A recent piece of Forbes has me thinking about Windows 8 and tablets. Part of the push behind the forthcoming Windows 8 release is support for tablets, purportedly along the same lines as the iPad. What that will mean is that the devices will need to be very thin, very light, very powerful and last a long time on a battery. I’m just no convinced that Windows 8 will do that, and the software available for it won’t help. I do think it will be an improvement over the various Windows 7 tablets we see today, but I believe it will lag behind both iPad and the Android tablets.
First, there is the legacy: Windows 8 is still based on a desktop/notebook operating system that assumes the presence of powerful hardware and lots of electricity (either a wall plug or decent-sized batteries). While stripping out things that may be perceived as extraneous for a tablet version may help reduce the hardware and power requirements, I just don’t see Microsoft being able to cut enough out and still adequately support the catalogue of Windows applications that will need to run on it. I would also be concerned about hamstringing it for corporate/enterprise use. And simply moving Windows 8 to ARM isn’t necessarily enough. Sure, it uses less power, and it is a pretty speedy processor, but when put alongside the Core i5 and Core i7 machines that run Windows 7 today, it isn’t exactly a towering powerhouse. There is still a ton of legacy in Windows that only works well with really fast hardware. Apple and Google have realized the work it takes in order to strip down a bigger OS (MacOS as the core of iOS, and Linux as the core of Android), and that you have to make compromises and build in some limitations to allow it to run on devices with more meagre resources.
The bigger problem I see will be the applications. Unless Microsoft is also investing serious time and effort to get the Office suite to run well on reduced processing power, memory and persistent storage, this will be a problem. It could take as much to get Word, Excel and PowerPoint to work properly on a tablet of limited resources as it does to get the OS underneath it. But this isn’t just Microsoft. They also need their large base of developers to follow suit, and rework, redesign and refactor their own software to work on a tablet without overtaxing CPU, GPU, memory and storage.
My fear is that the Windows 8 tablets will end up being akin to netbooks: too few available resources to run the operating system and the applications well. The screen will be too small for some applications, making them either ugly to look at (because the layout is compromised) or hard to use (because the layout is compromised). This isn’t like when iPhone developers had to rejigger their products for iPad. That was a crowd already familiar with limitations on resources. The iPad was a welcome addition if only because it gave us more, not less. Going the other way is typically harder: taking an application that works best on large screens with lots of pixels, and with lots of memory, processing and storage, and reworking it to work better in a much more limited environment. If all most developers do is “strip it down”, then we just end up with enfeebled apps that don’t work well and still look dodgy. To make it worse for Windows, the number of application developers (and available software) is at least an order of magnitude bigger than what we see with both iOS and Android. The number of products and companies developing them is staggering, and getting even a meaningful number to see value in spending time and money on re-engineering is going to be a steep hill to climb.
In the end, if the Windows 8 tablets end up being netbooks without keyboards, I just don’t see it making much of a dent in the iPad’s sales. Worse, if that’s what most Microsoft executives think will be sufficient, the company will be once again hampered by leadership that is prone to over-simplication, a lack of imagination and to minimizing actual threats. But that’s a different problem, and a rant for a different day.