Windows 8, Microsoft's bold new operating system, officially debuted this morning at a coming out party in New York City highlighted by a display of the wide variety of devices on which it can run - from PCs to tablets to hybrids to laptops to notebooks.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says Windows 8 embraces so many different devices that it redefines the PC by giving what had been considered limited or specialized devices the full functionality of traditional desktops with the addition of touchscreen support.
"Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC now really is," he says. "It pushes the limits of what a PC is."
ESSENTIALS: The Windows 8 FAQ
The operating system is available starting at 12:01 local time Friday worldwide at the Windows Store, online and via downloads.
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Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows division, heralded the improved performance of Windows 8 devices over Windows 7 and touted the wide range of new hardware that will support it, starting at less than $300.
He says that vs. Windows 7, battery life is 13% longer and boot time is 36% faster - and that's running it on a PC certified for Windows 7. With Windows 8 the improvements are even greater, he says.
While the operating system is designed for touch, Sinofsky says it works equally well on machines with keyboard and mouse, and any application that runs on a certified Windows 7 machine will also run on Windows 8.
Sinofsky also promoted so-called "modern" applications that are designed to take advantage of the touch user interface and that are available via the Windows Store, an online market that opens at the same time Windows 8 becomes available.
A separate version of Windows 8 called Windows RT runs only on ARM processors to promote battery life and to enable smaller, thinner, lighter devices, he says. These devices only support modern applications; traditional Windows 7-supported apps will not run.
The idea is that Windows RT will only run applications that have been approved by Microsoft and that are downloaded from the Windows Store. Microsoft also controls updates, with the idea that over time security and performance of the machines will remain high, he says.
While the Windows Store has thousands of modern applications ready to go, the inventory pales compared to the hundreds of thousands available for Apple iOS or Android devices. But Sinofsky claims there are more applications in the Windows Store than there were in any similar application store when it opened.
Microsoft staffers demonstrated a wide range of Windows 8 machines including desktops, all-in-ones, tablets, convertibles, hybrids, laptops and notebooks. One device from Asus that was highlighted at the press conference has a detachable keyboard that contains a separate battery that extends the life of the system to 18 hours. It's also available with a 4G wireless service from AT&T.
Microsoft mentioned its own Surface devices that compete with its partners' machines, but downplayed their importance. One was pulled off a shelf holding a half dozen other devices built by Microsoft partners and demonstrated briefly in between descriptions of other portables.
Surface represents Microsoft's foray into selling the accompanying hardware -- a bold design of a thin tablet with an add-on tropical colored cover that doubles as a keyboard to turn the device into a notebook.
There are two major versions of Surface - Surface Pro and Surface RT. Surface Pro is based on x86 processors and carries the full Windows 8 operating system that can support traditional applications as well as modern applications designed specifically for Windows 8 and catering to its touch centricity.
Later during the launch press conference, demonstrations of machines made for Windows 8 showed how a touchpad on a laptop could be touched and swiped with the same gestures that would be used on a touchscreen, and Windows 8 would respond.
Windows 8 was also significant in the redesign of Office applications, the latest versions of which are optimized for touch, Sinofsky says.
Ballmer says he's fond of the phrase "Windows reimagined" to describe Windows 8 and that it will likely become ubiquitous. "You certainly are going to hear it in our ads," he says.
(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)
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