Microsoft held a major launch event for Windows 8 in New York City today, ahead of Friday's retail release of the new operating system, showing for the first time how it intends to meet hot competition from rivals Apple and Google.

While the company faces market worries about the big changes it’s asking its millions of consumer and corporate customers to accept with the radically redesigned operating system, it appears confident that people will love what it is proposing.

Windows 8 will tie together the company’s operating systems for PCs, tablets and smartphones with one icon-centred look that operates similarly across several platforms.

"Most importantly for today, Windows 8 does bring together the best of the worlds — PC, tablet, work and play," chief executive Steve Ballmer told his New York audience. "In the case of Windows 8, seeing, touching, clicking — and swiping — is really believing."

The familiar Windows desktop is still available through one of the tiles, and most programs will open in that environment. But since the start button is gone, users will have to flip back and forth between the desktop and the tile screen.

Technology writer Peter Nowak is live-blogging for CBCNews.ca from the Microsoft event today, both at the morning Windows 8 event and the afternoon presentation of Microsoft's new tablet, the Surface.

The Surface is Microsoft's own entry into the suddenly burgeoning tablet market. It has a 10.6-inch screen, versus 9.7 inches for the iPad and 7.9 inches for the new iPad mini introduced earlier this week. It has a unique combination cover-keyboard and comes with 64 gigbytes of storage.

Plenty of advice

On the operating system side, there's potential for confusion, because there's one version of Windows 8, called "Windows RT," which looks like the PC version but doesn’t run regular Windows programs. It's intended for tablets and lightweight tablet-laptop hybrids.

Microsoft has had preview versions of Windows 8 widely available since February and has been on the receiving end of plenty of advice as a result.

As well, the company has opened an "app store" like Apple's that offers applications for Windows 8. And like Apple, the pricing of its operating system has come way down, with downloadable versions available more in the $25-to-$40 range, depending on upgrade status. Upgrades on DVD will cost $69.99.

What Windows 8 needs

According to Microsoft, Windows 8 is capable of running even on some older and less well equipped PCs, though it's designed to shine on touch screens and tablets. Here are the minimum specs, according to PC World:

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz or faster
  • RAM: 1 GB (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
  • Disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
  • Graphics: Microsoft DirectX 9 device with WDDM driver
  • Screen resolution: minimum 1024 by 768

Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Financial, is optimistic about Windows 8, pointing out that it's snappy and runs well on PCs with limited processing power, making it suited for compact, tablet-style machines. But he also notes that through Microsoft's history, roughly every other operating system release has been a letdown.

Intel Corp. makes the processors that go into 80 per cent of PCs, and has a strong interest in the success of Windows.

Huge step

CEO Paul Otellini said Oct. 16 that when the company has let consumers try Windows 8 on expensive "ultrabook" laptops with touch screens, "the feedback is universally positive." But he told analysts that he doesn’t really know if people will embrace Windows 8 for mainstream PCs.

si-windowsxp-220

This logo was used from 2001 to 2006 for the Windows XP operating system. (Microsoft)

The new version is a huge step forward from where Microsoft began with Windows in 1985. Then, it was a "shell" wrapped around the underlying MS-DOS operating system.

That evolved into Windows 3.0 and 3.1 in the early 1990s — taking advantage of more powerful microprocessors — and then into Windows 95 and 98. Several controversial versions followed.

Windows XP was by far Microsoft’s most successful consumer product. It was based on the company’s resilient business operating system, Windows NT, and eventually overtook NT as a widely used business system.

Subsequent versions included Windows 2000, Vista, and Windows 7.

Several Windows 8 versions being offered

There will be several versions of Windows 8:

Windows 8

Like its predecessors, Windows 8 will run on computers with processing chips made by Intel Corp. or Advanced Micro Devices Inc. There's a basic version designed for consumers and a Pro version for more tech-savvy users and businesses. The Pro version has such features as encryption and group account management. Large companies with volume-licensing deals with Microsoft will want Windows 8 Enterprise, which has additional tools for information-technology staff to manage machines.

Windows RT

For the first time, there will also be a version running on lower-energy chips common in phones and tablets. That version will run on tablets and some devices that marry tablet and PC features. While tablets with Windows 8 can run standard Windows programs, the RT devices will be restricted to applications specifically designed for the system. Borrowing from Apple's playbook, Microsoft is allowing RT to get applications only from its online store, and apps must meet content and other guidelines.

Windows Phone 8

While Windows 8 and RT will be out Friday, the phone version won't be available until an unspecified date this fall. Microsoft has an event on it Monday and may announce more details then. Nokia Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. already have announced plans for new Windows phones.

You can get Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 only by buying devices with the software already installed, while Windows 8 can be purchased as an upgrade as well.

 

With files from The Associated Press