Tech Talk: Windows open to change

MICROSOFT has lifted the lid on its next version of Windows – the one it hopes all of us will migrate towards when it reaches the shops some time next year. But in an age of smartphones and tablets, how relevant is an operating system whose roots go back a quarter of a century?

Back in the mid-90s, the release of Windows 95 was a rock ‘n’ roll event:co-ordinated concerts across the globe to a soundtrack of Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones. But successive launches have become progressively more muted, and many commercial users especially have still not upgraded from the 10- year-old Windows XP.

Will the next incarnation persuade us finally to install replacement Windows? Certainly, if you judge by appearances the new version will catch your eye, sporting a colourful new home screen known by its developers as Metro.

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Users of Windows Phones, few as they are, will recognise it immediately, but to PC, laptop and tablet users it’s a new world entirely.

The likeness to phones is deliberate – the idea being to apply the same look and feel to all Windows devices, whether controlled by keyboard, mouse or finger. Indeed, this may be the last version of Windows not to use a touch screen exclusively.

The Windows 8 home screen comprises a grid of tiles which, when you touch or click them, launch either full programmes or smartphone-style apps. Microsoft has clearly taken a cue from Apple and Android devices here, but actually it’s not very far removed from the original 1990s vision of Windows, whose desktop consisted of little icons grouped within smaller windows. It’s as if computing has come full circle.

The difference here is that unlike the icons, the new tiles contain live information – so you can see your share prices or the weather forecast as soon as you log on. In fact, you can log on from any computer or device running Windows 8 and see the same information, customised as you like it.

Your main programs will run as before on the new system, Microsoft promises (though they said that about the miserable Windows Vista, too) but there will be more emphasis on selling software through an online store, like the one popularised by Apple. Some confusion remains, however, about whether these will run on all types of computer.

Beyond the start screen, the changes are fewer and further between, and Windows 7 users will be on familiar territory. That may make it less of an interesting proposition for upgraders, but Microsoft’s focus will be on shifting newly-built devices and PCs.

Neither release dates nor prices have been announced yet, but in the meantime, if you are sufficiently technically inclined, you can download a free preview version from Microsoft.