A “New” Microsoft Tablet OS A Challenge

So far, the rumour mill is in full swing about an impending announcement of a “new” Windows OS for tablets (see Forbes, Barron’s, Bloomberg and Engadget). I say “new” in quotations, in that there is already a Windows for tablets that was released back in 2003 for Windows XP. The tablet functions got rolled into Vista and continue to exist in Windows 7. There are a few Windows 7-based tablets available today. So this “new” version of Windows may or may not be a mild rehash of the version of Windows people can buy today on slate and convertible tablets from Acer, Toshiba and Fujitsu. All of them require heavy-duty hardware, the same stuff used to run any other Windows-based notebook today (fast and power hungry CPU’s, lots of memory, lots of storage). While they have improved over the first Windows tablets released 8 years ago, they are still a long way from the size and weight of tablets from Apple, HTC, Samsung and Motorola.

So, the challenge? There are a couple. First, despite what some analysts are saying, a Windows Tablet really doesn’t have an advantage over non-Windows tablets, simply because tens of millions of people have already shown they will happily switch platforms. It appears that around 30 million non-Windows tablets (primarily iPads, but also Android-based units and a tiny number of Playbooks), and that happened in about a year, and with the iPad limited to the US for several months of that time. These are people who were using Windows-based laptops and netbooks, and according to other data, abandoned those in favour of a tablet. Switching platforms isn’t nearly as big a deal as it was seen to be in the past with desktops and laptops. Part of the switch appears to be the physical size, simply because the current non-Windows tablets are substantially thinner and lighter. I had a chance to look at two Acer Iconia tablets, one running Windows and one running Android. The Android version felt about half the weight and half the thickness. It was also snappier in terms of response to interaction, launching apps and generally “doing stuff” compared to the Windows machine.

That brings me to the second challenge: the lack of tablet-oriented apps for Windows. Sure, I could use a Windows-based tablet to run Word or Excel, but even on properly-equiped machines (or even souped-up machines with solid state drives and lots of memory), they take a long time to load. Apps on iOS and Android load very, very quickly. They are built, first and foremost, to be used by people on tablets. The bits you touch are bigger. They take advantage of certain gestures, since they are basically built into the operating system and thus the frameworks you use to build the apps. Windows apps, however, are built to be used with a high-precision pointing device like a mouse. They are meant to be used with keyboards. They expect larger screens with lots of pixels. They don’t work well in a touch-based environment, constrained by memory, storage and smaller pixel counts. Unless Windows apps are revamped to deal with the realities of the size of the human finger, and to learn to forego what is assumed on a normal PC (like keyboards, lots of memory and storage, and larger screen dimensions), they will continue to behave badly in a tablet environment.

The next challenge is getting and installing software. On an iPad or Android tablet, finding apps is easy: go the store, find what you want, buy it. The rest more-or-less “just happens”. In a few moments (or a couple of minutes for really big apps), you have your app ready to run. No sequence of installation screens asking a lot of questions most people ignore. Find, buy, install, go. Unless Microsoft plans to open some kind of store for buying and installing applications, and standardizing application installation in way to make it transparent, they have a big uphill climb. Windows lacks the unified ecosystem for apps you find on iOS and Android, and not having it is a serious impediment to a “new” Windows tablet OS.

The last challenge will be getting tablet manufacturers interested in building devices with this “new” operating system. Existing PC makers will probably take it on, simply because many are already doing this with Windows as it exists today. But mobile-focused companies like HTC and Motorola will likely ignore it, if the “new” operating system is indeed based on Windows, and not Windows Phone. Windows-based tablets haven’t sold in nearly the numbers that iOS and Android have achieved, and this “new” release is unlikely to change that.

If Microsoft is smart, they will base this new tablet operating system off of a platform already built for mobile devices, namely Windows Phone 7. However, if Microsoft is their typical selves, it will probably be based off of Windows 7, with a ton of stuff stripped out (and which will likely break a large number of existing Windows applications, removing a big chunk of the software catalog they could have claimed). I’m not going to hold my breath that any new operating system based on Windows is going to change the world or mount any kind of serious challenge to iOS or Android.