It's just over a week since the Windows 8 Release Preview hit the download streams, and it's certainly been an interesting week for the Wintel ecosystem, with a whole raft of new form factors and devices announced at this year's Computex. Ultrabooks look here to stay (even if Apple has taken a patent out on the thin wedge form factor they all seem to be using), and this year's new trend is the hybrid PC/tablet.
Except of course it isn’t new. And neither are the form factors.
I'm actually writing this piece on a hybrid PC/tablet, running Windows 8. But it's not a prototype, and it's not something cutting edge I've been lent by Intel or Microsoft. It's just a plain old HP laptop, one I bought about two years ago. It's covered in stickers and held together with Sugru, the epitome of a journalist's battered travelling machine. It’s not even particularly hi-spec, just a 1280 by 800 screen with a Core i3 processor and Intel integrated graphics. The only difference between it and many of the other laptops sold back in 2010 was that I stuck with my habit of buying a Tablet PC, purely for pen support in OneNote. The fact that the screen was also a touchscreen was more an inconvenience than a bonus, and I quickly uninstalled all HP's bundled touch applications.
Now here I am two years later, and the once pristine screen is covered in fingerprints and smears. That touchscreen I'd ignored, or occasionally used to scroll through web pages has suddenly become part of my workflow. In fact there are now fingerprints on my other Windows 8 test machine, a plain old Toshiba laptop…
Since the launch of the Developer Preview of Windows 8 last year I've used it on tablets, on laptops, on desktop PCs, in VMs and native. It works well on all those different platforms, but it's on hybrid touch tablet laptops that it really shines. You can reach out and interact with screen gestures (even on an old two point touchscreen like mine), or you can use the keyboard and trackpad, or just plug in a mouse for those deeper interactions.
It turns out that mixing lots of UI options actually makes a lot of sense – especially with the touch improvements across the OS in Windows 8 RP. Using the Start screen to quickly scroll through pinned applications is quicker than the old Start menu – quicker still if you use the built-in search tools and just start typing. Swipe in the charms to manage the PC or to run a Metro-style application, or just drop to the desktop to use the familiar Windows applications you've always used.
For now I spend most of my time in the desktop. After all, that's where Office is, and my Twitter client, and, well, with so many years of legacy applications, it's not surprising that traditional Windows applications outnumber the hundred or so Metro-style applications in the Windows store. But where I do use them, it turns out they work just as well with keyboard and mouse, or with touch – and that's where I default to touch, for casual games or scrolling through a newsreader app.
The big question is still, of course, how this is going to work on a desktop PC. Ergonomics dictate that my monitor will be too far back for me to reach out and touch it like I can my hybrid laptop. With signs that Microsoft is developing a gesture language for desktop touchpads and for its touch-enabled mice, I'm not going to need to rush and buy a touch-enabled monitor (as fun as that might well be). There's also the persistent rumour that the release version of Windows 8 will support PC Kinect as a UI tool for desktop users – though there's still no sign of it in the RP code.
So with hybrid laptops providing a consistent and flexible Windows 8 user experience, it's not surprising that Computex this year looked like the show floor at Intel's IDF. Only this time the laptops on display are intended to be shipping products in time for Windows 8's launch, not concept models that Intel hopes to use to inspire the PC industry. It's good to see those concept models turning into the next generation of ultrabooks, with sliding keyboards, flappable flippable screens, and even dual screen devices (one on each side of the lid). It's the triumph of the hinge, in its many forms, giving you the simplicity of a pure tablet and the power of a modern laptop – all in one device.
It turns out that my hybrid laptop wasn't a compromise after all. The touch I got that I didn't want then, turns out to be the key to Metro and to Windows 8. No wonder everyone and their dog is launching a hybrid laptop of some form or another this year.
But what's the real message of Windows 8 and this year's Computex?
It's quite clear, or rather, it's not clear at all, looking at the fingerprints all over my screen.
It’s this: Buy shares in screenwipes.