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.