Windows 8, Microsoft's next big thing, has been available in a Developer Preview form for a few days now, and using it reveals one clear thing: Microsoft is feeling the pinch from Apple.
While it's true that the copy of Windows 8 you can download from Microsoft is unfinished, it's near-complete. As a Developer Preview, it's designed to offer those creating or updating software and hardware for Windows 8 a theoretically feature-complete version of the operating system ahead of launch. As a result, it's a fair basis for the following observations.
The instant you boot Windows 8 for the first time, you'll realise exactly what Microsoft is doing: it's not looking towards the desktop, on which it already enjoys a near-monopoly, but instead at the tablet space where Apple is the undeniable market leader.
The first thing you'll see when you load the software is a 'lock screen,' which works in the same way as the one on Microsoft's Windows Phone platform: a pretty image is dragged up and away, revealing the actual login prompt below. It's something which is natural to a touch-screen device, but feels awkward and clumsy when using a mouse or trackpad.
When you've logged in, you're presented with the new-fangled Metro UI, which Microsoft has already admitted is based on the one used in Windows Mobile. It's tile-based interface which, again, appears to be aimed at touch-screen devices - where the multiple pages can be accessed with a flick of the finger, and each individual program executed with a simple tap - rather than traditional desktops and laptops.
As an aside, Microsoft isn't the only company to have thought of taking its user interface this way: Canonical found itself at the heart of a backlash from users of its popular Ubuntu Linux distribution when it launched Unity, a touch-friendly UI that replaces the standard Gnome desktop. The Gnome project itself has done the same with Gnome 3, giving Microsoft plenty of forewarning that such a move tends to come in for a fair amount of criticism, from technical users at least.
Moving back to Windows, the Metro UI is certainly a novel take on the Windows idea, but sadly not for the better. Although you can hit the 'Desktop' option to return to a more traditional-appearing Windows user interface, the redesigned Start Menu will leave many less technical users lost as they hunt around for programs which were there only a short upgrade ago.
Windows 8 on a laptop, in short, is poor. With shades of Microsoft Bob, the software giant has attempted to reboot its popular desktop interface in a way that will leave power users gnashing their teeth and less technical types bewildered. While those making the move from a Windows Phone device to a Windows 8 desktop might feel at home, there's far fewer of those than users upgrading from a previous version of Windows.
Where things take an interesting twist is when you use the Developer Preview on a touch-enabled device, whether a touch-screen PC or a tablet. Suddenly, the strange Metro UI makes sense. While certain user experience choices - such as the inability to post a message to Twitter by hitting the enter key in the in-built client - still irk, the touch-prod-and-slide interface is far more natural.
That, more than any collaboration with ARM, gives away Microsoft's true intentions: while it is assured of continued success on the desktop thanks to the wealth of legacy software which requires Windows to run - software that won't, incidentally, operate on the ARM version of Windows 8 - Microsoft appears tired of Apple and, to a lesser extent, Google hogging the tablet limelight.
It's a risky move: Windows 7 has been a poor seller on tablet devices, and while the introduction of an ARM build should help with battery life issues as Metro helps streamline the UI for a touch-based device Microsoft will still have an uphill struggle convincing users that a Windows 8 tablet is the way forward.
To try the Developer Preview yourself, head on over to Microsoft's download page - but be warned that it comes with no way to uninstall, and will likely require wiping and a fresh install when the final release comes out.