Microsoft's Tablet/PC Gambit
Will Microsoft suffer -- among users and developers alike -- for trying to have it both ways with Windows 8?
- By Mary Jo Foley
(Editor's Note: this originally appeared in Redmond Magazine.)
Like many Windows Phone users, I thought a tablet running the Windows Phone OS would be a home run. After seeing a few early demos, I assumed this was what "Windows 8" would give me, and I was raring to put my iPad on eBay and jump on the Windows 8 bandwagon.
But it turns out Windows 8 isn't Windows Phone on a tablet; it's the Windows Phone interface on top of Windows on a tablet. By trying to be all things to all people, Microsoft is running the risk of pleasing no one at all.
Microsoft basically had two OS options going into the next-generation tablet race: existing Windows (retrofit with a touch-centric UI) or the Windows Phone OS. It went with the former -- the "safe" choice, but not necessarily the right one.
There are several reasons I'm skeptical that Windows 8 will be an automatic win on tablets, but they all boil down to my belief that tablets are not PCs or PC replacements for the majority of users. Microsoft officials continue to insist that tablets are just a sub-category of PCs. They insist that users want to be able to run both legacy and new apps (but not necessarily existing Windows Phone apps) on their tablets. While this positioning may provide Microsoft with a ready retort to critics who suggest that the post-PC era has arrived, in my view it contorts market realities to fit Microsoft's existing business model.
By opting to make Windows the foundation of its next-generation tablet OS -- and attempting to convince developers to write "killer" native Windows apps (namely "Metro style" apps) -- the 'Softies are reverting to Microsoft's tried and true playbook. But remember: With Windows Vista and Windows 7, that playbook was already outdated. There were few, if any, killer Windows-exclusive apps. I'm not sure that the killer-app concept has the ISV attraction and customer appeal or lock-in potential that it used to a decade or so ago.
Another reason Microsoft likely opted for Windows over Windows Phone as its tablet OS choice?
Microsoft gets more per copy from OEMs for licensing Windows than it does by licensing the Windows Phone OS. (Estimates of the price-per-copy for the two OSes are all over the map, ranging from $3 per copy per Windows Phone, to $30 to $100-plus per copy of Windows 8.) The Windows franchise has fueled Microsoft's existence, and execs want to keep that franchise alive and profitable for as long as possible by collecting the most the company can get for its OSes.
But there are other kinds of savings the 'Softies could've garnered by using Windows Phone in Windows 8 tablets. By switching to the Windows Phone OS, Microsoft would have and could have cut the legacy cord in an acceptable way. The 'Softies could've steered users who wanted a touch-only experience toward Windows 8 tablets running the Windows Phone OS. Those who wanted and needed legacy apps and a keyboard/mouse-input-first experience could've been channeled toward Windows 8 PCs running the Windows OS.
Instead, via its current approach, Microsoft is adding a layer of complexity to Windows 8 with the "Desktop" application/mode, which will allow legacy Windows applications to run on Intel-based tablets (and ARM-based ones, though only after recompilation). Switching between the Desktop app and the Metro environment is jarring, testers have said. And users who've tried the Windows 8 Developer Preview are already clamoring for ways to hide the Metro UI and stick with a non-touch-centric way to navigate.
According to a number of leaked reports, Microsoft is going to remedy its dueling-OS problem, possibly even as early as next year, when Windows Phone 8 comes to market. Rumor has it that Microsoft is going to switch out the Windows Embedded Compact guts in the Windows Phone OS and replace that layer with a slimmed-down, MinWin-ified Windows 8 core. Will this switch do anything to improve Microsoft's tablet OS strategy? Not much for users, but maybe a bit (after some Windows Phone app porting pain) for developers.
I'm willing to give Windows 8 on tablets another look once it's closer to being done, but for now, my iPad's not going anywhere.
Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.