updated 01:15 pm EDT, Tue September 13, 2011
Full Windows 8 UI and app store shown off
Microsoft at its Build conference showed off a Developer Preview with a much more complete view of Windows 8's interface than it showed in June. The new OS is built to uniquely take advantage of multitasking and has a new option for "dockable" apps: every Windows 8-native app has both a full-size and docked mode that lets them run side-by-side, such a social networking app next to a video. In full touch mode, users can swipe in from the right to get to the Start menu or similar core tasks and switch apps from the left.
The Start menu itself is organized into user-made groups and can use multi-touch to zoom out for a wider view. Microsoft also addressed a common complaint of Windows 7 tablets with a truly touch-native control panel and settings for individual apps that appear without interrupting whatever's taking place. A lock screen replicates some of Windows Phone's interface with notifications but a more advanced login process.
Microsoft envisions a "web of apps" where software has many more connections than it does now. Apps can make their content available to search or use, such as when picking photos, and can create "charms" for special uses, such as a sharing charm to take content from the web and post it through the app.
Core, under-the-hood settings have improved. Some account settings and media syncs through SkyDrive. Tablets and other devices designed to be always on have much more efficient standby and low-power states, particularly on ARM processors. Memory use is also much more efficient: a Windows 7 install that uses 404MB of memory uses just 281MB and can actually run faster on aging hardware. UEFI fast boot lets PCs with newer firmware boot up within a matter of seconds.
Microsoft also detailed some of how the Windows Store, its parallel to the Mac App Store, will work. Apps will need certification, but unlike the Apple store or the current Windows Phone Marketplace, Microsoft will have a detailed view of where an app is in the approval process and check against requirements. Both legacy Win32 apps and native Windows 8 apps will be sold, Microsoft said. In a dig at Apple, it also noted that it wouldn't require a change in licensing systems.
The Developer Preview should be available late Tuesday at the Dev Center for registered developers. Public access hasn't been outlined but is widely rumored to be ready for CES in January. Developers at Build are getting a Samsung Slate PC Series 7 with the preview already installed to help them test apps on a touch-native device.
All of the changes are consciously designed to keep the PC relevant in the tablet era. Microsoft is considered the pioneer of tablet PCs but was almost immediately dwarfed by Apple, which sold more iPads in its first nine months than all Windows tablet PCs to that date. Executives at Microsoft have insisted that PCs would carry on but have done so even as HP considers abandoning home PCs and Acer has collapsed in an overall flat or declining market.