I've been playing with Windows 8 for a while now, and I recently installed the 'Consumer Preview' onto my day-to-day laptop.
A lot of Windows 8 is based on Windows 7. This is not a bad thing, and Windows 7 is the best Operating System Microsoft have ever produced. Windows 8 has the SAME hardware demands as Windows 7, along with some enhancements to, for example, make it boot up even faster. My four-year old laptop starts up in HALF the time it did with Windows 7.
The biggest change, is, of course, the new 'Start Screen'. This replaces the old start button & menu that has been sitting at the bottom left of our screens since Windows 95. The Start Screen appears as soon as you log in to your computer, and can be called up in the same way as the old start menu (By clicking your mouse in the bottom-left corner of the screen, or by tapping the 'Windows key' on your keyboard).
The Start Screen is a sideways scrolling array of 'tiles' of assorted colours. Each tile is pretty much the same as the icons you have on your start menu. If you click the 'Microsoft Word' tile, then Word will launch and appear just as it always has. Microsoft are also encouraging the development of a new range of touch-compatible programs that will use the same look and feel as the Start Screen.
With some extra development work, software suppliers can customise their program's tile to contain information - status updates, summary information, and so on. The Start Screen then starts to become a constantly changing 'dashboard' as well as a menu. Microsoft have created some simple programs to demonstrate this in action (showing my next Outlook appointment, and listing any unread emails, for example). Older programs appear as fairly basic squares with their normal icons, while Windows 8 compatible applications have a more interesting appearance, with bigger icons and text.
You can decide what tiles you want to see on your Start Screen, and how they are laid out. Anything you don't use (all those little utilities and configuration tools that clutter up the Windows start menu, for example) can be relegated to a hidden 'All Apps' screen that you never have to look at).
You can also organise your Start Screen into groups of tiles with a common theme. I, for example, have created a 'Work' group and a 'Personal' group (as well as a third group for 'Stuff I don't use very much'!
So - Instead of having a desktop with 'shortcuts' for your regularly used programs, documents, and web-sites - you create tiles instead - organising them into groups as appropriate. On the 'Work' section of my Start Screen, I have, for example, added a tile for opening AccountingWeb, and one that takes me to my 'Clients' folder. Windows automatically found an icon for the AccountingWeb link, and even coloured the tile to match the dominant orange colour scheme of the AW home page.
While I can scroll around the Start Screen with keyboard or mouse, if I start to simply type on the keyboard, Windows immediately starts to perform a search of all the items on my Start Screen. So, if I want to launch Windows Calculator, for example, I only need type 'cal' and the screen instantly changes to display only those applications that have 'cal' in their name.
The Start Screen, then, is your 'dashboard' and menu system rolled into one. It has clearly been designed with touch-screens in mind, but in practice, I've found few problems using mouse and keyboard on my laptop.
Where's my desktop?
When you click on a tile to launch (for example) Microsoft Word - Windows 8 then reverts to more familiar territory. Your programs appear much as they do in Windows 7.
You can have shortcuts and icons on your desktop, you can have multiple windows open, and you have the old taskbar at the bottom of the screen. Using the computer for actual work, then, remains pretty much the same as before. There is no 'Start' button in the bottom-left, however, as the start menu no longer exists.
There has been much discussion about the slightly schizophrenic nature of Windows 8. On the one hand, you have this new finger-friendly Start Screen with its whizzy tiles, and yet most of the business software you will launch from that screen demands 'old Windows' desktop and keyboard and mouse to work properly. So, what is Windows 8 really about?
Windows 8 is the first step in a move towards a new generation of touch-screen tablets that are also 'proper' computers. It's also a reaction to the success of the iPad. A lot of the fancy features of the Start Screen are about competing with Apple for the HOME computing market - where simplicity and visual impact matter and where the idea of seeing your Facebook updates alongside slideshows of your holiday snaps is very powerful. Imagine a Windows 8 touchscreen on the wall of your kitchen, with touchscreen access to email, family calendar, Facebook, Twitter, weather, photos, recipes, TV shows, etc.
In the business arena, the argument is less clear (for now). Windows 8 will only really offer benefits with a new generation of computers that can act as both tablet AND desktop PC. Taking the tablet out of its docking station to go to meetings or client visits (and using the touch screen) and then returning it to its dock when you get back to your desk and switch to a mouse and keyboard. iPads are starting to make inroads into business life for note taking, email and reference on the move. Windows 8 is Microsoft's fightback.
Windows 8 really starts to come alive (and make sense) when used with a touch screen. In short - If you have existing kit running older versions of Windows, I'm not convinced there is a business case for upgrading. A few years from now, however, the idea of being able to operate a single bit of kit as both tablet and desktop will be quite compelling.