For those of you who keep up with the tech world, we have seen quite a bit happen in just the last few years. Just four or five years ago, no one was using Facebook, YouTube was only six months old, and no one had heard of an iPad. It was about four years ago that the concept of a netbook was introduced; finally, mobile productivity was becoming a reality. People had laptops for years, of course, but the relatively short battery life, heavy hardware, and a lack of small screens made mobile computing a chore rather than something useful. I bought a laptop back in 2005 with the intention of carrying it to all of my college classes. Alas, I quickly decided it was not worth it, and took notes via paper and pen, shifting my laptop to a decidedly more dormant state.
My laptop served me well. It still runs, though I have loaned it to some relatives (last I heard it was virus-laden, but it can still be salvaged, I imagine). For the majority of its life, it ran Windows XP, which is what it came with. Near the end, I began dual-booting Ubuntu, a free linux-based operating system, mostly because I was interested in technology, loved to experiment, but didn’t want to do anything that might completely destroy my system. Windows Vista came out shortly after, and it seemed that nearly nobody liked it as an operating system. Ultimately, this proved to be a function of a bad launch; after the first service pack, Vista was a fine OS, even if it was still hated by many. Reputation is a powerful thing.
And then Windows 7 came out. This was the OS that those who hated Vista were finally ready to embrace. After all, Windows XP had been used by nearly everyone; some schools and businesses still have not updated to Windows 7, and my own school just made the switch last year, having totally skipped Vista.
Between Windows 7 and OSX, desktop environments had evolved quite a bit. Behind the scenes, both major OSes were stable, and in the forefront they were both very useable. Each had its own learning curve, of course, but there were enough similarities both to each other and to previous iterations of the respective OS that most users could just jump right in.
On the mobile side of things, Apple had taken the mobile market and turned it into an explosion. What was once riddled with Palm Pilots and phones running the ever-dreaded Windows Mobile platform was suddenly graced by Apple’s iPhone. While I am no Apple fanboy, I am definitely a fan of the iPhone. With each generation, the phone evolved slightly, maintaining the core experience while giving small benefits. Google jumped into the mobile realm with Android, which has many people exclaiming the benefits of an open OS. Palm released webOS, which might be the best mobile OS that never sold, and Windows followed up this advancement with releasing Windows Phone 7. Each OS offered something unique; Apple has an unrivaled app market, Google has the benefits of an open source system and Windows has the potential of connecting deeply with its wide user base from the desktop computing world. Windows Phone 7 is definitely still sitting in the ‘potential’ stage, however. And webOS? Well, webOS died.
But what does all of that history have to do with Windows 8? Well, if you’ve looked at screenshots of Windows Phone 7 and then compared them to Windows 8, you may not have been able to tell much of a difference. Microsoft released their Developer’s Preview of Windows 8 this week, which warranted over 500,000 downloads over the first few days. A large number of those are likely developers, but many are simply eager Windows fans, myself included.
So far, Windows 8 feels out of place without a touchscreen. If I were to try to navigate my iPhone with a keyboard and mouse, for example, the experience would be miserable; the touchscreen is easily the superior way to tell my phone I would like to fire up a game of Angry Birds. Touchscreens have never had much of a place on desktops, partially due to the awkwardness of touching a screen sitting in front of you, as opposed to sitting in your lap or being held up by your hand. But Windows 8 is very clearly designed with this style of input in mind: everything from the tiles to the lack of a standard ‘desktop’ (fear not, there is one, but it is shoe-horned into an application at the moment) just screams “Touch me!”
While I cannot speak to it personally, since I have only dabbled a bit in OSX, and have not yet run Lion, many in the industry are suggesting that Lion is making steps towards combining OSX and iOS, perhaps by the time they release the next full iteration (OS 11?). What we are looking at is a full convergence of mobile and desktop computing, at least in terms of the two leading OS contributors.
But what does all of this mean? Ultimately, the goal is for our computing experience to be seamless between machines. An experience that allows us to interact with a digital world more easily and more efficiently enables us to not only spend less time in front of a machine (and, hopefully, spend our time more rightfully balanced between computers, people, nature, and other activities), but also to accomplish more when we do decide to walk through this digital landscape we’ve created.