It always amuses me how passionate a reaction people can have over the release of a new operating system, and Microsoft Corp.’s recent unveiling of Windows 8 at its Build conference was no exception.

As Microsoft was in the midst to the keynote – complete with an Oprah moment that saw them give away every developer in attendance a free Samsung tablet loaded with Windows 8 developer preview– the live stream on Twitter was full of platitudes and punishment for the product. Some hailed it as the paradigm-changing future of computing, while others lambasted it for copying what Apple has already done.

Brian Jackson, Associate Editor, ITBusiness.ca
Brian Jackson, Associate Editor, ITBusiness.ca

The truth is that it’s still too early to really judge whether Windows 8 will be a success that sees Microsoft gain traction on devices beyond the desktop or a failure that users avoid like Vista – the developer’s preview is just a prototype. Determining which way it goes will count on Microsoft hurdling over a few challenges by the time Windows is ready for general release next year, combined with how technology improves and users’ thinking about tablets matures.

Where Apple Inc. won over consumers with the iPad by approaching tablets as a larger smartphone, Microsoft may win over business users by thinking of tablets as a more portable computer. The iPad shares the iOS operating system with the smaller-screen iPhone and iPod Touch, though developers can design their apps specifically to take advantage of the iPad’s larger screen space. Despite some scoffing at the iPad as a “supersized iPod touch” when it was released, the sales speak for themselves and people clearly like using the device.

But there’s no doubt the approach is limiting. Apple has chosen simplicity and a seamless user experience at the expense of some computing capability. For example, there is no way to view apps side by side in iOS, a task that many PC users take for granted. The iPad is often not a good form factor for trying to get work done – whether it be composing an office document or putting together a sophisticated multimedia presentation.

With Windows 8, Microsoft may be able to give users both the user-friendly experience of the Metro touch interface and the capability to run more complex apps as well. The interface will support split screen viewing, and the familiar desktop mode can be launched too. It’s easy to imagine using a Windows 8 tablet to consumer information while on the go, similar to an iPad, but then docking it with an external monitor and peripherals setup to get some work done at your desk.

If tablet users soon realize they are doing all their reading on their tablet, then switching to a workstation to do business, they may suffer multiple device fatigue and look for the all-in-one solution that Windows 8 can provide.

Still, the success of Windows 8 on tablets will depend much on Intel Corp., Microsoft’s main chip partner, improving the power needs of its higher-end processors. If Moore’s law continues and the “Core i” series of processors can be fit into a smaller package with awesome battery life by next year, Windows 8 is looking good. If more powerful tablets are bulky and die after a few hours’ use, then its not going to catch on.

Also tricky for Microsoft will be the handling of its legacy applications alongside newer, touch-friendly Metro applications. What applications should be redesigned for Metro? What applications should stick with the desktop interface?

The current back-and-forth between the Metro interface and the desktop app for certain tasks seems like a jarring user experience that won’t fly. Microsoft will need to think about how to make a more seamless transition, and avoid having the user feel like they are constantly switching between “new Windows” and “legacy Windows.”

We also know that lower-powered processors such as ARM won’t support the legacy Windows apps. How will these devices be marketed to avoid consumer confusion?

If Microsoft can jump these hurdles while developing its OS over the next year, Windows 8 should be a hit. If not, it could be Vista syndrome all over again.

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