Welcome to the Beginning of the End of the PC Era

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A 1981 IBM desktop computer

Tech pundits have a bizarre habit of declaring products dead long before they're actually goners. (Here, for instance, is an article that says Facebook is toast — from 2008.) Me, I do my darndest to resist the temptation to play premature coroner. I will say this, though: if the PC does end up mortally wounded someday, we may look back at early June of 2011 as the moment when its death warrant was signed.

In the past eight days, Microsoft and Apple have shown off upcoming versions of their operating systems. Their plans differ in fundamental respects, but both companies are looking past the PC era we've lived in for the past three decades. They're building software for an age in which people do their computing and communicating on all kinds of gadgets — ones that are simpler, more portable and more Internet-centric than PCs as we've known them.

First, the Microsoft news. At the Wall Street Journal's D9 conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., last week, Windows honcho Steven Sinofsky presided over the first public demo of Windows 7's successor, which for now is going by the sensible code name Windows 8. (Microsoft posted a similar preview as an online video.)

The demo showed only one aspect of Windows 8, but it was a lulu. Windows is getting its most dramatic makeover since at least Windows 95, with an all-new interface that looks a lot more like Windows Phone 7 rather than anything that currently runs on a desktop PC or laptop. It's clever, colorful and designed to be navigated with fingers rather than a keyboard and mouse, showing plenty of iPhone/iPad influence without being a mere knockoff.

The old-school Windows interface isn't gone; existing software will still run. But Microsoft is prepping for a transition similar to the migration from DOS to Windows that happened a couple of decades ago. It may take a while to complete, but it's under way.

Coming to any definitive conclusions about Windows 8 on the basis of last week's demos would be like reviewing a movie on the basis of a teaser trailer that came out a year and a half before the film. (Microsoft isn't saying when the software will ship, but mid- to late 2012 is a good bet.) The sneak peek was enough to leave me asking a lot of questions, though:

Will Windows 8's dual interface feel like the best of both worlds rather than a disjointed mess? Making it make sense will be a massive challenge. (I'm keeping an open mind until I get some hands-on time.)

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