Windows 8: the first truly digital interface?

Can a different paradigm of mobile computer use get any traction in the market? Let's hope so - because Microsoft is the only one trying.

I was walking through the halls of a London university yesterday, and in every common room, in the library, in the caf├ęs, all I saw in use were MacBooks. Apple seemed to own the student market. But in all the computer labs, there were wall-to-wall PCs.

Therein lies the challenge to Microsoft. For years – certainly since the mid-90s – it has been able to take its dominance in the corporate sphere and use that to dominate home computing, too. It has been the behemoth, the defining force of our computing experience for nigh-on 20 years. Nobody has ever successfully challenged that.

And yet.

Year by year, through iPods, iPhones and then, finally, iPads, Apple has slowly worked its way into people’s lives, with Google hard on its heels. Many people’s computing experience is defined by Google with their Android phones, and Apple with their iPads, and Microsoft only getting a look in when they user has no choice in the purchasing decision. And now people are bringing their personal devices to work, and Microsoft’s unassailable dominance looks, well, assailable.

In an odd reversal of the situation in the 80s, Microsoft was first to smartphones and tablets, but has been rendered to a bit part player by newcomers: Apple and Google. The behemoth has become the upstart, and the launch of Windows 8, the Surface tablet and Windows Phone 8 mark the beginning of its fightback.

I really want it to succeed – and not just for competitive reasons. The Windows 8 interface (once known as Metro) is the first mobile and tablet interface that seems to me to be completely digital. It no longer relies on real world analogues to hint to you what you should be doing, but instead exists in its own tough-driven metaphor of tiles that you are invited to reach out and touch. It’s a lovely, modern, even scifi approach, that is sadly somewhat undermined by Microsoft’s traditional back-compatibility which leaves the traditional Windows interface lurking underneath in some versions.

More than that, though, it offers more of an alternative vision of mobile computing. At this point Android and iOS feel like two different flavours of the same basic concept of handheld computing. Windows 8 gives us something different, something that goes from the phone to the desktop computer fairly seamlessly, and which presupposes fluid switching of working methods on the same device, rather than using different devices, with data carried seamlessly between them.

It’s not my style of working – but a world with alternatives, with competing visions, is a better world than one without. For once, Microsoft is the one exploring a new space, while its competitors grow comfortable in the explored portions of the map.