Amid great fanfare at Pier 57 in New York City, Microsoft launched its new Windows 8 operating system and Surface tablet. Attempting to make a clean break with its past, the software giant hopes that this latest offering will change the way we think about PCs. I’ve already discussed the major changes in store for anyone who uses the new operating system. Microsoft designed the system to really shine using a touch interface, with mosaic tiles displaying apps that stay on and update live, in real time. Your SkyDrive account stores as much of your data as you choose, and you can access that data from your other Windows devices (such as smartphones). It all sounds great, but how well does it work? Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Live divisions, noted that Windows 8 went through 1.24 billion hours of pre-release testing in 190 countries. While it is supposed to work equally well with keyboard, mouse, and touch, it was designed to shine with touch. If you’re not quite ready to make the shift, though, Sinofsky noted that “The heart of the Windows 7 desktop still remains,” and added that every Windows 8 PC comes with a simple how-to that users can access when they first launch it. Windows 7 users will also be pleased to hear that Windows 8 can run all of the same software that Windows 7 runs. The same is NOT true, however, for the other operating system Microsoft released today, Windows RT. Designed for ARM processors, this OS runs ONLY those apps that you acquire from the Windows app store. Sinofsky emphasized, however, that RT can use existing computer peripherals “seamlessly” – in fact, it supports more than 420 million existing hardware devices right out of the box, including printers and Bluetooth-enabled devices. Speaking of a diversity of devices, Sinofsky noted that there are now more than a thousand devices certified for Windows 8. These range from low-end small laptops and tablets that cost less than $300 all the way up to a gorgeous all-in-one model from Dell that features a 27-inch touchscreen. In between you can find hybrid models that can function as both a laptop and a tablet, converting smoothly from one to the other in a number of different ways. This incredible diversity might in fact be the reason that Microsoft came up with the Surface tablet; the software giant wanted to challenge its partners to think outside the beige box and black clamshell. The approach seems to have worked. But let’s switch from discussing the hardware to the software. At the live demo, Sinofsky noted that the Windows App Store is available in 231 markets, and features more apps than any other app store at launch. So how many do they have? Perhaps 10,000, with up to 5,000 available in the U.S., according to John Morris, writing for ZDNet. During the live demo, Mike Angiulo, General Manager at Microsoft, and Julie Larson-Green, CVP, Window Program Management, demonstrated just how easy it is to interact with these apps. You can choose one from the app store while doing something else, such as watching a video on the same computer. Installation is fast and easy. Search functions on Windows 8 tap into more than just one application – so if, for example, you look up “Space Needle” in the Wikipedia app to get more information, you can search for it at the same time in a map app to get a better idea of where it is. It’s also very easy to email information from an app to a friend; Larson-Green showed it taking only a couple of clicks. Want to uninstall an app? You can do that in ONE click. Let’s go back to the number of apps available at launch for a second, though. Those 10,000 apps may sound impressive, but Apple’s App Store features literally hundreds of thousands of apps – and may hit one million either later this year or some time next year, according to some reports. Of course, Apple’s App Store has been open since 2007; still, Microsoft will need to play a serious game of catch up if Windows 8 and especially Windows RT (which, remember, can ONLY use apps from Microsoft’s App Store) are to catch on. After all, Microsoft faces competition from Google’s Android app store as well. Alexandra Chang, who live blogged the event for Wired, may have summed this fact up best: “Impressive…but it’s still behind.” Microsoft’s event in New York showed off some interesting capabilities, and it’s clear that the entire company, from CEO Steve Ballmer on down, is excited by the possibilities for the new OS. But as Chang noted, they trotted out nothing that hadn’t already been openly discussed before the event. “There’s no news. They just talked about what we already know about Windows 8. There were no new devices. There were no new features. Ballmer and Sinofsky said the same things they’ve been saying about Windows 8 for some time,” she wrote. When compared to the excitement generated by the announcements of genuinely new products at Apple’s big event, it’s easy to understand why Microsoft may now be somewhat behind the curve…and trying to catch up.