot (see “Bye Bye BIOS. Hello UEFI”). Encrypted hard drives aren’t much use if the operating system has been hacked, and secure boot can prevent these problems. Windows 8 is designed to be even more secure than its predecessor, but it has to start with a secure boot process.

Changing The User Interface

Turn on a Windows 8 machine, and you’re greeted with the new start screen. It is full of tiles that can be animated. Shades of the new interface have been available in the past, but those features weren’t front and center. It’s possible to bypass the start screen on PCs, but that’s not what Microsoft wants.

In theory, the new approach will make things easier for the user. It’s designed to take advantage of the touch interfaces available on many but not all of the platforms running Windows 8. The tiles are large enough to be easily pressed by a finger, even on a small smart-phone screen. Swiping with a finger on a touchscreen exposes more tiles.

Applications normally will run full screen, which makes sense with smart phones and most tablets. Screen real estate on a PC display usually isn’t at a premium, though, and multiple screens are becoming more common. Windows 8 addresses both with the more familiar Windows desktop.

One big change with the desktop is the lack of a Start button. Getting back to the start screen with a non-touch mouse input is a little less intuitive. Move the mouse cursor to the lower right edge to bring up a panel with a Start icon. Click the icon, and the start page is presented.

There already are a dozen replacement programs in case you really need the Start button. It’s one way to make hardcore Windows users happy when they migrate to Windows 8.

Books will be written on how to use Windows 8 and what’s different from prior Windows versions. The start page and the way the desktop works are just two of the many changes that have been made.

For example, backups are now tied to libraries. Libraries aren’t quite virtual folders, but they are a way to collect information. They can be synchronized with a backup location that’s updated in real time. Another change for users is Microsoft’s app store (Fig. 4). The approach was popularized by Apple and the iPhone, but now it’s ubiquitous.

4. The Windows app store starts by touching or clicking a tile on the start page. The store presentation is based on the new Windows 8 interface.

Developers need to take all this into account when creating and distributing applications. There are new application programming interfaces (APIs) to deal with.

Arming Windows 8

Windows used to run on a variety of platforms, but this changed over time. Windows 7 and most of its predecessors only ran on x86 processors. Arm processors have been dominating the smartphone and tablet space, and Microsoft is taking aim at that market.

To be fair, Windows tablets have been around for ages, but their success has been limited to niche markets where applications can be customized for the hardware. This is changing as tablets move into the mainstream and Windows 8 provides more than just basic hardware support.

Enter Windows RT. This is Windows 8 for Arm processors. It targets platforms where Arm processors currently dominate—tablets and smart phones. Windows RT is not a second cousin like Windows CE and its successors. It has the same APIs, so native applications can be recompiled to target either platform.

Windows RT opens the door to Arm platforms, though it also has the potential for confusion in the consumer market where x86 tablets running Windows 8 and Arm tablets running Windows RT will be displayed side by side. They will look the same and run many of the same applications, at least from the user’s perspective.

Windows 8 tablets may run many native applications that run on a Windows PC, but the Windows RT tablet will not. On the other hand, managed applications using Microsoft’s Common Language Runtime (CLR) will likely run on both platforms.

Programming Windows 8

Native x86 applications from prior Windows incarnations are likely to run on Windows 8, but updates are probably already available or in the works for most popular applications. Applications that take advantage of the new user interface features require more work, especially when they may target more than one Windows platform.

Dealing with changes between a multiscreen PC and a small tablet are not easy when done correctly. The advantage is that Windows 8 provides many of the tools and facilities that will make this job easier.

Developers will need to consider everything from new security models and mechanisms to application delivery methodologies. Luckily, Windows 8 ran through a long beta period, and developers had early access to the new features.

One advantage of moving to the new programming environment is the modularity and security provided by Windows 8. It addresses many of the problems that arose from the venerable Win32 environment. The Windows Software Development Kit (SDK) for Windows 8 is available from the Windows Dev Center.

There is also a shift towards standards like HTML5 and Javascript. Internet Explorer is part of Windows 8, and it has seen significant enhancements as well.

Microsoft had to overcome a very large number of problems, issues, and tradeoffs with the creation of Windows 8. It may not have delivered a perfect solution, and there are those who will argue about implementation details from APIs to user interface icons. What cannot be denied is that the system is a massive undertaking that has been successfully delivered on a wide range of platforms. The logistics alone is an impressive feat.

To some, Windows 8 is just the next in a progression of operating-system releases. This is true, but Windows 8 is much more—and not just on the Surface or the user interface.


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