Microsoft held a special developer's conference, called BUILD Windows, over the last three days. (Sept. 13 to the 16th, 2011.) Their main topic is the future user interface, or UI as geekdom refers to it, of Microsoft Windows going forward.
Last Monday, Microsoft chose to release a pre-beta (their name) build of a future version of Windows, named "Windows Developer Preview", as well as tools for programming Metro applications. This is a new move for Microsoft, who kept Windows 7 pre-betas under lock and key, and only showed them to programmers via DVDs that weren't supposed to be spread. Naturally, it showed up on the internet shortly thereafter.
The last couple of "new" windows releases, Vista and 7, have been prone to the sentence "The biggest change since Windows 95 introduced the Start button" in the media, and occasionally, from Microsoft themselves. True, there was heavy tweaking to our old friends Taskbar and Start Menu, but it was still pretty similar.
This time, it seems they've actually done it. The start menu, in this "Metro" UI, is full screen and obviously touch centric.
Some of the Metro apps, such as the game "Copper", require a touch screen to play best. All the instructions for the game are written to a touch screen user, using terminology like "tap" and "swipe", as well as multi-touch game controls for play. (It can be played with a mouse, but you get to figure out those controls yourself in this very early implementation.)
I do not believe Microsoft will make this the only possible interface for Windows, for one thing, there is no way in this early configuration to launch most of the built in "classic" applications like "Notepad", "Paint", and most of the others. They can be launched via the run dialog, but that is also only accessible by the preexisting keyboard shortcut Winkey+R. No matter, this preview version is meant to show off Metro to developers. It has been determined that you can get a Windows 7ish start menu via registry hack, but I have not seen this in action myself.
On installation, which only took about 15 minutes on the Dell Optiplex 380 desktop I am using for testing, you are greeted by a simple, green setup screen that asks for a Windows Live ID for login, but you can create local accounts via a "other login options" type link. The Windows Live functionality is a piece of the "cloud" solution puzzle that Microsoft is intending to further merge the OS into. (There are already features for this with Live IDs in Windows 7 and Vista as far as I can remember.)
Another favorite for now feature in the "new" Windows: A redesigned Task Manager:
The task manager, though it's contents were updated both in Windows XP and Windows Vista, still had the same look and feel overall in it's graphing and most of the same features in its UI since Windows NT 4 came out back in 1996. (It did not exist in this form at all in Windows 9x.) Now, we have some more modern looking graphing, info on the processor, including speed, real vs. logical cores, and whether or not the PC has virtualization capability.
Something else I found interesting, mostly because I have no clue what it means, is this "App History" tab in Task Manager:
It refers to all apps listed as "modern applications", which is obviously only Metro UI-based applications, as those are the only things in the list. Paint, a Command Prompt, and Google Chrome were all running at this time and are not found in the list at all. They are still listed in Processes, as in previous versions of Windows. Most interesting.
Windows codename 8 is still supremely in development, all of this could change massively before it is called complete. At this time, all things are supported that have been supported previously in the 32-bit version anyway. I hope to try the x86 64-bit verison soon as well.
When I tried to run the old "edit" editor in the command prompt, I was prompted with a UAC-styled prompt that asked if I would like to enable 16-bit application support, which was defaulted to off. I assume this is to keep any ancient bugs from coming around and making the whole system unstable, but who knows. It is not something they have done before that I have seen anyway.
I doubt that Metro will be the only interface for Windows 8. It is being pushed hard, as Microsoft is working on a version for the ARM processor for tablets, though it will not have legacy compatability. Thus, you won't be able to run your old PC games, or the full out version of Microsoft Office 2007, just as a couple of examples, because it won't have x86 compatability, but the UI will pretty much look like this one I imagine.
I think, due to the fact there is a registry hack that enables the old start menu, that Metro is destined to be an option for touch screen laptops and PC-based tablets, as well as some of the touch screen all-in-ones that have recently hit the market. It will likely be an option, perhaps the default option, for Windows PCs, but you won't be forced to use only Metro. The biggest reason this release happened was to introduce developers to Metro apps and development tools, so MS has not developed that option into this OS yet.
Remember, there is up to two years of possible development still to be done on this version of Windows, so it's hard telling what will come of it.
Download it for yourself and check it out here: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/home/
(Note: This DOES NOT run in Windows Virtual PC on Windows 7. Your VM requires support for IO APIC, or you will get a BSOD complete with a ":(" when it tries to boot. The only free one I've seen it run in is Oracle's Virtualbox 4.1.2. I have installed successfully in Virtualbox and on a Dell Optiplex 380 desktop.)
Just a fun fact: This article was entirely composed in the Windows Developer Preview, using Google Chrome, Paint, and FTP via the command prompt!