Any new, or newly-updated, PC software has a number of hurdles to leap. If the program is used by 100,000 people, those people are going to have thousands of different hardware configurations, and I doubt any two of them will be running exactly the same combination of software. And yet your newly-written program is expected to be compatible.
Because of this, software developers use what they call a "beta test" -- a piece of software that seems to be working pretty well is given, with the appropriate warnings and disclaimers, to a wide audience. Having so many people try out the software should reveal any remaining problems that weren't discovered and fixed during the initial testing period. Usually, beta testers are asked to report on any problems or conflicts they have with the new piece of software. The software may also have automatic built-in error reporting.
Because beta test software isn't perfect, and it does occasionally have glitches, the people who agree to use it have to be willing to deal with potential problems. You may not want to use beta software for a project that's going to make or break your career.
But the fun of beta testing is that you get to see and play with new features before the general public.
Last week, I downloaded the new "consumer preview" -- a beta test by any other name -- of the Windows 8 operating system, which some are calling the biggest change since Windows 95.
It takes some getting used to, and I'm still not sure how I feel about some aspects of it, but I'm getting to enjoy it more and more with each passing day.
Windows 8 is Microsoft's acknowledgement that mobile computing -- tablets, laptops and phones -- is becoming more and more important. Each year, more people rely more heavily on their mobile devices. Desktops aren't going away, by any stretch of the imagination, but they're no longer the focus of innovation that they once were.
Microsoft is already struggling to break into the smartphone market with its Windows Phone 7.5 operating system. I use Windows Phone 7.5, and I'm quite happy with it. Right now, it's got nowhere near the acceptance of Android or iOS, but I find it attractive, easy-to-use and powerful. As a consumer, I hope that it continues to gain acceptance, so that more apps will be written for it.
Right now, the most successful tablets on the market -- iPad and its competitors -- are based on operating systems originally written for smartphones. The iPad runs on the same iOS operating system used by iPhones, not on the Mac OS system used by Apple's desktops. Most of the other leading tablets are based on the Android smartphone operating system. That includes the Kindle Fire, which uses a heavily-modified Android system.
Microsoft, on the other hand, is betting on an operating system that will be shared by desktops and tablets, hoping that tablet makers will go for Windows 8. Windows 8 was designed to be tablet-friendly and touch-screen friendly, leading to some features that don't immediately seem at home on a regular, mouse-and-keyboard-controlled desktop.
Windows 8 has a traditional-looking Windows desktop -- but that's not the first thing you see. The first thing you see is a "start screen," filled with the types of tiles that are used by the Windows Phone operating system. This is the so-called "Metro" interface. For older programs and applications that you might already have on your system, the tile is just an icon -- a way of launching the program. But newer apps, designed to take advantage of the Metro interface, can use those tiles as information centers. For example, the tile for an e-mail program flashes the subjects and senders of your last few e-mails. A calendar tile displays your next appointment, while a weather tile displays current conditions. The Metro interface is one of the best things about Windows Phone 7.5, and it works fairly well on a desktop too.
The start screen works OK with a mouse, but it's obviously designed to be used with touchscreens, and so I'm guessing that once Windows 8 becomes standard equipment on desktops and laptops, manufacturers will make a push to sell touchscreen monitors and laptops with touchscreen monitors.
You can easily toggle back and forth between the start screen and the regular Windows desktop by using the Windows key on your keyboard or by mousing to the lower left corner of the screen. The start screen replaces the familiar Windows start menu, and as a result there's no start button on the desktop.
There's also an "app store," similar to the ones used by iOS and Android, from which you can download new, Windows 8-friendly applications. The real app store will have both paid and free apps; during the beta test, only free apps are being offered. The apps available in the Windows app store, even more than the start screen, are built for touchscreen use. You swipe things across the screen rather than scrolling them from top to bottom. Some of the apps are a little silly-looking on a big desktop monitor.
But I'm getting used to the start screen and the Metro apps -- they look a little less silly every time I use them. Microsoft may need to hope that users will give this new system a chance to grow on them.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.