Yes, Microsoft is late to the game in tablets. Redmond tried pitching Windows 7 for touch screens without a lot of success, and refused to port Windows Phone 7 to tablets, insisting that a full desktop operating system was needed. And by the time Windows 8 comes out - probably next year - Apple's iPad and Google's Android will probably have the market cornered.
But that doesn't mean Windows 8 for tablets won't be good. It's hard to know exactly how it will work in practice. For example, will Windows 8 tablets take forever to start up like Windows desktops do?
But a preview shown by Microsoft this week looks pretty good, in my opinion. Here's the new Windows start menu, which looks similar to a Windows phone:
Some are (legitimately) criticizing Microsoft for porting a desktop OS to a tablet instead of building a tablet OS from the ground up, but I can see an advantage in the approach.
The advantage is in multi-tasking. It's something that's so easy on the desktop, yet seemingly so difficult on phones and tablets. The iPad does multi-tasking by keeping processes open in the background while you work in other applications, but you can only view one at once.
Android goes a little bit further in showing a more detailed view of open applications, and offers some widgets for email, weather and the like, but you can really only manipulate one application at a time. For example, you can't type an email and look at a browser or word processor all at once.
Windows 8, which will work with mouse and keyboard or touch, gives you applications in mosaic tiles, rather than Microsoft's traditional windows. Each tile shows a bit of the application's personality, sort of like an Android widget, and once you get into the apps you can swipe from one to the other.
The twist is that you can have two applications running on the screen simultaneously, and resize them to your pleasure, just like you can on a Windows desktop. While my only view is from a four-minute video, I'm assuming (hoping) this means you could, for example, type in a document on one side of the screen while using the Web browser on the other.
That image you see above is, as I mentioned, the new Windows start screen. But you'll be able to switch between Windows 8 tiles and existing Windows applications (like Microsoft Excel), while also moving from the new interface to a more traditional one with the little Windows start button (the circle) in the bottom left of the screen. It looks like you can even have tiles and windows on the screen at the same time. One caveat, though: While I'd expect Windows 8 tablets and desktops to look roughly the same, I can't say for sure whether multi-tasking will work on tablets the same way it will work on desktops. If Windows 8 tablets are saddled with the same type of multi-tasking as iPads and Androids, then it's hard to see what would be compelling about the new interface. UPDATE: Microsoft declined to answer my questions about multi-tasking. Hmmm.
What makes the iPad so great is simplicity: A five-year-old can figure it out (I've tested this theory on my brother's kids). Microsoft is making some moves toward a simpler interface with ability for the "tile" applications to directly interface the file system, bringing in photos and documents etc. Another feature splits the touch-screen keyboard in half, making it easier to type with your thumbs. But I'm not sure yet whether Windows 8 on tablets will be as intuitive, and we probably won't know for sure until 2012.
In the meantime, here is a Microsoft video preview of Windows 8: