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What Exactly is Windows 8?

In this guest editorial, longtime contributor Dino Esposito offers an alternative view to my editorial regarding the changes Microsoft will drag developers through. — ALB

In September, Microsoft unveiled an early preview of the upcoming Windows 8. This new version isn't just an operating system for PCs, it's also expected to run on ARM tablets. From a developer's standpoint, Windows 8 is a dual operating system: One flavor resembles its predecessor, Windows 7, offering the usual interface and programming capabilities. A second version introduces a new user interface and new programming APIs.

This second Win 8 flavor, called Metro, takes its UI style from the Windows Phone UI. It also hosts a new set of applications running on top of a new system API — the Windows Runtime (WinRT) API.

Because Windows 8 is coming in two flavors — regular and Metro — new applications also ideally would come in two flavors. This apparently simple requirement has triggered a lot of discussion, as well as ramblings and rants.

Here are some of the questions developers have been asking that, for the most part, have gone unanswered or have been over-answered to the point of providing confusing information:

  • Where within Metro does the .NET Framework fit?
  • What's required to write Metro applications?
  • More important, what's the future of Windows applications?
  • Where's my future as a Windows developer?

Uncertainty reigns with a good chance of leading to fear and doubt. Based on what has been publicly unveiled about Win 8 and Metro, I've concluded the concern is all much ado for the little that's been released so far.

Window 7 Reimagined

Microsoft is guaranteeing backward compatibility, so existing Windows applications will keep on running as usual. Think of Metro as another family of applications. Win 8 has two modes you can switch on and off: the standard one that looks like old-faithful Windows with some refreshed pieces (such as Explorer), and the new snazzy Metro, with native support for touch capabilities, a new runtime system, and a new approach to programming. Metro is specifically designed (and maybe optimized) for tablets but also available from standard PCs.

Another way to look at it is that the classic Windows desktop is just another application available in Windows 8 alongside the new Metro style and native applications.

Is this a revolution? I'd go with the description Steven Sinofsky, president of Windows and the Windows Live division, provided: It's an attempt to "reimagine Windows."

It's impossible for Microsoft to ignore the existing applications and needs of Windows 7 users. So bringing a completely new user interface and user experience, and making it the only way to use the new Windows, would have been too big a change. So Microsoft went with the compromise of two flavors.

Is Windows 8 going to be similar to the shift to Windows 95? Win 95 refreshed an existing program while managing to superannuate MS-DOS. It was more an attempt to reimagine the OS, whereas Metro is just a way to reimagine Windows. The Win 8 changeover should be easier on ­developers.

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