In a coordinated, trans-continental series of presentations at Computex in Taipei and All Things D:9 in Palos Verdes, California, Microsoft revealed key details about the next version of its Windows operating system, code-named “Windows 8.” Windows 8 is a “reimagining” of Windows from top to bottom: new chipsets, new hardware, a new user interface, and a new application model. Microsoft has not yet announced a release date (or year) for Windows 8, but intends for Windows 8 to power everything from tablets to clamshells to desktops and larger surfaces. The next version of Windows will:

  • Run natively on system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs, including ARM-based processors.The importance of this development is hard to overstate. Windows on ARM means that Windows devices will get online faster and stay online longer. They can take on new form factors, including tablets and hardware that has yet to be invented.
  • Deliver touch-first experiences, while supporting legacy peripherals and devices. Windows 7 “supported” touch but was not “touch-first,” a distinction apparent to anyone observing the use of a Windows 7 tablet or an HP TouchSmart PC. Windows 8 works with keyboards and mice but is truly touch-first, with a redesigned start screen (no more “start” menu!) and a tile-based UI similar to Windows Phone 7.
  • Build a new app ecosystem, while supporting older desktop applications too. Windows 8 will introduce an entirely new model for application development and distribution. Apps shown in the tiles will be “alive,” constantly updated and responding to a user’s state. Microsoft will give developers new tools to take advantage of hardware acceleration and sensors, and appears to be launching a store to distribute those apps (more details are sure to come at the BUILD developers conference in September).

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Windows 8: What’s the cloud story? How will assets like Skype, Xbox Live, and Kinect be integrated? When will Windows 8 come to market? Who are the partners that will build the hardware, and what will they build? But at this point in the story, we’re seeing a lot to like. It has the markers of a post-PC product: Windows on ARM will enable more ubiquitous and casual computing experiences; touch-first will make Windows more intimate and physical. If Microsoft executes well—and brings Windows 8 to market by 2012, which they haven’t officially said they will do—it will stave off defection from OEM partners to alternative operating systems, and from consumers and enterprises tempted by Apple’s platform.

As it relates to tablets, a well-formed Windows 8 will pose serious problems to Android. Consumers prefer Windows to Android on tablets by a wide margin: 46% of US consumers considering buying a tablet prefer Windows on that tablet, compared with 9% who prefer Android, according to a Forrester study conducted in January 2011. OEMs who have seen their Android tablets fail will dial back those investments in favor of Windows tablets. If Windows 8 tablets hit the market in 2012, they’ll be competing against third-generation iPads—no easy feat, and we expect Apple to maintain at least 70% market share into next year. But Microsoft will be a contender. What’s more, they’ll have a product that can compete across devices, and a foothold in the post-PC future.