MICROSOFT has gone back to the drawing board with Windows 8, reinventing itself for the post-PC era. In the ever-changing world of technology, the familiar Windows desktop has remained consistent for almost 20 years. But Windows 8 ushers in a total redesign intended to unite Microsoft's computers and hand-held gadgets with a single touch-friendly interface. While it may appeal to the touchscreen generation, Windows 8's new look presents a steep learning curve for those not familiar with smartphones and tablets.
Windows 8 is built around the new tile-based ''Modern UI'' interface borrowed from touchscreen devices. It's the first thing you'll see when you start up a desktop or notebook computer running Windows 8, plus it's the basis of Microsoft's new Surface tablets and Windows Phone 8 smartphones. With Modern UI you can use your finger to tap and flick your way around Windows Store apps, similar to an Apple or Android tablet. If you're upgrading an old computer to Windows 8, you can still get by with only a keyboard and mouse, but many new Windows 8 notebooks and even some desktops feature touchscreen displays.
For many people, the loss of the traditional Windows desktop will be disorienting at first, as if you'd sat down in a car with no steering wheel. But once you get to know Modern UI, you realise it's more than capable of handling most of your day-to-day tasks, such as checking your email, browsing the web, playing games and even editing documents. One of its strengths is tight integration with Microsoft's Hotmail email service (now called ''Outlook''), SkyDrive online storage, Xbox 360 gaming platform and Office applications such as Word and Excel.
The key to finding your way around Modern UI and Windows Store apps is to master the idea of swiping your finger in from the top, bottom or side of the screen to call up various menus. It's not dissimilar to swiping your finger down from the top of an Android or Apple gadget to see your list of notifications. You can also perform these gestures on Windows 8 with a mouse or trackpad, but they're more natural and intuitive on touchscreen devices such as tablets.
While Microsoft is a latecomer to the touchscreen revival, it's actually leading the way in offering the same user experience on desktops, notebooks, tablets and smartphones. You can run many of the same applications on all of your Windows 8 devices, from Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer to touch-friendly games such as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja.
Right now this unified experience is Microsoft's key strength over the competition. The difficulty for Microsoft is convincing people to take the leap, as Microsoft's new smartphones and tablets can struggle to stand out from their Apple and Android alternatives.
Thankfully it is possible to hide Modern UI on a Windows 8 desktop or notebook computer to reveal the traditional Windows desktop. This means you can still run desktop software such as Photoshop, which isn't designed for the tablet-style Modern UI.
But once you find the Windows 8 desktop, you're still in for a few surprises. The biggest is that Microsoft has killed off the iconic Start menu - a change likely to flummox a generation of Windows users. Once again it is possible to survive without the Start menu, but it can be a difficult transition.
It's quite telling that PC makers such as Acer and retailers including Harvey Norman are offering free online tutorials and phone support for new Windows 8 customers. Moving to Windows 8 presents a steep learning curve on desktop and notebook computers, but the touch-friendly Modern UI feels more natural on Microsoft's new Surface tablets.
Microsoft is offering two tablet models: the Surface RT and Surface Pro. The key difference is that the Surface RT runs Windows RT - offering only the Modern UI interface and tablet-style apps. You can't run desktop Windows software, such as Photoshop, on Windows RT. In this way the Surface RT is like an iPad or Android tablet, although right now these competitors have access to a lot more touchscreen apps and a wider range of accessories. The Surface RT's strengths include its
micro-SD slot and full-sized USB port. Both options are lacking from the iPad, and while most Android devices accept micro-SD cards, few offer a full-sized USB port.
The Surface RT tablet is already available for order, at similar pricing to the iPad, and you've the option of a Surface case with a built-in keyboard. Meanwhile, we're unlikely to see the more expensive Surface Pro until January. Priced similar to the slimline Windows 8 notebooks, the Surface Pro tablet offers the best of both worlds. Just like a Windows 8 desktop or notebook, the Surface Pro runs both Modern UI with Windows Store apps and traditional desktop software, such as Photoshop.
While Microsoft has taken the unusual move of releasing its own ''Surface'' Windows 8 tablets, hardware makers such as Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba are also offering Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets. You'll even find hybrid devices, such as notebooks with detachable keyboards.
The final piece of the puzzle is Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 software, set to run on new smartphones from brands such as Nokia, HTC and Samsung. Improvements with Windows Phone 8 help bring it into line with competitors such as Apple's iPhone 5 and Samsung's Galaxy S III 4G. Unfortunately, current Windows Phone 7 handsets can't run Windows Phone 8, but they will get a Windows 7.8 update to match Modern UI styling.
Nokia's coming Lumia 920 runs Windows Phone 8 and offers cutting-edge features such as wireless charging and LTE 4G for high-speed mobile broadband. You'll also find Near Field Communications for short-range interactions, including linking to a digital wallet that can hold credit card and loyalty card details. Nokia is also building on its strong camera heritage as well as impressive mapping features.
Individually, all these new Windows 8 devices have an uphill battle against established competitors, but Windows 8 is more than the sum of its parts. Microsoft is hoping that the slick Modern UI interface on Windows 8 computers will encourage people to embrace Windows 8 phones and tablets, and vice versa. While it presents a daunting leap for some people, the touch-friendly Windows 8 may offer Microsoft's best chance of success in the post-PC era.