Microsoft gives its developers Windows 8 tablets with a taste of Bob
September 13th, 2011
Daniel Eran Dilger
Handing out free tablets was the least Microsoft could do after years of leading its mobile developers down dead ends with Tablet PC, Windows Mobile, Windows Vista, Slate PC and Windows Phone 7. Still, will $500 worth of hardware in the hands of mobile developers forestal the death of Windows any better than it preserved webOS or Android 3.0 Honeycomb?
There was a time not too long ago that whenever I’d write about the problems facing Microsoft’s Windows I’d get a mix of arrogant hate mail telling me I’m an idiot for even suggesting the idea that Microsoft might ever lose its monopoly position (like, say, how IBM did before it) and also some kindly phrased mail from fans offering some concerned warnings along the lines of “but Dan, if you write crazy things, people will think you are insane!!”
It turns out that my 2004-2008 optimism regarding Apple’s potential versus Microsoft’s was not overstated enough. Apple is now the world’s top tech company and Microsoft is struggling to remain relevant with the promise of another new edition of Windows where everything about its last version of Windows is covered up with an animated web-based distraction layer.
Take out the HTML part, and Windows 8 sounds a lot like Microsoft Bob. This time around however, Microsoft has hired better designers and so Windows 8 now looks as nice as the Zune and Windows Phone 7, two other products that didn’t sell, if you’re keeping track.
Keeping account of the injury
And as long as you’re keeping track, take note of the fact that the Zune, Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 are all knee-jerk reactions by Microsoft to get in on the success of Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad.
Other facts to consider: while there are successful smartphones rivaling the iPhone, there was already a vibrant smartphone market predating the iPhone. However, nobody has made a very successful iPod or iPad challenger, both of which defined a new category of device rather than entering a market already full of popular devices with similar feature sets.
The fact that Microsoft has been unable to withstand new competition from the iPhone to its existing Windows Mobile platform, and that it has been completely unsuccessful in gaining any ground back with Windows Phone 7 should set expectations for the company’s ability to muscle into a market where it has never had any success.
Individual Android makers have had some luck in maintaining profitability in smartphones, despite that their individual models are not selling on the level of the iPhone. However, none have delivered a successful tablet. If Microsoft can’t foster platform growth in the smartphone market, how is it going to change things up in the tablet market, an arena far more difficult to compete in?
By leveraging legacy?
Microsoft does have something RIM and WebOS and Android lack: legacy. Windows Enthusiasts are banking on the idea that Microsoft’s Windows platform will allow the company to reach forward into tablets with the solid footing of its prior success with Windows/Office on the desktop.
While this is a nice idea, a core problem is that Microsoft’s legacy is fading. Its efforts to preserve the 90′s Win32 APIs as the sole way to create software have fallen apart. Today, the top way to build apps is pure HTML, something Microsoft vociferously fought from the days of Netscape and Sun through its battle to introduce Silverlight as an Adobe Flash-like alternative to HTML5.
If you want to deliver software on the web, you don’t aim to support Active X or Internet Explorer anymore. And if you aim to reach mobile users, you’re more likely to target iOS than any other platform outside of the web itself.
Microsoft itself is a major developer, but it hasn’t shown much interest in bringing its own Office apps to Windows 8 for tablets. Apple released iWork alongside the first iPad. Why has Microsoft been so slow in seeing any benefit to bring its desktop productivity software monopoly to mobile devices? It’s biggest news of late was in bringing some Office-branded apps to Symbian, something it announced back in 2009, before Symbian was described by Nokia as a burning platform it needed to leap from to stave off death.
By rallying the troops?
The news of Microsoft’s valuable legacy has been greatly exaggerated. But in addition to its technical legacy, Microsoft’s standing as a monopoly empire capable of wielding the forces of global licensees has also crumpled. Who will build Microsoft’s Windows 8 tablets, HP? The world’s largest Windows PC maker is now out of the hardware business, particularly tablets.
Dell? It just partnered with China’s Baidu to sell the Android based Streaks it couldn’t sell over here. Neither company was really on board with Windows Phone 7. Are they going to jump at the opportunity to sell Microsoft’s latest tablet platform? One that doesn’t have any inertia in the market, and no clear potential buyers?
IDC and Gartner keep talking about “media tablets,” a term valued as much for its ability to ignore acknowledgment of iPad as its respectful nod to “non-media tablets.” But the Windows Tablet PCs they hold in such high regard as significant products have, across the last decade, sold fewer units than the iPad has in the last year and a half.
The only moderately valuable legacy Microsoft has left is its army of delusional enthusiasts, but none of those people are actually buying its mobile platform devices in meaningful quantity.
By ignoring reality?
It’s notable that many Mac users expected (and still wish) that Apple’s tablet would run Mac OS X apps. Apple decided to make the iPad a new device exclusively running iOS apps instead. One can see a number of reasons why: Apple wanted to create a new product, not destroy MacBook sales with a more portable competitor.
Apple was also aware of the performance issues that would result from either trying to shoehorn a notebook Intel x86 processor into a tablet, or trying to run a desktop OS on a low power ARM CPU. For the iPad, Apple created an extended iOS experience without document or app windows, without a visible file system, and exclusively multitouch, both to optimize performance and to focus its abilities like a laser on a clear sweet spot of value.
Apple already had a market for $1000-$2500 notebook computers, so the $500 iPad fit well between those and its handheld iPhone and iPods, both in terms of price and performance. Apple set a clear expectation for what the iPad would be good for, and users happily bought it as a tablet, not as a notebook replacement.
One could make the case that Apple did this with the hindsight awareness afforded by the Newton Message Pad. Back in the early 90s, Apple realized that it didn’t want its new Newton OS to directly compete with the Macintosh, so it limited the Newton to being a handheld device. It didn’t realize, however, that people paying over a grand for the Message Pad might expect it to replace their PowerBook entirely, and then be disappointed that it couldn’t.
Apple also hoped, clearly too optimistically, that developers would rush in and create reasons for users to by the MessagePad, rather than painting its own picture of the device’s value. With iPad, Apple released it with strong functionality as a maps and web browser, messaging and organizer device, media player and iWork office apps tool from day one.
Those are all facts Microsoft can’t wish away.
Not to say it isn’t trying. Microsoft seems conspicuously unaware that its Windows PC market has no breathing room between $200 smartphones and $1000 notebooks like Apple has with the iPhone and Mac. Among PCs, there are already $300 netbooks and $400 notebooks and $500 PCs. Where, exactly, is a limited functionality tablet going to fit into this product mix?
While Apple has two very different brands (Mac OS X and iOS) for its very closely related Cocoa-based development APIs, Microsoft is creating one brand (Windows 8) for both desktop/notebooks and tablets. And while it’s a single brand, the technology is not closely related. Windows 7/Win32 apps are completely different from the new Metro-styled apps that will run on tablets, which are based on extended web standards, Chrome OS-style.
Microsoft is therefore creating the suggestion that Windows 8 tablets will be Windows PCs capable of running Windows apps. Consumers will not be happy when the bait and switch is revealed, uncovering the reality that you simply can’t run Windows 7 apps on a low powered ARM device.
Mac users weren’t led to believe the iPad would run Mac apps, and were further aware from the get go that the iPad wouldn’t do everything you might expect of a regular MacBook or even a low end netbook.
Apple took the heat from blog-mobbers over its design decisions, but the result was that people who bought an iPad were happy with what it could do because they weren’t mislead by excessive expectations that it would defy reality and replace their laptop with a $500 device magically delivering blazing desktop speed and four times the battery life.
What about Bob?
Apple set iPad expectations low and then shattered them. Microsoft is setting exponential expectations that will only shatter once these things go on sale. PCs running Windows 8 will need a more expensive touch screen to take advantage of the new Bob-like layer of web graphics. But that’s nothing compared to the disappointment users will experience with Windows 8 tablets, which will only run the new Bob stuff.
Android tablets are being returned to stores at alarmingly high rates by users who think they will serve as a cheap replacement for notebooks. Windows 8 tablets aren’t going to escape that problem; they’re going to fare even worse because “Android” already conveys some notion that the device isn’t going to function like a PC. “Windows 8″ offers the clear impression that a tablet will run Office and Windows Games and custom enterprise apps other reasons people use Windows. But it won’t. It’s Windows Bob and Bob only.
Even worse, while the original Microsoft Bob was simply a graphical layer of crap on top of Windows 95, it could be set aside offering regular access to the Windows environment. Not with Windows 8 Bob on tablets. All you get is Bob. Microsoft should call it Microsoft Zune Web Tablet to set expectations appropriately, but it prefers to use “Windows” as a misinformation brand to trick its users into buying something they will hate.
Windows Vista will look like a wild success compared to Windows 8 on tablets. Windows Phone 7 will look good in comparison. And that’s because, while Microsoft has had some luck earning royalties from Android smartphone makers, it has no potential to extract such payments from Android tablets, because they aren’t selling either.
Windows 8 could shatter the tablet market
The only thing Windows 8 will do for tablets is fragment Apple-haters between Android on one side and Windows on the other, making it all the much easier for Apple to retain control of the tablet market. It will also fragment the efforts of companies like Samsung and HTC that are trying to decide which platform might afford them the least embarrassment.
Microsofts experiments with tablet web-Bob might also generate some optimism behind HP’s somewhat similar but more mature (and shipping!) webOS and Google’s Chrome OS, two other versions of delivering a non-Windows, web-based experience on low power devices.
And so, while Apple largely only faces a single credible competitor in smartphones, it appears there will be multiple disjointed efforts among tablets that prevent any one brand from accumulating enough power to credibly challenge the iPad, even as the iPad credibly challenges the PC market.
Perhaps IDC and Gartner will finally give up their gerrymandering market reports and stop conspicuously ignoring the iPad as a disrupting force among personal computers to flatter Microsoft.