Ina Fried

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Microsoft Releases First Test Version of Windows 8

After playing coy for several months, Microsoft is finally letting developers get their hot little hands on a test version of Windows 8.

At its developer conference in Anaheim, Calif., Microsoft is detailing the new software and offering a preview version of the forthcoming operating system. Although the company is giving the early code to developers, Microsoft isn’t saying when the operating system will ship.

What is clear is that Steve Ballmer wasn’t kidding when he called Windows 8 one of the company’s riskiest bets in some time. Microsoft has laid out an ambitious goal for Windows 8, stating that it wants the operating system to be as at home on a tiny touch-only tablet as it is on a large, powerful desktop hooked up to several large displays.

To reach this goal, Microsoft is pushing developers to write a whole new type of application, designed to occupy the full screen and be extremely touch-friendly.

“Windows 8 is a bold reimagination of what Windows can be,” Windows unit president Steven Sinofsky said in a briefing with journalists on Monday. Sinofsky showed a peek at Windows 8’s new interface at D9 in June, but the company has released few technical details until this week.

The changes to Windows are immediately obvious from the moment it boots up. In addition to hopefully starting up more quickly, the operating system launches to a lock screen that displays a photo and login information, as well as a glance at status information such as calendar appointments, incoming mail and other messages.

Once users log on — either through a password, PIN or by making certain gestures on a photograph — they are taken to a start screen that bears more resemblance to Windows Phone 7 than to the traditional Windows desktop. From there, users can run various programs, including many new-style Windows apps that are designed just for Windows 8.

The familiar Windows desktop is there to run traditional programs, such as Office and Photoshop, but what was the entire Windows experience is now just an app that runs alongside new-style Windows apps, which run full screen and have none of the familiar menus such as “file” and “edit.” Instead, controls for the new apps are hidden until a user swipes the top or bottom of a screen. Swiping the right side brings up a series of universal “charms” designed to allow common actions such as searching and sharing, which can work across applications. Swiping in from the left side allows users to flip between open applications.

The other big change coming to Windows 8 is on the chip side. Microsoft has already said that Windows 8 will run on the same kind of ARM-based chips that power smartphones and tablets. However, the key question here is how far Microsoft has gotten.

“The progress is phenomenal,” Sinofsky said on Monday. “Everything you are seeing works equally well on ARM today.”

That said, Microsoft is showing mainly new stuff, as opposed to the kinds of older applications that will need to be tweaked or rewritten entirely to run on ARM-based chips. Sinofsky said that, in general, Windows on ARM is designed to run the new-style applications, rather than classic Windows applications. Back in January, Microsoft did show a technology demonstration of Office running on an ARM-based machine, although Sinofsky declined to elaborate on whether an ARM version of Office will be released.

It is unclear when developers will be able to get their hands on an ARM-based version of Windows 8. As for the version that runs on Intel and AMD chips, Microsoft didn’t give dates, but Sinofsky said to expect this developer preview to be updated periodically and then followed by a single beta version, followed by a near-final release candidate and then the final release.

With Windows 7, a similar process took about a year to go from developer preview to final release.

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