Summary:

Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) proved Wednesday that it has learned the lessons of the modern revolution in computing by unveiling Windows 8, a next…

Start screen on Windows 8
photo: Microsoft

Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) proved Wednesday that it has learned the lessons of the modern revolution in computing by unveiling Windows 8, a next-generation operating system designed for touchscreens and multitasking minds that draws on several of the good ideas it brought to Windows Phone 7. It’s a huge product for the company, arguably the most radical and vital change it has made to the flagship brand since Windows 95. Here are the most important things we know about Windows 8, and the most important things we still need to know.

Tile Flooring: The first time you boot up a Windows 8 computer, you’re going to see something very different than the familiar user interface launched during Bill Clinton’s first term in office. The Windows 8 start screen looks just like the Windows Phone 7 home screen, but because it is designed to run on the bigger screens that accompany desktops, notebooks, and tablets, each tile can be made larger and therefore convey more information. A tile is an app; instead of launching applications from the “Start” menu or a static icon on a desktop, tapping the tile will get things rolling.

Old (Sort Of) Reliable: Underneath the slick tile user interface, however, will be Windows 7, allowing Windows 8 computers to run basically anything that you’re currently running on your Windows 8 desktop. Microsoft demonstrated how one could switch from the tiled applications to Excel running in the old Windows, or run the old and the new side-by-side by “snapping” a new tiled application next to the spreadsheet. It remains to be seen if this is a good idea or not: Microsoft has so many enterprise customers running legacy applications that it finds it extremely difficult to break from the past, but the vastly different user interfaces running side-by-side may be jarring for some users.

Webish: Those who want to build applications for the new tiled user interface should be heartened by Microsoft’s choice to build those applications around HTML5 and Javascript technologies. In essence, it will be just like building a web application (which many developers are already doing) except it will have more power to draw from given that it will run on a PC or tablet. This is almost exactly what HP (NYSE: HPQ) and Palm have done with WebOS, and it might take the steam out of HP’s plan to layer WebOS on top of Windows PCs.

Cross-platform: Windows developers will be able to target PCs, tablets, and maybe some new classes of hardware that haven’t been fully realized, such as touchscreen notebooks. But it won’t be seamless, as the wide variety of screen sizes that will be out in the wild could pose the same fragmentation problems that Android developers have bemoaned.

Known Unknowns: Windows 8 made an impressive debut at D9 and Computex this week, but it’s not expected to arrive for at least a year, probably in time for the back-to-school or holiday shopping seasons of 2012. That means there is an awful lot we still don’t know:

–How will the tiled interface (clearly designed for touch input) work with other kinds of computers that are still based around the keyboard and mouse?

–How will switching between Windows 8 and Windows 7 will work in the wild? And will the need to please old requirements while reaching new goals divide Windows applications into two silos? Having one’s Twitter feed in a modern Windows 8 app running next to Word in the Windows 7 UI sounds like it would be convenient, but a little weird.

–Will Microsoft require Windows 8 developers creating applications for the tiled UI to pass through some sort of Windows Store? (A tile called “Store” simply couldn’t be missed on Microsoft’s official screenshot image of the start screen, and was not explained.)

But it also means there is plenty of time for Microsoft to shed more light on Windows 8 while developers get ready for the new release. A new developer conference is scheduled for September, and that’s probably the next time we’ll get more official information out of the company.

Windows 8 could be a transformative product for Microsoft, and it bears watching. That being said, it’s scheduled to arrive around the time Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) celebrates the five-year anniversary of the iPhone launch, which will illustrate just how far Microsoft has had to change its thinking over those years.

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