The Windows 8 FAQ

Windows 8 launches Friday, and even if you haven't been paying attention it's still not too late to catch up on the essentials of what's new and significant about the operating system.

Here are some frequently asked questions about Windows 8 and the answers that can promote an understanding of what's important.

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What is Windows 8 anyway?

Windows 8 is the new operating system from Microsoft as a follow-on to Windows 7.

Why all the hoopla about it?

Any new Microsoft operating system gets a lot of attention, but Windows 8 is a radical departure from earlier versions.

How so?

There are many ways.

Windows 8 has a new user interface based on touch and dubbed modern by Microsoft. Rather than icons, it features tiles -- colored squares with the names of applications written on them -- that can display live data, such as the tile for a weather application displaying the current temperature or a communications application displaying the latest message.

Microsoft has created a Windows Store where customers can download modern applications and where developers can sell modern applications they have written.

Windows 8 devices can be linked to SkyDrive, cloud-based storage where users can place documents and photos for safekeeping and reach them via SkyDrive accounts from any Internet connected machine.

Windows 8 retains a traditional desktop interface for those not ready for the modern, touch-centric one.

Doesn't touch require special applications?

Yes, and Microsoft is encouraging developers to create so-called modern applications that appear well and take advantage of the features of Windows 8. For example, it promotes using the entire screen when designing apps since there is nothing displayed on the screen but the app itself -- no "chrome" such as toolbars and taskbars.

Applications can also use the system tools within applications. For instance the system has a search tool to find applications and the like. When accessed from within an application, that same tool can launch a search within the application if the app is programmed properly.

One key characteristic is that these applications run in a logically isolated sandbox so they are insulated from infections that might be present on the machine and also protect the rest of the machine should they become infected.

Modern applications support both x86 and ARM hardware so can also be readily run on laptops, desktops, tablets and even phones with little modification.

How does that work?

With Windows 8 Microsoft is introducing Windows Runtime, the application architecture that enables cross-platform development. The architecture calls for use of common programming languages including C++/CX, C#, JavaScript and VB.NET.

Are there different versions of Windows 8?

Yes. Four of them.

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