Microsoft released a video giving a glimpse of what's to come in Windows 8. The presentation shows off an extraordinary amount of touch screen integration and a user interface that's a blend of Windows Phone 7 and Xbox Live.
It seems like only yesterday that Microsoft was sending out betas for Windows 7, but here we are with a sneak peek at Windows 8, which, according to Microsoft's first "Building Windows 8" video, is going to go tile-based rather than icon-based, at least for tablets and mobile devices. This will, of course, go hand in hand with touch-screen functionality that mirrors what we've come to expect from modern smartphones like the iPhone 4, the Samsung Galaxy, and others. According to the video, the proposed start screen won't be the icon-based desktop we all know and use, but rather, a big clump of tiles in the middle of the screen, which are presumably intended to work best with touch-screen setups. I understand that "mobile computing" (if you guys will let me use that term) is something that has increased exponentially in recent years and that Apple's iPhone hardware has basically been a bottomless pot of gold for that company. What I'm less excited about is the seeming possibility that Microsoft is more interested in touch-screen interfaces and less so in keyboard-and-mouse interfaces.
For those who missed it, I recently traveled to id Software to get GameSpot's E3 2011 exclusive preview of Rage, and for the record, I embarrassed myself pretty badly in front of the company's creative director and its president on a big-screen theatrical setup. Why? My official answer is jet lag (and fleeing from Oklahoma tornadoes), but the real reason is that I was playing the Xbox 360 version with a standard 360 controller, and when it comes down to it, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool keyboard-and-mouse man and still believe, like most right-thinking human beings on the planet, that keyboard-and-mouse is a flat-out superior control setup for first-person shooters (not to mention strategy games, role-playing games, and pretty much any game with nested menus).
I realize it's way too early to start freaking out here, but as someone who has preferred to play with a keyboard and mouse for many, many years, I have to say I'm a bit concerned if this early demonstration means that Microsoft will try to distance traditional mice and keyboards from future iterations of Windows. I literally cringed while watching the video when the touch-screen keyboard was used--I play my games on the PC to avoid having to hunt and peck like that. Aside from the obvious implications for hardware manufacturers that make gaming mice and keyboards like Razer and Logitech, I'm just not liking the (admittedly implausible) possibility that mice and keyboards might become second-class citizens for Windows PCs. Of course, mice and keyboards aren't going anywhere in the near future--everyone on the planet uses them for important work-related applications--but longer-term, I have to say, I don't like the idea of giving up on my mice and keyboards for PC games just yet…at least, not until a much better alternative (that ideally isn't a touch screen) arises. That's my two cents, anyway.
Andrew's fear of change in this case might be misplaced. It's not so much that Microsoft is giving the proverbial finger to the keyboard and mouse as it is enhancing it. Those two devices are incredibly powerful in terms of accuracy and speed, but they're inappropriate for tablets and smartphones.
If we look just a little bit into the future, the Windows 8 demo signals a step in the right direction for Microsoft. The world is marching toward operating systems that need to be accessible through a variety of input devices, be they fingers, mice, or keyboards. At the moment, all of these methods reside in discrete areas. Fingers get used on smartphones, and mice and keyboards stick to laptops and desktops. This works fine if all of these devices never need to interact and stick to their specialties. But we're getting close to an inflection point, one at which these disparate devices might just merge completely.
If you haven't seen the Motorola Atrix 4G, do yourself a favor and check it out. It's a smartphone and portable laptop slapped into one. The phone itself is powerful, but when plugged into the dock (keyboard/touchpad and monitor, a faux-top if you will), it converts into a rather robust platform. The execution and price points are questionable, but the direction is undeniably sound.
Smartphone processors are set to increase in speed tremendously over the next five years, think orders of magnitudes (100x) more powerful. Their persistent data connections also remove the limit of paltry onboard storage when connected to the cloud. There's also nothing stopping manufacturers from popping a 500GB drive into a dock. The seamless merger of desktop and smartphone operating systems becomes a powerful selling point. Why buy two computing devices when one does the job? External monitors, keyboards, and mice fill in the gaps when you need to get accuracy and brute typing speed. On the go, the smartphone lets you carry everything you need without adding an extra pound (or five) of weight.
All of this convergence gets pretty cool when it comes to gaming as well. A single computing device allows for desktop and on-the-go gaming at the same time, all without losing where you are in the game. This all depends on how developers take advantage of the platform, and some genres (real-time strategy, first-person shooter) definitely won't transfer well. But imagine starting your gaming session on a game like Osmos or Castle Crashers at home, only to continue on a bus a moment later. Interesting times, they are a coming.