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Another go at Windows 8 from Microsoft’s hardware partners but strategy puzzles remain

I am at the IFA consumer electronics event in Berlin, and have been struck by the number of new Windows 8 tablets on display. Some are hybrid laptop/tablet affairs, but there are also small tablets at keen prices (less than $199) which look superficially similar to Android tablets.

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Under the covers though, they could not be more different. Android, like it or loath it, is well designed for tablets and low-maintenance for the user. Windows 8 on the other hand is a PC operating system with a split personality: apps that run in the don’t-call-it-Metro environment (Windows Store apps) and which work well with touch; and desktop applications most of which are hard to operate with touch.

Today’s PCs should also be low-maintenance; but they are vulnerable to badly behaved applications or even malware, applications that insist on installing themselves at start-up executables; applications that hijack file associations and cause confusion, and so on. Users have to understand the Windows Control Panel or burrow around in utilities like Task Manager and System Configuration (msconfig) to fix problems.

Microsoft foresaw this when Windows 8 was launched, and created a safer version of the operating system called Windows RT. It is perhaps not quite as low maintenance as Android, but since you cannot install desktop applications, all apps are sandboxed and can be easily installed or removed. Windows RT runs on ARM chipsets.

Unfortunately Windows RT was a flop, thanks to its confusing name and a lack of compelling apps in the Windows Store. Users seemed to be demanding “full Windows”, running on Intel chipsets, so that any Windows software can be installed.

There is no inherent reason, as far as I am aware, why x86 Windows cannot be locked down in the same way as Windows RT; this was a decision Microsoft made to differentiate the two. However they are not locked down, and therefore just as vulnerable and complex as any other PC.

The optimistic view is that the new wave of tablets will stimulate Windows Store app development and revive Windows 8. A Toshiba representative assured me that updates Microsoft made in Windows 8.1 had increased user acceptance of the new user interface.

I will not believe this though until we see Windows 8 tablets flying off the shelves in the same way as Android tablets or iPads; and further, I do not expect this to happen. Nor am I sure that they will be good for non-expert users; if they are like most PCs (and they are), they will get gradually slower and less usable as stuff (often unwanted) gets installed; Java, Ask Toolbar, Google Chrome and Toolbar, Silverlight, Flash, Adobe AIR and all the rest.

The current wave of tablets also makes me wonder what is the long-term thinking. With the near-demise of Windows RT, my expectation is that some future iteration of Windows Phone designed for larger displays will take its place, hopefully with full Windows Runtime compatibility or at least easy porting.

However, Windows 9 “Threshold” is also on the way. Are we going to end up with Windows 9 x86 tablets in form factors such as 7” and 8” tablets, as well as Windows Phone OS tablets in similar sizes? Or will Microsoft remove the desktop and lock down the OS in Windows 9 for phones and small tablets, to make it more like Windows RT, and call it Windows Phone 9?

CEO Satya Nadella speaks of “One Windows” but we are not close to it yet, and the developer story still seems uncertain to me. The one sure point is that Microsoft will use the Universal App concept to assist developers in targeting multiple Windows platforms (and perhaps even iOS and Android via Xamarin integration). The question though: what will those multiple Windows platforms look like a year or two from now?

Related posts:

  1. Windows 8 launches: key questions remain, but Surface shines
  2. Hardware vendors chase Apple’s iPad at CES with Android, not Windows
  3. Making sense of Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy
  4. Microsoft partners with Joyent to bring node.js server-side JavaScript to Windows
  5. Nokia Lumia strategy needs time, may not have it

1 comment to Another go at Windows 8 from Microsoft’s hardware partners but strategy puzzles remain

  • Niclas Lindgren

    Do you own one? I can but recommend the dell venue 8. It wins hands down compared to my nexus 7. Better feel on the hardware, much better battery time. I would also say that IE 11 is easily more useable than androids browsers. The mail app is kind chunky, it can’t handle huge exchange mailboxes well. I receive thousands of emails a week and sometimes it just crashes and fails, it is build with winjs, probably not a great choice for performant apps, but then again androids mail app feels kind of old instead

    There are not as many apps, but there is a problem with Android apps the you don’t immediately notice, many won’t run on the latest version of android that you often have on the nexus. And the more apps you install the worse you battery time gets and it is really hard to figure out sometimes.

    In win8 you can install as many metro apps you want, it will never make the device slow, a very noticeable difference, I am much more wary when installing an android app, researching it (like windows desktop apps) before installing.

    And, metro store might not have the most apps, but many of the best apps I find on my dell, for instance the rss feed reader nextgen used to read and reply to this.

    And the thumb ui of windows is much nicer to navigate than android.

    Try one, and you will appreciate that one can run a standard windows app, when all you bring is this device. I use it as the sole diagnostic pc when connecting to external equipment and many of those apps are windows only. It is a very nice feeling to know I can be in the field for 6-10 hours and not hade to bring the bulky laptop I did before and worry about a power source.

    But everyone usage scenario indifferent of course and I know how to navigate the windows desktop app Landscape avoiding malware issues. It is actually not harder than not inviting strangers into your house…