Microsoft unwraps Windows 8 touchscreen OS

Microsoft is set to unveil the touchscreen, tablet-friendly face of its upcoming Windows 8 operating system on Tuesday, in a bid to counter the dominance of Apple's iPad 2 in the portable, proddable PC market - including, for the first time, Windows support for ARM-based processors.

Sneak previews of the OS were given to a chosen few at the recent Computex trade show in Taipei, but tomorrow's preview at a software developer conference in California will be the first truly public debut for the touchscreen-compatible Windows 8, which will be accompanied by a new touch-sensitive version of Microsoft's Office suite.

Microsoft has has a troubled history when it comes to touch-sensitive devices. Back in 2005, the software giant launched its stylus-operated Windows XP Professional Tablet Edition, together with a slew of products from big-name makers - but with Windows regarded as too complex and fiddly for tablet use, and the hardware invariably a clunky hybrid of laptop and tablet functions, the OS didn't catch on.

That hybrid approach will be getting a new outing in the upcoming Windows 8, which includes many features that will be more familiar to PC users than the likes of iPad devotees - bucking the trend towards stripped-down, purely graphical interfaces.

Windows 8 - set to be released to developers this week, but unlikely to go on sale for at least a year - features two operating modes: a standard, PC-like desktop, and the tile-based interface now familiar to the owners of Windows Phone 7 smartphones.

"The distinction between notebook [PCs] and tablets will blur," Rick Sherlund, software analyst at Nomura Securities in New York, said in a report published on FT.com today.

But while Microsoft's new OS may win over corporate customers, many of whom have failed to latch onto the entertainment-based, consumer focus of Apple's iPad, it's still unclear if the new OS has enough backing from the developer community. Given the popularity of Apple's iOS and Google's Android community, it may be a lack of available apps that holds the platform back.

"Without the developers, they won't have much of a platform," says Michael Cherry, an analyst at research firm Directions on Microsoft.

However, combining the different technologies and user experiences of both PCs and tablets in a single software platform presents a complex test, analysts warn.