Windows 8 Heads to PC Makers, But Questions Remain

As Windows 8 makes its way to hardware manufacturers before landing on store shelves October 26 it's anybody's guess whether the new operating system will be a hit or another mega-sized Vista flop. The new touch-focused version of Windows is a radical shift from previous iterations of the OS, offering a lot of new features that could enrage or satisfy longtime Windows users.

The well-known Start button is gone, and the desktop is just a supporting character. The main attraction in Windows 8 is the brand-new Start screen featuring touch-centric apps based around Microsoft's new Metro design language that favors basic colors, hard corners, and fluid, easy-to-read text.

The traditional desktop is still around for those times you need Photoshop, Microsoft Office, and other full-featured PC programs. But if you just need to check your e-mail, create a new calendar event, surf the Web, or check how badly Facebook stock is tanking this week, Microsoft hopes you'll stay in the touchy-feely, Metro-style world of the new Windows 8 Start screen.

But if the world is going to embrace Microsoft’s changes, there’s a few issues the company will have to address with the latest version of Windows.

What Will the Windows Store Catalog be Like?

Developers can now submit their apps to Microsoft for inclusion in the Windows Store, the sole source of Metro-style apps on Windows 8 PCs and tablets. But how many developers are planning Metro apps, and will there be enough innovative apps at launch to satisfy the first round of Windows 8 users in October? It's not clear how many developers are planning Windows 8 apps, but Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, recently said Microsoft would need at least 5000 high-quality Windows 8 apps at launch to be a success.

This will be especially true for people using the new ARM-based Surface tablet from Microsoft and other Windows RT devices. Unlike x86-based Windows 8 devices, Windows RT users won't be able to add regular Windows apps to their desktop so the Windows Store will be the only way to get new apps on the device.

How Good Will Surface be?

Microsoft will get into the tablet business when it launches Surface for Windows RT, also expected October 26, followed by Surface for Windows 8 Pro three months later. From what Microsoft has shown off so far, Surface looks slick; the only problem is that few people have had significant hands-on time with these devices to determine how good they'll actually be in the real world. Add to that unknowns such as pricing and app availability and Surface, while it looks promising, is gearing up to be either a massive hit or major flop.

Can I Get Desktop Apps with That?

Microsoft this fall may be sending a nightmare of a sales problem to big box stores, online retailers and other purveyors of Windows PCs. Imagine the thousands of non-technical users walking into their local computer shops and seeing a Windows RT tablet and a regular x86-based Windows tablet sitting side-by-side. They both have the Windows 8 Start screen and the traditional desktop, but only the x86-based tablet can run apps made for Windows 7 desktops.

That's going to be a confusing issue for many people, especially if there are a flood of hardware choices at launch. It's not yet clear what Microsoft and its partners are going to do to help make the differences between Windows RT and Windows 8 clearer to users.

Vista-Style Revolt?

Will Windows 8 be the revolution Microsoft hopes it is, propelling Windows into the finger-driven touchscreen era? Or will it be a Vista-style flop where users "downgrade" their computers in droves to Windows 7 or opt for Windows 7 devices instead of Windows 8?

Windows 8 has some great advantages going for it, including ease of setup, faster boot times, easier printer discovery, and improved multiple monitor support. But there's no getting around the fact that the Metro-style Start screen is a radical shift from the traditional desktop. Will users embrace the new start screen and all the touch-centric apps that come with it or will they give Windows 8 the finger?

Microsoft has yet to say when it will stop selling Windows 7, according to the company's lifecycle fact sheet.

Start Button Alternatives

Sure, this is old news, but millions of people in the world have been trained for nearly twenty years to hit the Start button in Windows to find programs and access other PC features. Many of those people have no idea the Start button is about to disappear from their next PC to be replaced by hot corners, multitouch gestures, or the Windows key. How will people react to this change? Will it be a welcome shift since the Start screen is a new and interesting feature, or will people hate it?

Only a few months until we find out.

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) on Twitter and Google+, and with Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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