Saying the company is going "all-in", Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer Thursday formally launched Windows 8 at a glitzy event in New York City.
Windows 8 is designed to run on PCs and tablet computers, heralding the biggest change to the industry's dominant operating system in at least 17 years. It also marks the first time that Microsoft has made touch-screen control the top priority, though the system can still be switched into the familiar desktop mode that allows for control by keyboard and mouse.
"Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC now really is," Ballmer said at the launch event. "We've truly reimagined Windows and kicked off a new era of Microsoft and for our customers."
Ballmer sees Windows 8 as the catalyst for a new era at Microsoft. He wants the operating system to ensure the company plays an integral role on all the important screens in people's lives - PCs, smartphones, tablets and televisions.
If Ballmer is right, Windows 8 will prove that the world's largest software maker still has the technological chops and marketing muscle to shape the future of computing.
"This is going to be his defining moment," said technology industry analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy. Ballmer's "legacy will be looked at as what he did or didn't do with Windows 8. If Windows 8 is not a success, a lot of people will be looking for Microsoft to make a change at the CEO level."
There's plenty of debate among reviewers about whether computer users need to upgrade or run out and buy a new PC or tablet running Windows 8 right away. It officially goes on sale Friday.
The new OS features a complete overhaul of the familiar Windows interface, emphasizing touch screen interactivity and new mosaic of tiles displaying desktop applications taking the place of the the familiar desktop icons that have been a staple for decades.
"It's like landing on another planet. If you've been using Windows dating back probably back to Windows 95 and before, you'll open this new operating system up and you would not recognize it as Windows if your life depended on it. It is completely foreign," says Todd Bishop, technology analyst with Geekwire.com.
Bishop has been putting Windows 8 through its paces for months. He says it shines on a tablet, which the company emphasized in its development to go head to head with Apple's dominant iPad.
"If you're thinking about an iPad or other new tablet, then Windows 8 is definitely worth a look. It's actually a very good experience. You have to learn a few things about where to swipe and what to do. For the most part it's like moving into a new house and getting used to the furniture and most people will probably go through that learning curve on tablets," he says.
Bishop also calls it a great experience on a new touch screen PC. A number of computer makers are releasing new models this holiday season to take advantage of the functionality. But he says if you're not in the market for a new PC, you're just fine sticking with what you've got.
"If you don't have a touch screen computer, chances are you just want to stick with Windows 7. It's far an away good enough, it's a stable solid operating system and there's really no need to upgrade to Windows 8," he says.
But other reviewers say Windows 8 is worth the upgrade even with an existing PC (if your computer meets the minimum requirements) because it starts up and runs a lot faster than its predecessor, and runs the new iPad-like apps being developed specifically to run on Windows 8 on PC's, tablets and smartphones alike.
"I've been testing Windows 8 over the last few months, and I've come to really enjoy using it," writes Wired Magazine's Alexandra Chang. "Yes, it took a lot of re-learning and adjustment. Yes, I felt lost and baffled at first. And sure, I was a bit sad to see the Start Menu vanish. (There are others who feel the same way and have solutions.) Several small annoyances remain for Microsoft to work out. But if you're willing to put in a little bit of initial effort to learn the ropes, Windows 8 is definitely worth the upgrade."
"Windows 8 and the new UI is going to be fantastic for consumers. Everything that you could ever want to enjoy in life - movies, music, games, etc - are all available at your fingertips in the new UI," writes Zach Walton of Web Pro News. "It might take a little getting used to at first, especially with a laptop trackpad, but you'll get the hang of it. I've been using the Windows 8 release preview on my two-year-old laptop for the past month and it's second nature now."
Windows 8 comes in two flavors for PC users, a basic version and Windows 8 Pro. The company says for many consumers, "Windows 8 is the right choice," while Windows 8 Pro is designed "to help tech enthusiasts and business/technical professionals obtain a broader set of Windows 8 technologies." The company is offering upgrade downloads for $39.99 for PC's purchased prior to June 2, while newly purchased PC users can upgrade for $14.99.
Still, its likely many long time Microsoft users aren't necessarily clamoring for the latest and greatest the way Apple enthusiasts do. And Bishop says what's most important for the company is whether people take to Windows 8 and its successors in the coming years, not just his holiday season.
"This isn't so much about Microsoft in 2012, it's about the future Even if Windows 8 flops, the company will continue to thrive in the short term. The question is whether Microsoft will still be in that leadership position five, six, seven years and a decade down the road and when we get to that point one way or the other people are going to look back at Windows 8 and see that this was really the pivotal moment."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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