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Microsoft delivers 'copy Apple' Windows 8 message

Sinofsky admits 'balancing act' to avoid fondle fumble

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With Windows 8, Microsoft is joining Apple and Linux-shop Canonical in trying to make its signature operating system mouse-free and more touchable for use on devices like tablets.

The approach Microsoft is taking, however, has more in common with Apple than Canonical – chief custodian of the popular Ubuntu – as Windows chief Steven Sinofsky has inadvertently just reminded everyone.

It's a cautious approach that might yet save Microsoft from fumbling tablets.

Windows and Windows Live president Sinofsky closed August by going once more unto the blogosphere to tell both the fearful and the red-blooded developer optimists in Microsoft's camp that Windows 8 will have not one but two interfaces: the tiled, Windows Mobile-like Metro that has been the industry buzz for the best part of 2011 and is being built for tablets and, oh yeah, something for PCs.

Sinofsky told the blogosphere that Microsoft is not forcing an either-or approach on developers or customers.

A man who likes to control the message as much as development of product, Sinofsky was forced to restate the strategy after an earlier post on his Building Windows 8 blog caused turbulence when his team showed off a creeping ribbonisation of the Windows 8 interface.

What was blogged was just a glimpse into what is going on in Windows 8 but it was enough to get people excited, confused, worried and angry. The Explorer file manager is going the way of Office, with a ribbon interface designed to make it easier to find popular actions and commands.

Just how far is Microsoft going on the matter of putting the ribbon UI in Windows 8? Classic Sinofsky: he didn't say. Even in his follow-up blog to calm things down, he wasn't saying.

The Explorer meltdown followed Sinofsky's demos earlier in the year of the tiled Metro interface, which is giving Windows 8 a Windows Mobile look as well as its touchability.

Stepping in on Wednesday, Sinofsky said:

Some of you are probably wondering how these parts work together to create a harmonious experience. Are there two user interfaces? Why not move on to a Metro style experience everywhere? On the other hand, others have been suggesting that Metro is only for tablets and touch, and we should avoid 'dumbing down' Windows 8 with that design.

Microsoft is not the only operating system maker trying to change the way people interact with its software. A PC market that had become fat and happy is suddenly looking out of shape and behind the times, thanks to Steve Jobs. Analysts and even the PC makers are asking whether "this is it" for PCs as smartphones outsell them. Is this a blip caused by the economy or are seismic forces causing a permanent re-alignment of the techtonic plates?

If it's a permanent change, then the operating system makers must put changes in place that let end-users touch and poke at apps on screens optimised to make more of the available space, where the apps are fired up from icons, and the apps are grouped together after being downloaded.

There are two ways of dealing with this: revolution or exploration, and the approach an OS maker picks has much to do with how deeply vested it is in that fat-and-happy camp.

If you have a relatively minimal PC market share, then you have little to lose by going with revolution. Canonical committed to this strategy with Ubuntu 11.04 when it set the touch-friendly Unity as its default interface. If you have market share of any kind, even if you are Apple and own the cursed device causing problems for so many, then you'll want to take an approach that doesn't flame-grill your existing PC business.

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