Windows 8 tablet thoughts - Will the big bets pay off?


When the iPad was first announced, back in January of last year, I wrote up some thoughts about it titled What we really wanted was a MacPad not an iPad which pretty much explains the post completely. There's not much in that post which was off. I did end up getting an iPad, enjoying it immensely over the past year. Also, the competition was not even a year behind in launching competing tablets based on Android and WebOS (as opposed to the almost three year lead Apple enjoyed with the iPhone). And then I also wrote this:

"In many ways, it brings them back into direct competition with Microsoft again, who's been working on Tablet versions of their OS for years."

Yep, I can say I pretty much called that one - though Microsoft took long enough to come out swinging, and it's still going to be another year before we see products. Regardless, MS showed their cards today, and it's an interesting hand. If you think about it, Microsoft is regularly accused of duplicating Apple (for good reason), however this time, they didn't. Rather than scale up the version of the OS running Windows Phone 7 - basically copying the iOS / OSX strategy of Apple - they decided to double down on Windows instead. Everyone sorta knew this was coming from their earlier announcements about Windows running on the ARM chipset, but the question in my mind was whether full-on Windows on tablets is really a viable strategy or not. I think after watching the Microsoft keynote, the answer is yes.

Since I wrote that post a year ago (and one years before that in 2003), we've all been able to spend time actually using a tablet, and know a lot more now that we guessing about before. First, it's pretty obvious that tablets are the future of computing: Instant-on access, magazine size screens for information and entertainment, combined with incredibly intuitive touch interfaces makes them the obvious successor to the PC. But, secondly, as much as I love my iPad and use it daily, there inevitably comes a time when I want to sit down and get some work done as well, and right now touch and tablets just aren't very good at that.

When the iPad was first announced, the fact it wasn't a full-on Mac was considered by many geeks (myself included) to be a major flaw. The iPad was a new category of device that didn't seem to fit anywhere. Mobiles were for the pocket, and PCs/laptops were for home and work. Why the hell would anyone buy that thing? It was just a big iPod Touch.

Well, it turns out that was wrong and that tablets fit better than many of us ever imagined.

As an aside, I think looking back on the keynote Steve Jobs gave when he launched the iPad, that he knew how incredible it was going to be. He had obviously been using it for a while himself, and knew how great it was, but even he had trouble conveying it in the demo. That keynote seemed different (to me at least) - less like a sales job, and more like a person who truly believes what they're saying earnestly trying to make you see the light. Until you actually live with the device though, it's hard to understand how it immediately becomes an integral part of your daily life, being kept within reach for a multitude of reasons.

Back to my point, regardless of how great mobile-OS powered tablets have turned out to be in daily use, there's still the productivity problem. The fact is, tablets as they are today are 1) not cheap (unless they're being sold to get rid of stock) and 2) they can't replace all the functionality of a laptop. This means most people will need to choose between a tablet and a regular PC, and since most people are buying a computer to get stuff done, they'll choose the PC option instead. PCs (including Macs) are simply more powerful, expandable, versatile and predictable (in terms of what you'll use it for) than a tablet.

Except when Windows 8 hits, consumers won't have to make this choice any more. Don't get me wrong, Windows is still a pain in the ass in all sorts of ways, and the touch stuff is bolted on in a manner which is bound to cause pain and confusion above and beyond Android and iOS based devices. But since when has the pain of Windows mattered much? If the devices are the same sort of size and shape of the current generation of devices (and don't completely suck), Windows 8 tablets are bound to be a success.

What I think is most interesting is that after a decade of struggle, a couple bets that Microsoft made years ago are going to pay off big in Windows 8: .Net and MinWin.

During the keynote, Microsoft made it clear that Windows apps that are written for .Net and Silverlight will run regardless of processor that's underlying the OS - x86 or ARM. That's pretty huge. I mean, sure .Net - like Java - has always been theoretically a cross platform VM, but Microsoft hasn't really done much (outside of Windows Phone 7 I guess) to take advantage of the fact. But it's been sitting there in their back pocket the entire time, and they've finally pulled the big gun out. And unlike Google's problems with Android and Oracle, Microsoft has full control over this fundamental technology.

The other thing Microsoft did was their work on MinWin - the extraction of the core Windows OS into a more Unix-like kernel without any extraneous dependencies on GUIs, etc. I just found out the other night (only a couple years late it seems) that they're already using this new minimal kernel in Windows Server 8 and Windows 7. Not only is this more secure, but it also allows Microsoft to optimize each layer of the OS independently, and cut out the extraneous services reducing the overall footprint of the OS. Sound familiar? This is what Apple did with OS X to create iOS, except they wrapped it up as a completely different operating system, which they now have to develop and maintain separately from their core OS.

In other words when it comes to tablets, Windows 8 has all the advantages of Android, with a core dev environment based on a popular, cross-platform VM-based language - as well as iOS, with a slimmed down kernel, built up with only the services needed based on hardware form factor. And it doesn't hurt that all your old software and games will work on it as well. Pretty unbeatable combo, if you ask me.

What I think will be interesting is what Apple eventually decides to do with iOS and OS X. They're already doing things in Lion to make it more like iOS, the question is whether or not the company will eventually combine the two completely. It seems to me that they will have to. That's because I'm assuming the market will shift towards Microsoft (based on the above reasons) and the resources Apple will need to spend on developing two separate OSes will eventually just not be viable. But it's too early to tell - we've got another year before we see Windows 8 tablets, and a lot can change in that time, but it should be interesting to see how things shift now that Microsoft has made their move.

I love this stuff. :-)


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