London: Microsoft has let consumers start trying out its upcoming touch-based Windows 8 operating system, which aims to power a new wave of computer tablets and traditional PCs designed to counter Apple’s big gains in the market through its Macs and iPads.
The test “beta” version of the revamped system was introduced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the planet’s largest cell phone trade show, and borrows some of the look of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 software for Windows 8.
Windows 8 doesn’t have the traditional “Start” menu, and applications are spread across a mosaic of tiles in a design Microsoft calls “Metro” — seen as an attempt by the company as a scramble to preserve its market share. And executives said it powers up on PCs in eight seconds, much faster than the previous version.
Microsoft is also opening an Internet “Windows Store” where users can download applications for the operating system, but only if they have Windows 8. Applications are free for those testing out the beta version, but would include both free and paid versions after the operating system is released.
The test version was downloaded by people from more than 70 countries as Microsoft gave its presentation about Windows 8, but the company didn’t immediately disclose the number of downloads. The software can be downloaded at
Apple is also moving features from its iPhone and iPad software over to its Mac software. That trend will be particularly visible in Mountain Lion, the new Mac operating system that’s expected to be released this summer.
Windows 8 will also be the first Microsoft software in a long time besides its cell phone software that will run on non-Intel style processors. The company is developing a version that will run on phone-style chips, such as those used in the iPad.
If Windows 8 is a hit, it could help struggling PC makers, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. Besides giving businesses and consumers a reason to consider new PC purchases, Windows 8 is expected to spawn a new breed of hybrid machines that will be part tablet computer and part laptop like the device that Sinofsky demonstrated.
If Windows 8 is a flop, however, it will increase the pressure on Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. His 12-year reign has been marred by the company’s troubles adapting to an Internet-driven upheaval. As Microsoft has stumbled, faster-innovating companies such as Apple and Google have elbowed their way into a position to steer the direction of computing for the next decade or two.
Windows 8 is radically different from its predecessors, with its tiles that provide a glimpse at the activity occurring in applications connected to the Web, such as email.
The system also is expected to enable users to easily back up their pictures, movies, music and other files on a Microsoft storage service called SkyDrive, which will compete against Apple’s iCloud.
Windows 8 could inspire more PC makers to design machines that combine the convenience of tablets with the utility of a notebook computer. These devices would be similar to the so-called “ultrabook” computers that offer a Windows-based version of Apple’s lightweight MacBook Air machines.
Once Windows 8 is available, the ultrabook line could be expanded to include machines equipped with a screen that swivels off the keyboard to take advantage of the system’s touch controls and provide a tablet-like experience.