My Take on Windows 8 (it may surprise you!)

Let me take you back in time about 5 years. It’s late 2006. There are lots and lots of rumors that Apple is in the process of making a phone. Nobody knew what it looked like and nobody knew how it worked. Obviously, this led to a multitude of theories and mockups that (mostly) proved to be completely wrong.

At the time, I carried around my 5th generation white iPod (20GB) and a Motorola smartphone that ran Windows CE or Windows PocketPC or Windows Mobile or whatever the hell Windows naming scheme Microsoft was sporting back then for their mobile phones. An Apple fanboy even back then, I had my own speculation on Apple’s phone. I was intrigued from the very notion because it would mean that I would have the opportunity to only carry one device (phone + iPod) instead of the two distinct devices.

At work one day, Mike and I were discussing future possibilities of mobile computing. I remember sharing with him my want for a single device that would run my phone/iPod when in my hand and “on the go”, but also serve as my full desktop system when plugged into some sort of dock. Imagine this scenario:

  • Leave for work with device in hand. On the way to work, I can listen to my music and use it as my phone.
  • I get to work and dock my device and it turns into my main system.
  • After work, drive home (again, it serving as my iPod and phone).
  • At home (once the kids are in bed), I plug it into my home dock and I have my main system again.

All the while, my entire system/phone/iPod with me all the time. Keep in mind, this was also around the time people first started speculating about a tablet from Apple as well. (Wow, did those rumors take a long time to materialize!) There was even speculation that this tablet would slide into a dock and become your normal OS X system.

I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I didn’t have to carry around three devices (iPod, phone, and laptop) and only had to carry one device. One device to rule them all. (Sorry, had to do it.) Granted, I understood the technological hurdles at the time. No processor and memory combination was powerful enough and power efficient enough to warrant any discussion on that front. And the same thing could be said today. While the industry has come a long way since then, the power required to run (even) a mobile Intel processor is significant and not efficient enough to use for a truly mobile device.

So, here we are 5 years later and what I am carrying around? 1 iPhone, 1 iPad, and 1 MacBook Air. Wow, we’re back to three devices. Of the three, my iPhone is, by far, the most important. It is always with me and serves so many different purposes. (I still have a blog post coming on this aspect, just haven’t gotten around to writing it yet). I use my iPad primarily as a reading/entertainment device (and kid pleaser) and my MacBook Air is used for all computing tasks not taken up by either of the other two. Now, we’re back to the same question. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of these functions could be done with just one device?

I’ve come to face the fact that this may never happen. At least not any time soon. Phones are just too small to put any kind of power/battery combination that satisfies the efficiency demands of modern-day mobile needs. So, what about replacing the larger two? Apple’s answer to that question has been a firm “no”. Their fundamental philosophy is that each of these devices serve a specific and separate purpose. Period. No merging. No cross-pollinating. Nothing. They are separate and that’s how it is. Understandable. In practice, the use case of a laptop for “real” computing is very different than the use case for a mobile device (specifically referring to a tablet here). The main differentiator is touch. Touch, combined with the traditional desktop metaphor, has proven to be a sub-standard interaction technique. That’s why Apple decided to abandon the desktop metaphor in its tablet offering.

Windows 8

Microsoft, with their recently announced Windows 8 platform, believes differently. They have proposed to make one OS that will run not only on both hardware platforms, but (supposedly) at the same time. Want to use a tablet? Here’s the Metro UI for touch-y, feel-y use. Want to use the traditional Windows UI? No problem, here’s your desktop. Want to use the traditional Windows UI on a hardware tablet? We can do that ,too. Want to run Metro UI apps while you’re sitting at your desk? Wait for it…we can do that, too! Sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, doesn’t it?

Since the announcement, there have been many things written about Windows 8 and Microsoft’s bold move into the tablet space. Some of them ridiculous. Some of them fanboy-ish. And some of them even thoughtful (perish the thought!). But, they all agree that it’s a bold and refreshing move from a company that has, for so long, relied on its two main products to carry the company (Windows and Office). As I always do, I Instapaper-ed (is that a verb yet?) all of these articles to gain some perspective from around the web.

This morning, I was reading an article by Jason Snell over at Macworld. His overall take is cautiously optimistic. He loves the nature of the Metro UI, but is hesitant because he’s not sure if Microsoft can pull it off properly. Fair enough. But something he said stood out to me specifically:

In this future world, you can use your device in many different ways. If you want to travel with a tablet but also need to run a Windows app, Microsoft will oblige: plug in a keyboard and mouse and your touchscreen tablet interface vanishes, replaced by old-school Windows. Carry a tablet with you for reading a book on the bus in the morning, then plug it in to a stand at the office and it becomes your PC. Maybe even something as small as your smartphone is actually your entire computer, docking to a tablet screen, TV set, or traditional desktop setup as needed. Microsoft is also counting on millions of PC users running Windows 8 on their desktop PCs and then demanding that same familiar interface on a tablet device.

Sound familiar? Yeah, I thought so, too. What if they can do it? I mean, I’ll be as surprised as the next guy. I am cautious only because for the most part, Microsoft only sells software to businesses. I know, they make Windows, which comes on most (if not all) PCs you buy off the shelf. But let’s face it, consumers don’t buy PCs because they’re from Microsoft. They don’t actively go out and say, “Ooh, I’ve got to get a PC because it’s got Windows!”. They get PCs because they need a computer and they need it cheap. Hell, Apple doesn’t even make a Mac for under $600. Microsoft sells software to businesses (Exchange, Office, Server, Team Foundation Server, etc.). They know business. They get it. They cater to businesses with roadmaps, expectations, and notions of backwards compatibility going all the way back to the original (stone) tablet. Have you ever seen Apple lay out a roadmap for their products? Um, no. I’m cautious because I don’t know if Microsoft gets the consumer market the way Apple obviously seems to.

But, let’s not sell them short for their idea. Windows 8 sounds a lot like what I say I want. Granted, they didn’t tie in the phone aspect, but I think that’s an engineering problem that can’t be solved right now. So, they didn’t get my full dream in there, but that’s not their fault. They have promised this mythical beast that can be your tablet when you want it to be a tablet and a PC when you want it be a PC. Can they do it?

Jeremy Toeman at LIVEdigitially is not hopeful yet. He begins his article:

Microsoft introduced Windows 8 for developers today, with a specific focus on their take on the tablet. Now some are fawning over this, but they clearly don’t recall a summer day in 2005 when Microsoft showed off Vista for the first time. I was there. It was, in a word awesome. The early demos of Vista blew us all away, it was as if we were at the Windows 95 launch all over again. Then Windows Vista came out, it was *nothing* like the demos, the train blew through the station, and the company’s been in a bit of a quagmire ever since, losing market share as well as credibility and prestige in virtually every category (other than Xbox).

He’s got a good point. This mythical beast is not due out for another year. What will happen in the industry between now and then? One person on Twitter commented that by the time this thing comes out, we will (collectively) be talking about the notions of an iPad 4! Will Windows 8 and its feature set still be relevant by that time? Will Apple or even the Android tablet makers keep evolving to the point that makes Microsoft look like they’re chasing the tails of everyone else (again)?

I don’t know what to make of it right this very minute. Too many things are up in the air. Too many questions and not enough physical hardware to see. Let’s face it, if it can’t run the traditional Windows UI on a mobile device, aren’t we just talking about the Metro UI as their mobile platform and Windows UI on laptops and desktops? if that’s the case, what’s the difference between that and what we have now with Windows (desktop version) and Windows Phone 7 devices? Nothing. Where’s the revolution? Where’s the sexiness in that?

My overall point is I hope they do succeed in what they’ve proposed. It certainly is ambitious. And it’s the closest thing to device downsizing that I’ve seen. I’m always for carrying one less device. After all, that’s the main reason I bought the first iPhone!

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