When I first heard that Microsoft was planning on making Windows 8 touch friendly in an attempt to break into the tablet market, I just shook my head. For years they’ve been trying to force traditional Windows onto slates with no success. I figured they would learn from Apple’s success and their own failures that nobody is interested in trying to use a traditional desktop UI in a touch format. It just flat out doesn’t work. It made even less sense with Windows Phone 7 receiving so much praise for its innovative new UI and ease of use. The natural move would have been to adapt that into a larger format just like Apple and Google successfully did. I figured that this was just another example of Microsoft lacking the singular vision that’s made Apple so successful over the past decade. But then I saw Windows 8.

If Lion is 25% iOS, a slow migration of features and UI tweaks brought over from the touch-centric side, Windows 8 is 75% WP7. The company that relies so heavily on backwards compatibility and legacy software has scrapped most of what we’re familiar with in Windows, and jumped head-first into Metro.

I got my first taste of Redmond’s newest offering this weekend, and after spending some time with the Release Preview as my main computing platform, I’ve come away impressed, but wanting more. Microsoft kicked off the preview launch by giving the major tech blogs and journalists new Windows 8 laptops that took advantage of the new gesture-based UI via the trackpad. Seeing how I’m lucky to get five views in a day, I didn’t get invited to that party, and my experience so far has been relegated to a keyboard and mouse (I’m hoping that the Magic Trackpad will get full gesture support, but we’ll have to wait and see). While I quickly adjusted to the keyboard shortcuts, right click functionality, and hot corners, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was only experiencing a portion of what it had to offer.

This is an OS that begs to be touched; it will truly come to life on a 10-inch tablet, where you can swipe, pinch, and tap your way through the big, gorgeous live tiles. Those using it on traditional PCs and laptops will get by with touchpads and Microsoft’s answer to the Magic Mouse. How well this will work in day-to-day, and how users will respond is anyone’s guess. In choosing to make an OS that works (hopefully) as well on tablets as it does on traditional computers, Microsoft has been forced to make its new baby live two separate lives.

The traditional Windows desktop (minus the start button) lives on through a live tile on the Start screen. Like DOS, it has been downgraded to an app instead of an integral part of the OS. While it’s intended to be a last resort – a legacy environment for power users and programs that just don’t fit into Metro, I have a hard time believing most users won’t flee to it in terror. I understand that Microsoft has to give them a lifeline here. While Apple has decided to take the gradual approach and slowly feed users bits and pieces of iOS before it makes a full and seamless transition, Microsoft has pulled the rug right out from under their feet. Not giving them the option of going to their old standby when they get scared would only ensure that Windows 8 would make Vista look like a major success.

Familiarity and comfort won’t be the only reason for the desktop though.  At my job, we depend on network drives and large archives of shared files. This means we’ll spend most of our time on the desktop with its old-school files and folders, and with the start menu gone, we’ll be thrust back into the Metro portion of the OS to launch apps. That’s jarring, and for creative professionals like myself, the last thing you need is the distraction of flipping back and forth in order to open programs and find files.

I was also concerned that this inherent duality would cause issues on the tablet front as well, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it could be a strength. Microsoft won’t have to hear the complaints that a tablet can’t replace a computer as a primary workstation. Unlike iOS and Android, Windows 8 will have a full desktop OS under its touch-friendly façade, waiting quietly until it needs to step up and get the job done. This alone could make Windows tablets THE corporate choice, and go a long way toward winning back a mobile space that RIM and Apple have taken away from Microsoft in recent years. Even if desktop adoption doesn’t take off immediately, that alone will ensure the success of the platform and make a lot of money for Balmer & company.

With all that said, it’s still far too early to tell what will happen with Windows 8. For a company that’s fought back from the Vista disaster and garnered so much good will with version 7 of its Desktop and Mobile OS, this is major make-or-break. If it fails, what will Microsoft do with Metro? Will it be forever banished to be mobile world, or will they do away with it for good to distance themselves from their biggest flop? Whatever the outcome, they’re putting all of their eggs in that basket.

This bold new strategy seems to be creating some good industry buzz though, and even a little bit of jealousy. Just a few days ago Tim Cook bashed Windows 8 for unifying desktop and tablet computing. Now, if memory serves me right, that’s the exact same thing Apple is slowly doing with Lion and Mountain Lion. C’mon Tim, lighten up. There’s no reason to shit on Microsoft because they got there first. I know you’re used to being the one getting all the attention for blazing trails, but look at it this way: you’ll know by this time next year whether or not you should stop shoehorning parts of iOS into OS X. They could keep you from making a colossal mistake. For that you should be thanking them.

In one fell swoop, Microsoft has gone from the lost cause lagging behind everyone to the leader of the mobile/desktop-fusion pack. When Windows 8 drops this fall we’ll see if that really is the future of computing.

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