Foolish First Impressions of Microsoft's Windows 8 Release Preview

It's been a few months, but Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) delivered its final pre-release preview of its next major operating system, Windows 8, back in May. I finally got around to installing it on my computer to take it for a quick test-drive and better assess its prospects on whether it can reinvigorate the PC market.

I'm running it on an Apple (NAS: AAPL) iMac using virtualization software, and I use Microsoft's online services only to a limited extent, so perhaps my experience isn't full-fledged. Nevertheless, here are some Foolish first impressions.

You say you want a revolution
Microsoft has big plans for Windows 8, starting with the incorporation of its tile-interface (which isn't called "Metro" anymore, thanks to a trademark spat). It focuses heavily on minimalist design and sports a marked emphasis on typography -- interestingly, two things that Apple is known for.

Source: Windows 8 Release Preview.

Source: Windows 8 Release Preview.

I've generally always been a fan of it within the context of a touchscreen mobile device, but using it on a desktop is a little silly, frankly. It's not unusable by any means, but it just feels out of place. This is partly why Windows 8 is potentially such a big deal -- because Microsoft is trying to redefine the desktop user interface paradigm that's been in place for decades.

That's a tall order to fill when you fathom how many billions of computer users have grown up with traditional desktops and are arguably hardwired for the status quo. Don't worry, though, because the good old familiar desktop is still there, too.

Source: Windows 8 Release Preview.

Source: Windows 8 Release Preview.

With the click of a tile, the user is whisked away, right back to the comforting arms of the desktop we all know and love, minus the Start menu. This is another example of how Microsoft will be pulling a fast one on its users, removing a core functionality that's been around since Windows 95.

Microsoft says it's conducted studies through its Customer Experience Improvement Program and found that users now prefer to access favorite software applications by pinning them to the taskbar (not unlike the Mac OS X dock) and don't use the Start menu as much anymore. From here on out, applications will primarily be opened via the taskbar or Start screen.

Is there an app for that?
Another Apple cue comes from the Windows Store, which is similar to the Mac App Store, 30% cut and all. Choosing to operate a curated repository of apps is also another big change for Microsoft.

Windows Store (top) vs. Mac App Store (bottom). Sources: Windows 8 Release Preview, Mac OS X.

Windows Store (top) vs. Mac App Store (bottom). Sources: Windows 8 Release Preview, Mac OS X.

Many of the preinstalled apps tie directly into Microsoft's various services, from email to Bing maps, among others. There's even a handy stocks app to pull up a quote of Mr. Softy's shares.

Source: Windows 8 Release Preview.

Source: Windows 8 Release Preview.

There are already a respectable number of apps available, a testament to Microsoft's aggressive coordination with developers to sign on and peddle their digital wares.

Wintel and friends need this
Overall, it's a novel experience on a desktop, but ultimately one that's also not very compelling for this Fool. This is something I've been saying from day one: "I think Windows 8 will be a winner in the tablet market, though I do have some reservations on how the OS will fare in the traditional desktop and laptop segments, since the UI is so heavily geared toward touch."

The problem there is that Microsoft's PC partners, such as Intel (NAS: INTC) , are counting on having Windows 8 reinvigorate the sluggish PC market. If Windows 8 bombs in traditional PC form factors, and even if it sees tablet success, the net result will be negative for Intel, as well as PC vendors Dell (NAS: DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ) , both of which already need all the help they can get.

All three of these companies are also relying in Windows 8 for entry into the tablet market that remains dominated by the iPad. Growing tablet sales for them would be nice, yet probably negligible compared with declines in PC unit shipments, so in the end, tablet strength may not be enough to compensate for PC weakness.

As it stands, I don't see much reason for the average Windows user to make the plunge with Windows 8, especially since the very capable Windows 7 was launched less than three years ago. Early adopters can get promotional pricing that can be as little as $15 if you just bought a Windows 7 PC. Eventually, the full retail price will jump to $200 after January -- and that's where I think Microsoft may hit a wall. The OS will naturally ship preinstalled with new PCs going forward, but again we've already acknowledged that the PC market ain't what it used to be.

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Fool contributorEvan Niuowns shares of Apple, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out hisholdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Microsoft, Apple, and Intel, creating a bull call spread position in Apple, and creating a synthetic covered call position in Microsoft. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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