Microsoft Taking Big Gamble On Surface, Windows 8

All Things Considered host Melissa Block talks with technology reporter Nick Wingfield of the New York Times about the upcoming release Windows 8. He says Microsoft's newest operating system is the company's most radical leap forward since the move from an arcane, text-based operating system to the icon-based one users are accustomed to today.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And along with that launch of the Surface tablet that Laura just mentioned comes another launch this week from Microsoft. The company is releasing its new computer operating system, Windows 8, on Friday. Some early reviews have called it bold, impressive and downright confusing.

New York Times tech reporter Nick Wingfield has been trying out Windows 8 in advance of the launch, and he joins me now from Seattle. Nick, welcome to the program.

NICK WINGFIELD: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Nick, I'm looking at a screen shot of the start page, and I'm seeing a bunch of bright tiles, a turquoise one with an envelop on it, a red one with a pair of headphones. Explain how this new system works.

WINGFIELD: Well, what you're looking at right there is kind of a mosaic of what Microsoft calls Live Tiles. And they represent various applications - your email, maps and Web browsing - but they also come to life with information from the Internet, I think including photos and photo sharing sites, emails that you've just received, news headlines and so on. So it's kind of this animated experience that supposed to be awake with fresh information from the Internet all the time.

BLOCK: And it's also supposed to work equally well, in theory, either by touch or using a mouse?

WINGFIELD: That's what Microsoft says. Yes, they designed this to be a one-size-fits-all operating system that can work on devices that are similar to the iPad that are touch only, as well as computers that are traditional with a keyboard and mouse and a new generation of devices that are a combination of the two.

Apple is really doing something different, which is to have one software for its touch device, the iPad, and to have one computer operating system which is the Mac. So it really sees these as two different things.

BLOCK: And as you experimented with Windows 8, what do you think about that one-size-fits-all approach? Does it seem to work equally well if you're manipulating it with touch or with a mouse?

WINGFIELD: It definitely works best with touch. There are many things that they've done that just make it look better on touch-based devices. There is a bit more of a learning curve when it comes to using it with a keyboard and mouse. The big question is whether consumers can overcome this and whether they find it as productive to do that, especially when they're working on business tasks on their computers.

BLOCK: As you messed around, Nick, with the new operating system, what was the hardest thing for you to get used to it?

WINGFIELD: You know, it was a number of different things. Things disappear. Like, functions that you would normally just see, you know, sitting at the top of your applications, you would have to kind of wake up by moving your cursor into a certain part of the screen.

You know, I think that there is also a slightly confusing thing that Microsoft has done, which is they've also given you the old interface that people will be familiar with from their older Windows computers. But you kind of shift into it for certain applications and not for others. Going back and forth, I think, is one thing that could potentially confuse people.

BLOCK: Do you think it's a smart step for Microsoft to take, or do you think it will alienate their user base, a base that might not really like change?

WINGFIELD: It seems very high risk to me. But bigger risk for them was doing nothing. They are in a market that has been radically changed by new devices like the iPad, and they've taken some big risks. It looks different than any other operating system that's out there. Microsoft is not associated with taking big risks with its software like this, so it's encouraging to see them do that. The question is whether the risks have been too big and the changes too disruptive.

BLOCK: That's Nick Wingfield, technology reporter with The New York Times. We were talking about Microsoft's new operating system, Windows 8, which launches on Friday. Nick, thanks so much.

WINGFIELD: Thank you.

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