Windows 8, let me guess, that'll be the follow-up to Windows 7?
Yup, you got it in one.
OK, so basically same stuff, different number, am I right?
Not quite: Windows 8 differs quite radically from what comes before. Windows president Steven Sinofsky claims that Windows 8 represents a "generational change" for Windows, the likes of which has not seen since the release of Windows 95.
Well for a start it's designed to run on more than just a PC. Windows 8 is made to run on both laptop and desktop computer and tablet hardware, scaling its interface to different screen sizes.
But Windows 7 tablets didn't exactly take over the world...
True, Microsoft knows this and is aware that as tablets fly off the shelves it needs to have a viable operating system in the slate space. The problem with Windows 7 on tablets is that it was first and foremost a desktop OS, with tiny fiddly icons designed for a mouse pointer and not chubby fingers. That's why, with Windows 8, Microsoft has devised a tile-based interface, known as Modern UI,that is designed around touch.
So what's Modern UI got to offer?
The interface is based around interacting with tiles, basically large icons whose size makes them easy to touch. These tiles can be tapped or clicked to run local or web apps, or to go to websites. Tiles can be swapped in and out of blocks, for instance to build blocks of apps or sites that are most commonly used, or related to specific topics like work. Tiles also link to online services like the Windows Store, where users can buy new Modern UI apps, and system settings like Control Panel.
Certain tiles can be set up to display dynamic information. For instance an RSS reader tile can display the latest story in the feed or a calendar tile could show your next appointment. In this way real time information can streamed straight in to the Windows 8 Start screen.
Navigation of the Windows 8 Start screen is well-suited to touch, with users able to drag and pinch-and-zoom to manoeuvre through blocks of tiles and to rearrange tiles by dragging and dropping, or resizing them with their fingers. Edges of the screen also play an important role, swiping from the left or right border brings up bars – known as Charms - for quick interactions with the system or an app, and a touchscreen keyboard can also be summoned to enter text.
Navigating the apps themselves is again designed to work well with touch, with easy-to-hit icons and tiles, and single gesture swipes to perform tasks such as flicking through running apps or shutting down an app.
What if I just want to use it on a bog standard laptop?
Then you can use mouse and keyboard to navigate the Modern UI. Some users of the early builds of Windows 8 complained that Modern UI is not intuitive without a touchscreen, but Microsoft has sought to address this with a host of mouse and keyboard shortcuts. For example mousing to the corners of the screen allows for fast navigation, and apps, files or settings can be called by typing a name, or just the first letters of the name, into the Windows 8 Start screen. Also all of the hotkeys from Windows 7 work in the Modern UI 8 interface. Microsoft's goal with Windows 8 is, after all, for it to be as easy to use on a tablet as on a PC.
What happened to the old Windows desktop?
It's still there but as a Windows 8 app, as by default Windows 8 users log into the Modern UI tile-based Start screen. The Desktop app is a full-screen Windows 7-style desktop, with the usual Recycle Bin, Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer, and taskbar. On a traditional Intel or AMD-based PC hardware the desktop will run legacy apps, such as those that run on a Windows 7 machine. However ARM-based hardware, such as most tablets, will not be able to run third party Windows desktop apps in Windows 8, only Microsoft desktop apps such as Notepad and Calculator.
The desktop can even be used with touch. Those who recall trying to hit tiny icons on a tablet running Windows 7 will be pleased to learn that Microsoft has implemented what it calls "fuzzy hit targeting", which works out which button or icon it's most likely you wanted to trigger. Reports are that it's not perfect but is an improvement over Windows 7.
Does the cloud get a look in?
Of course, online integration is woven throughout Windows 8. On the social side the People app allows contacts from multiple sources and social networks - such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn - to be mashed together into a single stream, with live updates from individuals or groups displaying on tiles.
There's also some serious syncing. Sign into Windows 8 using a Microsoft account and it will sync your settings between every Windows 8 machine you use. This will let you share your address book, account details for services like Facebook and Twitter, email and instant messages and the like between different devices. On top of this there's the ability for users to sync apps they've bought from the Windows Store or files stored on Microsoft's SkyDrive service between devices.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of Windows 8 is how it integrates online information with what's stored on your machine.Modern UI's simple search will not only scour file, apps and settings on the device, as well as online info, but also look within apps that have been enabled to take advantage of the search feature, for example looking for a track in a music app or a contact in a social network.
What else is cool?
There's the fast boot time, Microsoft demoed Windows 8 booting in eight seconds on an ultrabook at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) earlier this year. There's also an easy reinstall option that allows a clean install of Windows without the need to delete any personal data stored on the device.
And for sheer wow factor there's its ability to work with some gigantic screens. At MWC Microsoft demoed Windows 8 running on an 82-inch display with multiple people using it. Microsoft said that up to 10 people using all their fingers could interact with the display at the same time.
What's Windows 8 got to offer business?
Windows 8 – particularly Windows 8 Pro - contains a range of features relevant to enterprise - helping to mange consumerisation, encryption, remote updates and virtualisation.
For a start, having a single OS that can be used on a desktop or laptop PC and a tablet may appeal to enterprises looking to provide and manage a single computing environment for staff inside and outside of the office.
Many features aimed at business are designed to make it easier to work outside the office. DirectAccess allows remote users to access the corporate system without having to sign in to a separate VPN connection. Meanwhile Windows To Go allows Windows 8 to boot from an external flash drive - allowing staff to access their corporate OS from a personal device without having to copy corporate data onto its hard drive. The flash drive can also be encrypted with BitLocker to provide additional security. Managing the costs of remote workers will also be aided by built-in mobile broadband metering and native support for 3G and 4G.
Businesses will be able to develop their own Modern UI-style enterprise apps, which can then be centrally managed, updated and distributed by managers. Apps and any data they contain will be able to be kept within the corporate firewall. The ability of Live Tiles to display dynamic information allows for the creation of corporate apps that act as dashboards, for example displaying real-time feeds from enterprise systems.
Another feature that promises to make IT managers life easier is the integration of Microsoft's HyperV client, its virtual machine manager, into the OS. The integrated HyperV feature, a Windows Server 2008 and 2012 compatible tool, should allow IT managers to run multiple configurations of virtual machines from a single device.
What versions are available?
When Windows 8 is released on 26 October it will come in three versions: two for Intel-based PCs, Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro, and Windows 8 RT for ARM-based tablets like the Microsoft Surface.
Windows 8 is aimed at consumers, Windows 8 Pro is for tech enthusiasts and business/technical professionals – adding features, mentioned above, related to encryption, virtualisation, PC management and domain connectivity.
Computers that shipped with Windows XP, Vista or 7 can be upgraded to Windows 8 Pro for $39.99. The offer is available until 31 January 2013, after which the price will rise. The price of upgrading to Windows 8 Pro falls further if you bought or buy a PC with Windows 7 between 2 June 2012 and 31 January 2013, dropping to $14.99.
The upgrade to Windows 8 Pro will be available as a download, with Windows Media Centre available as a free add-on. It is also possible to upgrade by buying a physical disc, although that option will cost $69.99, again a limited offer until 31 January 2013.
If you're planning to build your own PC and install Windows 8 on it then OEM prices ahead of launch are $99.99 for Windows 8 and $139.99 for Windows 8 Pro.
The OS will be available in 109 languages across 231 markets worldwide.
How easy is it to upgrade?
It varies, depending on what Microsoft OS you're running now. Upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 8 keeps the programs, Windows settings and files; from Vista keeps the settings and files. Upgrading from Windows XP only keeps personal files. A Windows 8 upgrade assistant wizard guides users through the process.
While Microsoft says that upgrading from the preview versions of Windows 8 to the full version will require a clean install, there are workarounds involving modifying .ini files.
What apps does it come with?
Bundled Modern UI apps include those drawing on online content through Bing: such as Sport, Weather, Finance, Music, Video and games from Xbox; organisation apps: Mail, Calendar, Photos, Messaging, People and SkyDrive; as well as a variety of extras.
Does it include Microsoft Office?
Touch optimised versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote will be bundled with Windows RT but not with other Windows 8 SKUs, although these will be able to run legacy Office apps through the Windows Desktop.
Office 2013 has been redesigned to incorporate the same tiled interface as Windows 8, while retaining the ability to be used with a mouse and keyboard, and the code rewritten to work on ARM processors, as well as 32 and 64 bit Intel and AMD chips.
When will machines ship with Windows 8?
New Windows 8 PCs and Windows RT tablets will be available to buy from October. Launching at the same time as Windows 8 will be the RT version of Surface, a Windows 8 tablet designed by Microsoft that features a keyboard built into the cover. A version of Surface running Windows 8 Pro on an Intel Core processor will be released 90 days later.
So what are Windows 8's chances? It sounds like it's got a fighting chance
While analysts predict that Windows 8 will be a popular OS, there is expectation among many that demand will take a while to pick up. One of the key selling points for Windows 8 predicted by a Morgan Stanley analyst would be the ability to use popular Office programs like Word on a tablet.
However enterprise adoption could be slowed by the fact that most businesses are still deploying Windows 7. US companies told analyst house Gartner that Windows 7 would be running on about half of PCs by the end of last year. Given that many companies have either just upgraded or are in the process of upgrading to Windows 7 it seems unlikely that they will in any hurry to upgrade to Windows 8. If they put off their next OS upgrade for another four years, which is how long it typically takes for businesses to refresh their desktop OS, then businesses are likely to skip Windows 8 altogether, in favour of some future flavour of OS. As a result Gartner research director Annette Jump has predicted that the number of businesses deploying Windows 8 "will definitely be lower" than that of Windows 7.
CIOs were also sceptical about the business value of Windows 8 over Windows 7, when questioned by TechRepublic earlier this year.
What about the Modern UI, that looks pretty whizz bang
It does, but despite the praise that has been lavished onto the Modern UI in some quarters there are a few caveats. While the UI is credited with making Windows 8 a breeze to use once the users knows what they're doing, learning how to use Modern UI may put some people off. People who've used preview builds have mentioned that new users of Windows 8 need schooling on how to use features like touching the edges of the screen to bring up interactive bars. It may sound harsh but not having an immediately accessible UI could cost Microsoft users when it is competing against the iPad and its highly intuitive iOS and the increasingly refined Android interface. There is also the risk that Windows 8's attempts to support apps that work equally well across different devices and form factors will end up producing apps that don't fully exploit the capabilities of any device.
Microsoft is certainly confident that people will like Windows 8 however, making a free consumer preview of the OS available to use until the final product is released.
Will its app store help its chances?
It is in the app space where Microsoft could face its biggest battle with Windows 8. By the time the OS launches it will be competing against an Android and iOS app base that has been built up over several years. It's going to take something really special to make iPad or Android users give up the apps they know how to use and switch to a new platform.
By mid-October 2012 the Windows Store offered more than 5,550 apps globally, more than 4,850 of which were free. With more than 250,00 apps on the iPad App Store, Microsoft has some catching up to do.
Microsoft is trying to entice developers to produce apps for the Windows Store by offering an attractive revenue slice from sales. As an incentive to get users downloading Modern UI apps Microsoft made all apps on the store will be free until the end of the consumer preview period.
What will I need to run Windows 8?
Windows 8 will run on just about any recent 32 or 64-bit desktop or laptop, as well as running on modern ARM-based tablet computers. Microsoft recommends a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM (or 2GB for 64-bit), 20GB of hard disc space, and a DirectX 9 graphics card with WDDM 1.0 support.
One other important requirement is that Modern UI apps need a minimum of 1024x768 screen resolution and a 1366x768 to use the snap feature that allows apps to be run side by side.
Microsoft says that Windows 8 will support four common "system-on-a-chip" sets - the Nvidia Tegra 3, the Qualcomm Snapdragon, the Texas Instruments OMAP, and the Intel Atom Z2760 .
Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.