The company showed off a new Start screen patterned after the tiled home page of Windows Phone 7. The company says the new tiled interface "replaces the Windows Start menu with a customizable, scalable full-screen view of apps."
Microsoft's mobile Windows CE core operating system differs dramatically from its desktop Windows operating system, but the two will grow closer together in appearance as Windows 8 adopts a similar, top level interface to Windows Phone 7 and the Zune.
In contrast, Apple's desktop Mac OS X and mobile iOS share the same core operating system and use optimized versions of the company's proprietary Cocoa development platform to deliver native apps, but differ in the interface they present, with Mac OS X retaining a mouse-based windowing environment while iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad present a completely rethought, touch-based interface.
Microsoft's own efforts to build a cohesive development environment for both the Windows CE-based Windows Mobile 6 and its desktop Windows XP/Vista/7 platform initially revolved around the company's .Net APIs before shifting Windows Phone 7 to use Microsoft's Adobe Flash-like Silverlight as its mobile app platform.
Now, Microsoft is announcing a new shift that leverages the interest in HTML5 to deliver "web-connected and web-powered" apps (similar to HP's webOS platform acquired from Palm) that will run alongside legacy Windows apps on the forthcoming Windows 8. Microsoft says this approach "is designed and optimized for touch," although the company also says "it works equally well with a mouse and keyboard."
This all happened before
Microsoft took a similar approach to catching up to Apple's Macintosh in the early 90s, layering a Mac-like user interface on top of DOS to initially deliver Windows, resulting in an operating system that looked like a Mac but could still revert to running text-based DOS apps.
The new HTML5 layer of Windows 8 works like the Dashboard layer of Mac OS X, although rather than only supplying quick assess to simple widgets, the new "Windows 8 apps" are intended to supply a layer of highly animated, full screen, touch-based apps capable of competing with native apps running on Apple's iPad.
Like Apple's iOS, Windows 8 is intended to be deployed on highly mobile devices such as ARM-based tablets in addition to the conventional PCs Windows has powered in the past. Unlike Apple's iOS, which became instantly popular on the iPhone before expanding to the iPod touch and iPad, Microsoft's tile-based Zune interface hasn't yet found a significant, sustainable audience. After the Zune failed, Microsoft KIN and Windows Phone 7 have both found little interest among consumers.
Microsoft's radical experimentation with Windows Vista in 2007 caused a negative backlash from Windows PC users, which has only settled down with the more conservative release of Windows 7. Sales of PCs have yet to rebound to levels prior to the release of Vista, and new mobile devices, in particular Apple's iPad, have siphoned off a significant amount of demand among generic PCs.
Microsoft does have considerable clout among its developers and hardware makers however, and describes the new Windows 8 as its biggest risk yet, hoping the new release, due sometime over the next couple years, will bring it back into relevance among new generations of consumers.