Has Microsoft Finally Carved A Path To The Post-PC Era With Windows 8?

It’s been a rough couple of years for Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) as it watches an industry that once thought of Windows as oxygen embrace new, simpler ideas of computing built around mobile devices. But it’s starting to look like the company may have least learned a few lessons during those years, and the release of the developer preview of Windows 8 this week shows that Microsoft may have finally figured out how to shift its priorities in a post-PC era.

They would never put it that way, of course: Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s lead public-relations executive, penned a blog post a few weeks ago emphasizing the term “plus-PC,” or mobile devices as complements to PCs, as opposed to Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) Chairman Steve Jobs’ assertion that devices like tablets and smartphones are the beginning of an era of computing in which the PC is not the central focus. Yet the operating system made available California this week at Microsoft’s Build conference to software developers as a testing platform is very much designed for a different type of computer than the traditional Windows/*Intel* PC.

Windows 8, as we covered earlier this year around its introduction, is a re-imagined user interface that draws heavily from the “tiles” design found on Windows Phone 7. It’s known as Metro, and the idea is to have several distinct but simple application tiles on a screen that can update themselves on the fly, notify the user when something has changed with the status of that application, and allow for quick transitions between applications.

It’s slick, nimble, and attractive to both consumers and developers: characteristics you haven’t heard associated with Microsoft in quite some time. There is still an awful lot that needs to happen and an awful lot that can go wrong in the year or so before Windows 8 devices are expected to shift, but there are a few things that software developers and others who need to know which mobile platforms should consider about Windows 8.

The anti-iPad?–One interesting note from this week’s Connected Devices panel at paidContent Advertising was the notion that advertisers and marketers think of tablets as more like PCs than smartphones, because the larger screen allows you to present so much more to the user. The PC companies that are scrambling to find new sources of growth (expect for, of course, the biggest one) know this, and are eager to show that they can shift their notebook PC design chops over to the tablet.

That might be a stretch, but the Acers, Sonys, and Dells of the world really don’t have a lot of choices: they have to try or face irrelevancy in personal computing. Google knows this, and is courting the traditional PC makers with its second stab at the Android tablet market. But Microsoft knows these players far better, and if Android tablets are still not selling well into 2012, Windows 8 tablets could be at the top of the hardware industry’s list.

Wither *Intel*?–When the history of Intel is written, the last ten years will look like something of a lost decade. Intel knew this era of mobile computing was coming as far back as 2001 with promises of convergence between computing and communications, but it has been simply unable to meet the power-consumption requirements that modern mobile computers demand. Those needs are being fulfilled by chip makers that license processor designs from ARM, and Windows 8 will run on ARM chips for the first time when it is released.

This is important because applications written for the chips used by traditional PCs that target the legacy half of Windows 8–based on Intel’s x86 architecture–won’t run on Windows 8 devices that are based on ARM chips. However, applications written for the Metro interface and ARM chips will run on PCs with x86 chips.

Microsoft said that partners plan to build both PCs and tablets running ARM chips, but Windows 8 for tablets will not run on x86 chips, which means developers might choose to build ARM-based applications for all scenarios. In other words, Windows 8 could convince those who need to make applications across all scenarios–big important software companies–to prioritize Metro and ARM, which would be a huge boost for Windows 8 tablets.

Pulling the plug-in–Internet Explorer in Windows 8 will be plug-in free, Microsoft confirmed last week. This could be the tipping point for HTML5 technologies, and require content creators and others producing video or games that run on plug-ins like Flash to finally embrace HTML5. Many are starting to do so already, as seen in the striking HTML5-based redesign of the Boston Globe’s Web site, but the scale that could come along with Windows 8 means few will be able to ignore this trend after 2012 and into 2013.

Quite a lot can happen in a year in the mobile industry. But no matter how hard Microsoft tries to protect the traditional definition of the PC, Windows 8 is clearly a product that is thinking ahead.

And for the first time in a long time, Microsoft may have come up with something that forces other mobile companies to re-examine their own products in light of this new product. Now that developers can actually sample the goods, pay attention to their feedback when planning your mobile strategies for next year and beyond.