Will Consumers Change Their Mind On Convertibles?

Walt Mossberg at AllThingsD has a review of 3 convertible Windows 8 tablets which is succinct, but makes a subtle point (if you read between the lines): a convertible laptop/tablet is a compromise. None of the devices he reviewed are particularly light or thing. None of them have battery life that approaches the iPad or mainstream Android tablets. And, as we’ve seen from past reviews, Windows 8 doesn’t seem to be a great tablet OS, and the presence of tablet features may have compromised the traditional PC experience. But these convertible tablets beg a bigger question: will consumers change their mind on these things?

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Windows 8 Early Days Are A Mixed Bag

The first days of Windows 8 sales have truly been a mixed bag. Now, it is still early days, so some “trends” that are being pointed out have yet to be solidified or refuted. But the “success” of Windows 8 is clearly relative, and it depends entirely on the point of view of the observer.

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Microsoft Deal With B&N No Threat To Kindle

The deal between Microsoft and Barnes & Noble, where Microsoft is investing $300 million dollars in the NOOK. One opinion piece on Forbes claims this will be the end of Kindle. Of course, the author declines to give any sort of timeline, but they believe that this deal will result in a far stronger competitor to Kindle, one that will displace Kindle from the top of the e-reader heap. I question whether the author truly understands the dynamics at work here, particularly when they try to use the Microsoft investment in Apple in 1997 as a parallel.

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Will Windows 8 Tablets Supplant iPad?

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.

Vapourware No Longer Viable Competitive Tool

Microsoft recently unveiled Windows 8 (running on an ARM processor, something for another topic of discussion), even though the operating system appears to be well over a year away from release. Apparently Microsoft hasn’t got the message: vapourware doesn’t slow down your competitors anymore. Google appears to have learned their lesson from their original Android announcement (they announced Android in 2007, but the first devices didn’t appear until 2008). Microsoft, however, still has not.

There was a time, back in the day, where a large company like Microsoft (or IBM, HP, DEC, etc) could effectively kill the buzz of a competing product by simply pre-announcing a new version of their own products. A company, deciding to either go up against an established product or to try to create a new product area, would announce their product, often giving a fairly specific release date. Or worse, a rumour would start that this company was going to “shake things up” with a forthcoming announcement. But, shortly after that event, Microsoft (or others) would announce their forthcoming upgrade to the established product, or show off screenshots of their own answer to this new product area (the worst form of vapourware: slide-ware). The result: it effectively kills the upstart, even if the “upstart” might actually be another large company. A company could essentially blunt the competition with a good Powerpoint presentation about something “coming soon”.

Today, though, that doesn’t work anymore. Part of this is because the “upstarts” aren’t pre-announcing something a year or so in advance. They tend to announce “we’re in beta now, release in a couple of months” or in some cases “here it is”. Apple has become very adept at grabbing and holding the consumer’s attention by not only showing off their new products, but having them readily available in a very short (relatively speaking) timeframe. Rumours will constantly float about the Intertoobs weeks or months in advance of an Apple announcement, but those only serve to build the hype without Apple having to commit to something. It also makes it hard for Apple competition to try to respond, because they are afraid to over-react to a rumour. Apple isn’t alone in this regard, although it is the poster child, as Google now takes a similar approach.

So far, Microsoft seems to be one of the few companies left that makes grand announcements far, far in advance of the availability of actual product to the consumer. RIM doesn’t do that as much with Blackberries, but they did stumble into the same trap with Playbook, announcing it about 8 months before shipping units. But they are the exception, and not the rule. Google services now appear fairly rapidly, without much of a “pre-announcement”. Companies like Dell and HP no longer talk about products due out in a year, but typically announce something coming within the next quarter or even the next month. Microsoft seems to be the lone hold-out in a practice that worked fairly well up until the late 1990’s. Since the turn of the century, it hasn’t been all that effective. The world has changed, and the consumer doesn’t care. They don’t fall into the “I’ll wait for the Microsoft version” mindset, putting off their purchase and ignore the “upstart”. They’re content to buy what they can get now, rather than wait (want proof: look at iPhone 4 sales. They continue to climb, despite the expectation of an iPhone 5 coming in the next month or so). A product in their hand now means something, and means more than a supposedly “better” product in the indeterminate future.

Microsoft could take a page out of the book used by Apple, Google and others, and start to announce new product much, much closer to its actual availability date. Their current practice does nothing to take the wind out of the sails (or sales) of their current competition, and merely makes them look foolish and outdated.