So About This Windows 8 Thing…

While researching the ASUS Transformer Prime, I came across some interesting information and an interesting trend. While reviews for the tablet are fantastic, the only thing that is keep potential buyers away is the promise of a Windows 8 version later next year. To me it seems like begging the question, since Windows 8 on tablets will be a different experience than Windows 8 on a desktop, and here are a few reasons why:

Legacy in Limbo

The reason Windows 8 has any traction at all is because it contains the name of the most widely used operating system in the world. People have seen bits and pieces of Windows 8, including the classic (its odd to be using this word for this…) Windows 7 desktop as well as the new MetroUI based interface. Metro means touchscreen, Classic desktop means Windows, therefore win?

Well the problem is that Windows 8 will be running its ARM based version on tablets. ARM is a different software architechture than x86 (typical desktop varient) and standard Windows programs will not run on it without some sort of emulation. Unfortunately, Microsoft is not willing or able to make such an emulation work, so there goes legacy support in Windows 8 ARM edition.

Oh sure, Microsoft will have mobile versions of its Microsoft Office Suite, your standard collection of Windows Live software, and an App catalog that is slowly but surely gaining some steam (currently around 30,000 apps). But both Android and iOS have hundreds of thousands of apps available, including Office-like apps, apps with photo/movie editing and organization and also apps with cloud storage.  To make matters worse, some reports have been confirming that Microsoft will be ditching the classic desktop in the ARM Windows 8. That’s not necessarily bad since Metro works better with touchscreens and there will be no need for the classic desktop if they won’t support legacy programs. But it all seems kinda familiar.

We’ve Seen This Before

Tablets are the very incarnation of chaos in the previously well groomed computer market. The top players of yore, Microsoft, Intel, and to a lesser extent PC manufactures, are finding themselves in a battle against some very fiesty young upstarts. ARM and Google are effectively trying to capture the throne held by Microsoft and Intel (Note: Apple is as usual, simply being Apple. Even though they sell more tablets, ARM and Google’s penchant for liscensing they’re products and patents makes them a more compelling target for assuming the power of Microsoft and Intel’s dominating throne) and doing a very good job of it. If Microsoft and Intel hope to get into the tablet game, they need to do something quick.

However, Microsoft seems to be hinging their success on the same mistaken assumptions that Intel is: that in the game of tablets, x86 name brands matter. Intel thinks that if they get something  roughly comparable to their competition, then the big name “Intel” will make it sell better, but for tablets it won’t. When you think of Atom, you think of slow, clunky, single core processors that can’t do anything.

When Microsoft originally released Windows Phone 7, the hope was that the unique UI, name brand, and plethora of Microsoft services would put it in striking distance of Android, while its multi-liscence approach would allow it to beat iPhone. Unfortunately neither worked out, and Windows Phone 7 has recently slid to a paltry 4% marketshare. This debacle has proven that name does matter, but that the mobile market and desktop market are two completely different animals. Also specs matter (no dual core smartphones = fail), functionality is functionality (who cares if it’s Microsoft Office vs. QuickOffice), and app stores count (developers developers developers!)

Now Microsoft is trying it again, and I’m seeing the same response to Windows 8 as I saw in the pre-Windows Phone 7 times. With the promise of Windows comes the promise of the legacy, and the promise of interconnectivity. Microsoft delivered neither with Windows Phone 7, and I don’t expect it’ll be any different with Windows 8. To me, at least, Windows 8 for ARM looks like Windows Phone 7 Honeycomb edition. It’s going to be difficult for Windows to carve out any marketshare in a market that is dominated by Apple and at a hard fought 2nd place, Google. All the 3rd party players are dying off, and Microsoft would be well advised to notice that. There is hope for the platform, but Microsoft needs to do what they failed to do with Windows Phone 7.

No Lonely Devices

One thing that Apple has over everybody else right now is interconnectivity. All Apple devices work together quite fluidly. iPhone, iPad, iPod all connect and sync through iTunes which is on your Mac products and all of these work together with Time Capsules, iCloud, and can send content (even live content now) to your AppleTV. Apple has created a fantastically connected world around all of its devices. Microsoft has unfortunately left all of this innovation to the 3rd party hardware manufacturers. As a result, there is very little interconnectivity between Windows devices, even among different Windows computers.

The most disappointing thing about Windows Phone 7 was the lack of interconnectivity. Wireless, or heck, even wired syncing? Nope. How do you put stuff on it? By using it like a flash drive or trying to figure it out through Windows Media Player’s ancient syncing system. Live services don’t all sync up between Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7. Not even Office really works more than as a basic level word processor and document reader. And where the heck is the tight Outlook integration? Odder still is the fact that Windows Phone 7 was designed with sorta-kinda Xbox integration. It’s weird that Microsoft would leverage its gaming platform as being the most important feature while the productivity side of Windows suffers. Customers looking for a Blackberry replacement ended up looking more towards iPhone.

Microsoft has the potential to leverage it’s name as the maker of a productivity machine, and that is the only way it will  succeed. We’ve seen to many tablets designed to be content consumers (Kindle Fire anyone?) and we need a fresh take on the tablet OS. Having the same interface between Windows 8 x86, Windows 8 ARM, and Windows Phone 7 is noble, but only if it is paired with a suite of interconnected services, software, and content clouds. Software isn’t going to happen, content clouds will most likely be third party, and while Microsoft has the services already, they just need to impliment integration between the three platforms. Even if Microsoft gets Live, Outlook, and Office interconnectivity right, will it be enough? With an app store of only around 30,000, I unfortunately doubt it.

For sure, Windows 8 will sell at first because people are curious and interested and the power of the name “Windows” will bring thoughts of Legacy and interoperability. But then just like Windows Phone 7, it will peter out and fall off the mountain where Apple and Google reside.

I’m really hoping that Microsoft can pull it off, but so far an Ice Cream Sandwich looks a lot tastier.

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