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High Windows

Contrary to popular belief, Microsoft's latest operating system might just help usher in a new computer age

Author Mark McClusky

ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN STAUFFER

IN RECENT YEARS, the difference between Apple and Microsoft has been as stark as the contrasts between the companies’ bosses. Steve Jobs was the cool face of an outfit that released a stream of blockbuster products via slickly staged announcements. Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer was the shouting sales guy, sweating through his shirt and exhorting the crowd to scream with him. Along the way, Apple passed Microsoft to become the most valuable company in the world.

All the hip kids have been focused on what’s happening in Cupertino, Mountain View and Menlo Park, as Apple, Google and Facebook have become the darlings of the tech world. Meanwhile, up in Washington State, Microsoft has plodded along, a seeming has-been with no buzz, no personality and no new ideas. Except, this isn’t strictly true. Right now, Microsoft is reemerging as the most interesting company in technology.

How did that happen?

Oddly, given Microsoft’s long history of engineering dominance, it started with a group of user interface designers in 2009. The team was called together to find a way to spruce up the company’s Windows Mobile product, which was getting killed by the iPhone and Android handsets. They came up with an interface that largely eschewed icons in favor of a clean, typographically driven grid of tiles. The interface was named Metro, and it quickly morphed from an attempt to reboot the smartphone business into something much bigger.

This month Microsoft releases the latest version of its core product—the Windows 8 operating system—with an interface based on the Metro design. For a company that has spent decades protecting the cash cow that is windows, this represents a huge departure. The new OS could, in fact, usher in the most significant shift in how we use computers since Apple launched the Macintosh and its graphical user interface in 1984.

For almost three decades, the paradigm has been files and folders, and a mouse to drag them around. Windows 8 reimagines that, employing Metro’s "live tiles" to put information about you and your life directly in front of you, in real time. When you get an email, the subject line appears on a tile. Your friends’ social media updates are gathered by a People app into an integrated view of their activities, whether they’re on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

I’ve been using preview versions of Windows 8, and I’ve been impressed by the intuitive thinking that underlies it. There’s an elegance, an attention to detail that seems, well, Apple-esque. For instance, all the core applications communicate seamlessly with one another. If I’m on a Web page I want to share with someone, a Share link connects to my email account, or to Facebook and Twitter.

Windows traditionally has been about having myriad ways to accomplish a task. Windows 8 aims to provide a single way to do all the things that are most important to users. Most encouraging, Microsoft seems to have finally given up on the idea that the desktop PC is the sole hub of everyone’s computing life. The company recently announced a new tablet, Surface, that looks to give Apple’s iPad a run for its money.

Microsoft is taking a huge gamble here, particularly as it’s doubling down in an area where it has lagged horribly behind its rivals: non-PC devices. The old gibe is that the company is always late to the party, and only manages to compete because of Windows’ massive market domination. But something feels different this time. Perhaps Microsoft’s infamous bureaucracy has stepped aside to let some of the talented people in Redmond push out solutions that are new, and necessary. And it all goes back to what we believe a personal computer is and what it’s supposed to do.

Certainly, most of us are using desktop machines less and less, and mobile devices more and more. Microsoft has gone further than anyone yet to imagine an operating system for the post-desktop world. And since Windows 8 will offer the same interface across all platforms—desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones—it has the potential to blur, or even eradicate, the distinctions among these devices. If that doesn’t get the tech bloggers salivating, nothing will.

Wired special projects editor MARK MCCLUSKY just hopes that Windows 8 will run on his old homemade PC.

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