The next version of Microsoft's operating system will be a radical departure from the past. If you have anything to do with Windows - whether as a user or in a support function - you had better get up to speed on the upcoming changes.

Here is what you need to know.

What is Windows 8?

Windows 8 is the code name for the newest OS from Microsoft. In fact, the "windows" part of the name might give you the (incorrect) impression that this OS has something to do with its namesake's history. As a result, there is a good chance this OS will receive a different name when it is released.

Windows 8 is Microsoft's attempt to marry one operating system across several platforms - the PC, the tablet and the smartphone. The philosophy makes sense from a user's perspective. Why learn different ways of doing things on different devices? Wouldn't it be simpler to have just one way to launch apps, or talk to Twitter, or send photos to Mom?

To accomplish this, Windows 8 will come out in at least four versions, including a traditional Intel-chip version for PCs as well as an ARM version for phones or portable tablet-like devices. The catch is that all these versions will treat the user experience in a similar way, allowing users to easily bounce from one version to the other.

How do you log on?

Security is a big deal in today's environment. With the emphasis on cloud computing, interconnectivity and social sharing, it will even be bigger in the future. As a result, users will certainly have to "log in" to their devices.

Windows 8 provides three ways to get into your personal account:
  • The PC-like login name and password
  • A PIN process like that used with a bank card
  • A graphical picture drawing process
With the latter, users will be presented with a graphical image - say a cartoon character of your pet - and will be asked to draw some identifying patterns on the image - like the spots on your dog's coat - which are then verified to ensure you are who you say you are.

What will I see when I log on?

The graphics you see on a Windows 8 screen are radically different than anything available to date. The concept is called the "Metro Interface" which Microsoft explains as the code name for the design language. That doesn't help much when understanding it, so imagine a series of tiled boxes on the screen. Each box might be a different size, shape and color. Together, they are a mosaic of tiles.

These tiles can be apps running in the background, or incoming emails or shared photos - just about anything you can imagine. The tiles will be constantly changing as things happen in the background. You might see a new message from a Twitter friend pop up, or a calendar date appear announcing a meeting, or an Excel Office App updating a spreadsheet.

Most importantly, the Windows 8 screen is touch-enabled. Think of it as a touchable, visual skin you operate with gestures. Swipe left to see other running apps, swipe right to see the Search and Share (the equivalent to Windows' existing Start button), or pinch to zoom.

Will I need new hardware?

In short, yes. New equipment will be required to take advantage of the power of Windows 8. In the case of smartphones or tablets, most present equipment will be inadequate, but replacement will not be prohibitively expensive anyway. In the case of your PC, a 16x9 wide-screen monitor capable of at least 1366x768 resolution will be advantageous when it comes to the Metro I/F. Better yet, a new generation of tactile screens is sure to follow on the heels of the Windows 8 OS.

Will the ordinary, everyday user want to go to touch-enabled apps on the PC? That remains to be seen, but the change may not be all or nothing. For example, a new generation of touch-enabled mice may appear in the marketplace, providing a combination of old-school mousing and new touch-screen capabilities. (Read about some groundbreaking technology you're likely to see in PCs in the near future in Be Amazed: A Glimpse At Your Future PC.)

What is the learning curve?

If all this talk of new user interfaces has you worried, rest assured that that Microsoft's trademark Windows style will still be present in Windows 8. If you are more comfortable with Start buttons and program lists, you will still find these behind the Metro interface. The existing office apps will continue to run on the hardware that supports them now. The "ribbon" interface that now appears in Microsoft Office applications has also been expanded to include other functions like Windows Explorer. In other words, if you are a Windows user, you will still feel at home.

However, if you move to the new look and feel of Metro and its mosaic of tiles, things will be considerably different. This does not mean more difficult - just different. In fact, there are some considerable advantages to the new approach. So, Metro makes it easier to work with when space requirements are limited, the touch interface is quicker and using gestures gets you where you want to go faster than any other approach.

How will the user experience differ from yesterday's Windows?

The changes start with the boot process. The painfully slow process to get to the point where you can log in has been sped up dramatically - to as as fast as 10 seconds.

There is also a new version of the browser, Internet Explorer 10, built into Windows 8. It improves on the current browser's ability to take advantage of hardware for graphics processing so that browsing certain websites built on HTML5 will be faster. (Learn more in Moving From Flash to HTML5.)

The most significant change will be the changing aspect of what we now call the desktop. The tiles of the Metro system are dynamic, so they will be able to change on their own in response to behind-the-scenes events. Where the present Windows desktop consists of static icons, the Windows 8 desktop will be one of constant motion as each tile updates itself. If you have any number of apps running, this could make for a busy, busy screen.

A more disconcerting aspect of Windows 8 is the idea that the user does not need to shut down any one app. In fact, there is not even the ability to close a window. Instead, you will just swipe to a new app and leave the old one running behind the scenes. The OS will decide when memory pressures or other resources need to be freed up for you.

How does the touch interface work?

When it comes to the user's experience, the major difference is Windows 8's touch interface. Swipes to the right and left will be Windows 8-related functions; swipes up and down will affect the application that is running in the foreground.

A swipe in on the right brings the Charms menu - including Start, Search, Share, Devices and Settings options - into view. This is the equivalent of the Start button and can also be brought into focus with the Windows key found on users' keyboard. A swipe on the left will bring each running app into the foreground. Layouts are mainly horizontal, and Metro's buttons, tabs and menus disappear automatically to give apps the maximum screen size. In addition, the touch I/F is multitouch, which means that if you can figure out how to make your fingers work together, you can do two touch motions at a time.

Will all applications run?

Windows 8 applications will be built on a foundation of HTML5, CSS and JavaScript with what Microsoft refers to as a "tailored platform." This provides full access to the Metro interface for future development, although existing legacy Windows apps will continue to work on Windows 8. The familiar Windows desktop is still available, but as an app itself and not as the primary starting point for the user environment. Traditional Windows apps can be installed but are also given a tile on the Metro start screen at the same time.

How are Metro apps different?

It sounds like Metro apps are somehow different than legacy Windows apps, and in some ways they are. Underneath it all, a Metro app will run on all the new platforms, whereas legacy apps will only run on Intel-based hardware. But this really should be seamless to the user. If there are differences the user may notice, these will occur in one of two areas. The first is that a Metro app can communicate with other Metro apps. This means that a photo-sharing app can talk directly to an email app. Users will notice there's no more need for cut and paste to get a picture from one to the other - the apps can do it all in the background.

Second, hardware added to a Windows 8 device is "just supposed to work". There will be no installation required or large sets of drivers to install. In the same way that one Metro app can talk to another, a Bluetooth-enabled keyboard should come alive the moment it is in range of a Windows 8 device.

Is it cloud based?

"The cloud" is everyone's favorite techie catch phrase these days, so it must work in Windows 8, right?"

The answer is yes, if for no other reason than that such similarity between devices and the ability to move back and forth between them is bound to bring some means of sharing. It will be the cloud that makes such sharing possible.

This will be important for users in several ways. The first is that as the common thread between all your Windows 8 devices, your Windows Live login will become much more important than it is now. Second, some interconnectivity will require a central location from which to operate. Microsoft has indicated a new Windows 8 App Store will serve that function. Expect to be able to purchase your music downloads, Metro apps, TV shows and all sorts of other things there in the near future.

A New Paradigm

These 10 things you should know about Windows 8 illustrate a whole new IT paradigm; if Apple was the first to introduce the touch-based OS, Microsoft wants to be the first to make it universal across devices.