Why Windows Tablets Have a Chance

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Windows as we currently know it is useless on the touchscreen tablet form factor. We know this because Windows came out with tablets as early as 2002, (years before Apple released the iPad), and all of them were colossal failures. Windows is inherently a desktop OS. It’s gone through 15 years of refinement for the mouse and keyboard, and as a desktop OS, it’s great. What that Microsoft completely missed though, (and what Steve Jobs caught), is that as wonderful as desktop OSs are on desktops, they are terrible for touchscreen tablets.

A touch interface using fingers needs to be designed for, you called it, fingers. Not mice. This is why Apple developed iOS instead of just putting OS X onto the iPad.

~Windows Everywhere~

Even after the success of the iPad, when Microsoft realized how important tablets were becoming, it was handicapped by its own corporate culture. Windows everywhere has been Microsoft’s policy almost from the beginning, so the idea of creating a separate tablet OS is completely foreign. Where to even begin? The single exception to this though, and what might be the thing to save Microsoft completely, is the Zune.

As a music player competing with the iPod, the Zune failed. With a peak 3% market share, compared to the iPods 63%, the Zune never really broke into mainstream, despite widely positive reaction. Had the Zune been released concurrently to the iPod, things may have been different. With the iPod’s overwhelming lead in market share and name recognition though, the Zune was never able to catch up, and as of 2010 Microsoft unofficially canceled further development.

~Windows Phone 7~

Sad for the Zune, yes, but good for Microsoft. The Zune OS (from 2.0 on), unlike Windows, was built from the ground up as a touch interface. The tiles that the Zune had been known for soon made another appearance, as Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 OS, and immediately began drawing positive reviews; Positive, but not spectacular. As cnet’s Molly Wood said after testing it for 2 weeks, WP7 is “an intuitive and attractive UI, feature-matching (for the most part) with Android and iOS, and a powerful multimedia smartphone experience…but no significant differentiating factor”.

Basically the same story as with the Zune. People like it, but not significantly better than iOS. So it’s been unable to break into mainstream usage. One thing that might change this is the deal Microsoft and Nokia made, in which all Nokia phones will run WP7. And Nokia, despite recent setbacks, is still a force to be reckoned with, especially internationally.

~Microsoft’s Quandaries~

Fast forward from phones to tablets. Microsoft finally gets smart and realizes they are sitting on the potential for a great tablet interface. Take the WP7 interface, enlarge it for tablet screens, enhance for landscape mode, and suddenly we have another contender. But do we really? Microsoft is keen to avoid a third round of ‘too late too little’, and if they release a tablet using this enlarged WP7 OS, by itself, they risk falling yet again in the category of, ‘it’s nice, but I’ve already got an iPad, why change?’

At the same time, Microsoft has another problem. What do we do with Windows? In my mind, Windows has gone through 3 eras to date. The beginning and up through Windows 3.1 was the early era. Late 80s, early 90s, it was before we even had the venerable Minimize/Maximize/Close buttons on the top right of every window. The second era, which I’d call the Classic Era, started with Windows 95, and culminated with Windows XP. Windows XP is arguably the most successful operating system of all time. 10 years after its release, it still powers almost half of the computational devices in the world. Vista brought us to what I’d call the Modern Era; Vista and 7. And with 7, it’s really quite good.There aren’t many things that I’d complain about. The question for Microsoft then becomes, where do we go from here? When there’s really not much left to do.

~Two Problems that Solve Each Other~

The nice thing about having multiple problems is that they sometimes solve themselves. Microsoft needs something to change about Windows to give it an excuse to keep making money. It also needs something to differentiate its upcoming tablets. What does it do? Well, why not combine the new tablet OS with Windows itself, and call it Windows 8.

Microsoft’s vision of the future is thus: An enterprise setting, with employees sitting at their desks working on normal Windows computers, with a mouse and keyboard. 5 o’clock rolls around, and instead of just leaving their computers, or packing up a bulky laptop, the employees just grab what looks like the screen, and take it with them. The screen happens to be a tablet and the entire computer. After being removed from the dock, Windows returns to the home screen with its new touch interface, and anywhere on the go it’s useable as an intuitive tablet, with internet, movies, pictures, etc. Hopefully quite comparable to Android 3.x and iOS 5. When the user gets home, the tablet slides right into a dock, and suddenly the normal Windows interface returns.

It’s the all in one package. For consumers: A great tablet, with the bonus of FULL Windows if you ever need it. For enterprise: The next version of Windows has an extra interface to make your employees more happy, but don’t worry, it’s still Windows and all your applications will be fine.

~The Future?~

So Microsoft is hoping, anyway. Will it turn out that way? Maybe. Personally I think it’s brilliant, as long as Microsoft allows the users control over which interface they wish to use. If Windows had just released the tablet OS by itself, I think it would have gone the same way as the Zune and Windows Phone 7. But full Windows is going to sell, because Enterprise needs Windows; there aren’t any viable alternatives. In the future that might change, but not anytime soon. And once employees of businesses start using the touch interface, it might provide the impetus for a wider adoption.

Of course, Apple and Google won’t be standing still, and they do have years of lead. Their tablets will have to come up with other forms of differentiation to compete with the full Windows package. So whether Microsoft’s bet will pay off isn’t known yet, but I’m guessing that the next few decades won’t be one devoid of Microsoft.

Learn more the author of this post:

Andy Mercer
Andy Mercer is an undergraduate Civil Engineering student at Purdue University. Currently employed by ITaP (Information Technology at Purdue), he is interested in web design and programming. In his spare time he enjoys killing zombies and playing his 360.