Windows 8 opens fresh thinking on touchscreens

Usually, when companies claim to have “reimagined” a venerable but ageing product in an attempt to give it a new lease of life, the actual facelift does not justify the hyperbole. But the revamped version of the Windows operating system that Microsoft showed off this week may actually live up to the billing.

Codenamed Windows 8, the software is the first from Microsoft to be designed from the ground up for touchscreen machines, and marks a belated response to Apple’s iPad. Computer users will still have to wait about a year before they can get their hands on it. However, releasing an early test version for software developers, as Microsoft did this week, is a vital first step in what is shaping up to be a battle over the future direction of personal computing.

The vision laid out by the world’s biggest software company was subtly different from that espoused by Apple. The machines that use Windows 8 will have a touchscreen interface and a new class of stripped down “apps”, much as the iPad does. In many cases, they will also run traditional PC applications and include the familiar Windows desktop as an alternative interface.

With the software intended to run on laptops and desktop machines as well as tablets, Microsoft made it clear that it hopes to blur the distinction with tablets, producing hybrid experiences where users type on a keyboard or click a mouse one minute, then reach out to touch their screens the next. The clear warning to tablet makers: Microsoft is set on annexing the new touchscreen frontier to make it part of its wider PC world.

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