The Challenges Facing Windows Tablets

In an Engadget post, NPD’s Ross Rubin argues that Microsoft’s strategy of adapting desktop Windows to tablets just might work. I’m skeptical, but willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. Still, for this approach to succeed, Microsoft needs to do some major reworking of Windows and it needs to do it fast.

Windows on tablets faces two huge challenges. One is the massive, monolithic nature of Windows. The other is a user interface that was born and developed in the world of mice and keyboards. These two factors have made attempts to build tablets based on Windows 7 dismal failures. Making a version of Windows 8 into a true mobile operating system will require Microsoft to do something it has always viewed with horror: Dumping vast areas of legacy support to come up with something original and nimble. The one hopeful sign was the company’s willingness to chuck the whole legacy of Windows Mobile in the design of Windows Phone 7. But Windows Mobile was a loser, while desktop Windows is the company’s  heart and soul.

The sheer bulk of Windows is a problem. A minimal installation of Windows 7 takes 16 gigabytes, the total storage of the smallest iPad. It includes dozens of services, many of which are of no conceivable use on a slate. Unlike Linux,  which is modular and can scale from tiny versions designed to be embedded in very low-cost, low power-devices, to versions used in the world’s fastest and most complex supercomputers, Windows is essentially a one-size-fits-all product. So in addition to being recoded to run on ARM processors, as promised by Windows chief Steven Sinofsky, Windows 8 also must lest tablet designers dump all of that excess baggage.

The user interface is a much bigger challenge. Microsoft’s approach to date has been to add support for touch (or pen input) to the standard Windows UI. This began with the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and advanced considerably with the multitouch support baked into Windows 7. But the result is still a keyboard-and-mouse UI with a thin veneer of touch features. Apps specifically designed for touch work well enough on Windows 7, but the truth is that it is hard to work for more than about five minutes without finding yourself really wanting either a keyboard or a mouse.

When Apple morphed Mac OS X into the iOS mobile operating system (everyone seems to have forgotten that Apple originally tried to pretend that the iPhone’s software was just a variant of the Mac’s) it totally scrapped the Mac design and designed an entirely new set of user interface APIs called Cocoa Touch. Google had the advantage of not having any legacy to worry about in the design of Android.

Microsoft’s course in the past has been the opposite. Windows Mobile and its predecessor, Pocket PC, were crippled from the  beginning by Microsoft’s attempt to build in features, such as the start button, that resembled desktop Windows. Though these features gradually disappeared, WinMo never could escape its desktop legacy.

The UI challenge is the main reasons I thing Microsoft would be better off with an enhanced Windows Phone than a stripped down version of desktop Windows. To make it into a successful slate OS, every single feature of Windows that users see must be redesigned, from the home screen to the most obscure management console (well, actually, there shouldn’t be any management consoles.) And forget about the idea of running existing applications in this re-imagined mobile Windows. If you want Word, it’s going to have to be an entirely new, and much simpler, Word. The paradox is that if you can’t run legacy applications, the strongest argument for building on the legacy code disappears. A tablet OS that supports existing apps might be attractive to some corporate customers, but such a tablet will never have broad consumer appeal.

Microsoft’s biggest problem is time. Designing a user interface is a time-consuming iterative process. If we–and the company–are lucky, Microsoft has a skunk works going somewhere that is already well along in the design of this new UI, but that’s not the way Microsoft historically has worked. Getting a successful UI completed for a 2012 launch is a huge undertaking. But if it slips much later than that, the entire effort might be in vain because the market window for mobile Windows may have closed.




7 Responses to “The Challenges Facing Windows Tablets”

  1. Rich Says:

    Steve, maybe Microsoft will use an enhanced Windows Phone 7 for its tablet, as you suggested.

    • swildstrom Says:

      It would, of course, make great sense to do so, but Microsoft keeps insisting that Windows, not Windows Phone, is the correct platform for tablets.I suspect the real problem is the internal politics of Microsoft, where the Windows and Office groups are still firmly in control.

  2. Rich Says:

    It’s not surprising that the Windows and Office groups are in control. They are the cash cows for the company. Follow the money!

  3. Richard Gaywood Says:

    “When Apple morphed Mac OS X into the iOS mobile operating system (everyone seems to have forgotten that Apple originally tried to pretend that the iPhone’s software was just a variant of the Mac’s)”

    You’re both right and wrong here. Firstly, iOS and OS X share much more DNA than is meets the eye — a lot of under-the-hood kernel level stuff is the same across the two OSs (citation:

    It’s not invalid at all to say that iOS sprang from OS X if you look at the whole picture rather than just what’s on the screen. Apple downplayed that angle after their initial marketing not because it’s technically inaccurate but, I feel, because it’s not particularly helpful in setting user’s expectations. There was no “pretending” afoot.

    “it totally scrapped the Mac design and designed an entirely new set of user interface APIs called Cocoa Touch.”

    And secondly, from the perspective of developers writing for the platform, there are a huge number of middleware frameworks — for example CoreData, or CoreImage — which differ only in minor details across the two platforms. Cocoa Touch is just the icing on top of that cake, nothing more. Whilst Apple made no attempt to maintain any sort of wholesale application compatibility between iOS and OS X, they did a fine job of making sure that 85% of the building blocks that developers use every day were the same. This keeps developer’s skills portable even if their software is not.

    Microsoft could achieve the same ends by mandating .Net runtimes on the new platform with a similar UI shim layer to Cocoa Touch catering to the demands of the new UI paradigms necessary for touch interfaces.

    • swildstrom Says:

      I didn’t mean to suggest that iOS is unrelated to Mac OS X, just that Apple drastically overstated the case when they claimed, as they did when the iPhone first came out, that they were essentially the same. I said at the time that what we now call iOS had more or less the same relationship to OS X that Windows Mobile (or Windows CE) did to Windows, notwithstanding the fact that iOS is vastly better designed.

      The real point is that Apple put a tremendous amount of effort into getting the details of the iOS UI right, and this is not a quick or easy job. A dilemma for Microsoft is that it wants a distinguishing characteristic of a windows table to be the ability to run existing Windows applications (or so they have said) but those applications themselves are not suitable for tablets without a lot of reengineering.

  4. Tony Says:

    The challenge Microsoft faces is that much as they would want to introduce a new platform, they always want to bring along the old stuff and merge them into the new (thats why at end of installation, more than 10gb is used up). They prefer to concetrate on speed rather than usability and software smartness (i.e looks good and funtions so well).
    The reality is that tablet pcs, pocket pcs and smart phones are becoming more essential than the desktop, yet they’v not ackowledged this truth.

  5. The Technology Newsbucket: Kinect outstrips iPhone and iPad, iOS 4.3 released, and more | Nur, was da steht Says:

    […] The Challenges Facing Windows Tablets >> Steve Wildstrom on Tech […]

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