This is my fourth week of working on this column exclusively on Windows 8 on a tablet. The thesis I’ve been pursuing over this month is whether it’s possible to buy a tablet PC and press it into productive use as a laptop replacement on its own merits.
This will be the most compelling selling point for Microsoft as it seeks to drive a competitive wedge into the saturated and largely committed market for tablet-sized devices. The company’s challenge will be to persuade people with Android-based tablets, Kindles and iPads to consider a new entrant with a familiar software ecosystem.
It’s going to be difficult for the company to gain any traction in the market if it pursues a strategy of happy coexistence with its competitors. Windows 8 on a tablet is only going to succeed in that space if it persuades tablet users to switch.
Desktop users will get some valuable improvements over Windows 7 and will soon survive losing the start button once they realise that the Modern UI interface has that navigation tool that writes larger and more usefully across their entire screen.
The company recently announced prices and availability for the Surface within a range of US$499 and $699, with the type cover costing $130 more. The Surface posits a laptop replacement that puts an almost invisible keyboard into the device’s protective cover. Buy the version of the tablet designed to run the full version of Windows instead of the RT version designed for ARM processors, and you have a small form-factor tablet that’s capable of replacing a well-kitted Ultrabook or replacing a low-end desktop PC.
Will this strategy work? In my own limited experience with this new way of working with a PC, it’s something that the average user can adjust to if they are patient and give it enough time. I was most successful with the software keyboard when I propped the slate at a ten-degree angle (a thick pen wedged under the tablet works like a champ), placed it on a desk and addressed it from a proper chair.
Running the full Windows operating system on a tablet is going to be a big win for PC users who have been envious but wary of touch-based computing. Count such users as the low-hanging fruit of this initiative. Next up will be tablet users who miss having a readily accessible file system and the ability to run popular desktop apps. There’s a market there, I suspect, that neither Android nor iOS has adequately met.
Beyond that, Microsoft will face a significant challenge gaining market traction for the new operating system outside of these areas of strength. Major corporate deployments of Windows 7 are likely to be daunted by the substantial interface changes that the new OS brings, which will look, to an IT department, less like features than costly retraining.
It’s a razor-edged game, and Microsoft is entering it late. There was a real opportunity when tablet apps were sparse and relatively crude, but that’s no longer the case. The work the company has done so far is impressive, but it’s going to have to drive twice as hard to catch up.
Microsoft has built a good racing engine in Windows 8, and the company has the most extensive pit-crew technology has ever seen in its developer and hardware network, but this is a race of simplicity and efficiency and it remains to be seen how well and how quickly the Redmond company adjusts to a computing market that’s very different from the one it’s mastered in the past.