Last week at All Things Digital’s D9 conference in California, Microsoft Windows and Windows Live Division president Steve Sinofsky introduced the next version of the Windows OS to the world. And what a coming-out party it was. The guest of honor was all dressed up in a brand new Metro-style GUI, putting to shame all those reports earlier this year (based on leaked screenshots of early builds) that this would be only a “minor update” of Windows 7.

Since that presentation, there have been countless analyses of what we saw, ranging from straight “just the facts” reporting to some pretty wild speculation, peppered with lots of opinions. One thing we know: Microsoft got everybody talking about Windows again, and for a company that many pundits had begun to label irrelevant, that’s a good thing.

This week and next, I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts in the wake of this debut of a whole new Windows – beginning with its name.

An OS by any other name …

Prior to this official unveiling, Microsoft has tried to keep a tight lid on all the details of the Windows release that Steve Ballmer called Microsoft’s “riskiest product bet.” Those within the company weren’t even calling it Windows 8, despite the widespread use of that moniker in the tech press.

In fact, it was interesting to me that Sinofsky, when pressed by Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg at D9, said “we’re just going to call it a code name”- although when Steve Ballmer called it Windows 8 at a developer’s conference in Japan last month, that prompted many reports that the name had been confirmed. Sinofsky has previously referred to it as “the Next Windows” or “Windows vNext.” During the demo, he called it “this build of Windows.”

All this makes one wonder if there is disagreement within the company about the name, or if they just haven’t made the final decision yet.

It’s obvious that the company has at least settled on Windows 8 as the official code name. A video of Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management for Windows User Experience that demonstrates the UI, is titled “Building Windows 8.”

Does it even matter? After all, a rose by any other name would smell the same – but Microsoft isn’t selling roses. They’re selling software in a market that is becoming increasingly competitive. In the marketing world, names matter a lot.

Marketing is an area in which Microsoft hasn’t always excelled – and it’s something that Apple does very well. The naming scheme for OS X (Tiger, Leopard, Lion) conjures up the image of something that’s sleek and fast and powerful.

On the other hand, Microsoft has been all over the map when it comes to naming Windows. First we had version numbers (1.0 through 3.11), then year numbers (95, 98, 2000), a couple of two-letter labels (NT, ME, XP), then Vista (which Microsoft probably would like to just delete from the timeline altogether), and finally, full circle back to version numbers again with Windows 7 (well, sort of. The actual version number is 6.1).

As an OS name, Windows 8 has some advantages: It’s short and sweet and simple; it clearly identifies this version as the successor to Windows 7 and, perhaps most important, it’s already firmly established in the public mind. Let’s just hope Microsoft doesn’t find itself behind the 8-ball with the new OS.

If Microsoft does decide to break away and go with a “real name” again, rather than a number, I hope they’ll get a good theme going like Apple has, and give us some continuity. Given their “all in” philosophy, maybe they should name future operating systems after types of clouds. Windows Cirrus, anyone?

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Does this really change everything?

Whatever its name ends up being, as Walt Mossberg noted during the demo, the new Windows looks very different from previous incarnations. From its v1.0 beginnings, Windows has been menu-centric. Although the look changed and got more refined over the years, most tasks were performed by clicking a menu, which opened up a list of selections. This works fine with a mouse or trackball, but on touchscreens, not so much – especially if the screen is small.

That’s one of the reasons Windows-based tablets never really caught on (along with the premium prices that the early tablet vendors put on them). It’s also the reason Windows Mobile was so frustrating for its users. Putting a desktop interface on a handheld device just didn’t work – at least, not well.

And that’s the reason Apple so often gets the credit for “changing everything” with the introduction of the iPhone and iPad. The Apple devices succeeded where others (including Apple’s own previous stab at the tablet market with the Newton) failed. That happened because they stopped trying to make a small device that worked like a desktop computer (and thus needed an input device such as a stylus to emulate the mouse) and designed iOS for a whole new way of doing things.

I read one commentary claiming that Windows 8 just “copycats” Apple. While that might be true in a very broad sense (it will have integrated touch support; it’s rumored that it will have an app store), that’s a bit like saying GM copied Ford because they started building cars with four wheels and a steering wheel in 1908, after Ford did it first in 1896.

If you watched the D9 demo, you know that Windows 8 looks nothing like either Mac OS X or iOS. The Apple products are still icon-based, whereas Windows 8 uses “live tiles” instead. At first glance, it might seem as if tiles are just big square icons that butt up more closely against each other – but the difference is in how the tiles behave, providing you with information without the need to open the program a tile represents.

In addition, tiles don’t only represent “apps.” A tile can also represent a particular website, a specific social networking contact, a location on the map, etc. You can pin tiles to your screen (we no longer seem to be calling it a “desktop”) and arrange them in groups for better organization.

This doesn’t copy Apple, but of course it’s not entirely new, either. Microsoft uses the live tile concept on Windows Phone 7, which was first introduced in February 2010 at the Mobile World Congress. The phone OS also draws on elements from the interface on the Zune music player.

But the basic look of the new Metro UI goes back further than that – it’s very familiar to fans of Windows Media Center. In fact, when I first saw the WMC edition of Windows XP, I said Microsoft should extend the pretty interface of the Media Center application to the whole OS. Who knew they were listening?

In addition to the WMC/Windows Phone 7 look and feel, Windows 8 includes some innovative elements that we haven’t seen before, such as the split keyboard that will make it easier to thumb-type on a tablet-sized device.

In the D9 demo Sinofsky’s co-presenter, Vice President Julie Larson-Green, said this is the biggest change to Windows since the switch from Windows 3.x to Windows 95. I would go even further. From the user experience point of view, this could almost rival the move from MS-DOS to Windows.

Does one design fit all?

While some are accusing Microsoft of copying Apple with Windows 8, others – including our own Jason Hiner – think they didn’t copy Apple enough. In his Windows 8 analysis titled One Thing Right and Two Things Wrong, he takes issue with Sinofsky’s stated “no compromise” approach and says Microsoft should have created a separate tablet OS as Apple did with iOS. He argues that because it didn’t work so well to put Windows 7, which was created for the desktop, on tablets, it won’t work to put the touch-friendly Windows 8 on the desktop.

I’m not so sure of that. Based on Sinofsky’s demo, Windows 8 will offer a lot of flexibility. On the desktop, it can be touch-centric. Or it can operate as a mouse-and-keyboard OS. Or it can combine the best of both of those worlds, allowing you to interact via touch for some tasks and via traditional input devices for others. The presentation made it clear that the taskbar and menus are still lurking in there, for those who just feel more comfortable with the “old way” or who need that capability due to the lack of a touchable monitor.

I think that was a good decision. Following the demo, I heard several people bemoan the fact that the “old house” (Windows 7 style appearance with the taskbar) hasn’t been done away with completely. Apparently they have never worked with real users in the real world. I have, and while some users happily embrace a new interface, many others want the option to reap the under-the-hood benefits of a new OS without a drastic change in its look and feel (hence the popularity of the “Windows Classic” theme). Giving both groups what they want is part of the “no compromise” stance.

Had Sinofsky asked me, I wouldn’t have called it that, though. When you build a product as with everything else in life, there are always some compromises. I’d have labeled it something like “full flexibility” – because that’s really what it’s about.

I want to be able to sit on the plane or a park bench and browse the Web, check my mail, or watch a video on my slate. I want to be able to go to a meeting and take handwritten notes. Then when I get to the hotel room and need to get serious work done, I want to be able to plug in a keyboard and mouse and get down to business – without having to bring along multiple devices. I want something that lets me both consume and create content, and does the two equally well. I want the best of both worlds.

Jason worries that in trying to do the job of both desktop and tablet, Windows 8 will do neither very well. That position makes sense if you assume that there will be only one “flavor” of Windows 8. But I’m guessing we’ll see several different editions, as we do with Windows 7. And I think the edition that’s designed to run on ARM devices will be leaner and meaner than the one that’s made for enterprise desktops – while still able to do much of what full-fledged Windows can do, if that’s what you need.

I think sometimes hard core techies forget how important it is, to ordinary users, to be able to run the programs with which they’re familiar. Microsoft’s assurance that everything that runs on Windows 7 will run on Windows 8 is a big deal to those people, and just might be the deciding factor when they’re faced with the decision of which tablet to buy.

I like my Android tablet a lot, but I sometimes get frustrated with its limitations. I ditched the iPad after a few months because its functionality was even more limited. I’m excited about the possibility of more continuity across my desktop, laptop and slate, without sacrificing usability or performance. Will Microsoft pull that off? I don’t know, but if they can, it could put Windows out front in both the desktop and tablet games.

Next Week:

Is there more to Windows 8 than just a pretty (inter)face? And what about the cloud?

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