Following a demonstration of Windows 8 at Microsoft's BUILD conference, headlines like this one, from BGR, abounded: "Sorry, Apple, Windows 8 Ushers In The Post-Post-PC Era." Following the huge market success of Apple's iPad, and the wave of tablet computing innovation around it, Microsoft wasn't looking so great. With its yet-to-be-released Windows 8 operating systems, could Microsoft be poised for a rebound?
Apple's iPad success represented, at the least, a transition in the PC market away from Microsoft's traditional hardware strongholds. Considering that after a year of trying, Google's Android OS hasn't broken iOS's hold of the tablet game and that HP folded its own WebOS attempt, optimism around Windows 8 comprises a bold position.
Here are the biggest reasons for the excitement: The Windows 8 tablet-friendly OS represents a big departure from Windows history and tradition, both in form and function while at the same time demonstrating innovation that differentiates it from its peers in the new tablet era.
This innovation comes in all sizes: Windows 8 enables a novel photo-touch unlock screen (where the user gestures across details of a personal photograph in subtle ways that act as a unique key) through to the panel-based dynamic Metro UI, extended and evolved from the design used in Windows Phone 7; underneath its highly touch-optimized user interface, the OS runs a "full" installation of Windows that operates in a more familiar manner, and runs all the apps that users will know from the office.
What Microsoft seems to promise is a tablet operating system that's as finger-friendly as the one Apple created for the iPhone and iPad, with some clever enhancements. Windows 8 is supposed to make a tablet run with all the usual tricks—like fast boot-up, long-lasting battery, slim form-factor—but then, with a simple click or two, make it run like a PC—right down to running task manager and Excel on your desktop.
In one line of argument, Windows 8 means MS has achieved the unlikely: It's created an OS that's actually useful for content creation, much like a Windows machine. That's a criticism that Apple's faced with its iPad—critics suggest that its touch-only keyboard and touch-simplified and sandboxed applications aren't ideal for typing long texts, manipulating complex spreadsheet data, or pulling together a web page or PowerPoint-style presentation. And this is what many people are thinking represents Microsoft's success here, and the first real challenge to Apple's iPad domination (currently running at a sustainable 68% of market share).
But there are a couple of large glitches in these arguments for Windows 8 tablet domination.
First, Apple is poised to release iOS 5—a radical overhaul of its operating system for the iPhone and iPad that fixes bugs, adds new features, and has some radical use-case-changing code. There's a split thumb-style keyboard for the iPad, for example, which will go a long way to solving criticisms of the text-input system. But there's also seemingly deep integration of speech recognition and synthesis ... including what seems to be some of the artificial intelligence from Siri—a company Apple bought a year ago. This may transform how you use the iPad, enabling a degree of user interactivity and content creation powers that could be almost sci-fi like.
Then there's the fact Apple's due to release a new iPad early in 2012, with what we can only assume are significantly uprated processors and graphics, along with better battery life (an Apple staple with almost every product evolution), and a higher resolution screen. On launch, it's possible the iPad 3's hardware capabilities alone will outshine almost every other peer device, securing Apple's market lead for at least another iteration—until probably 2013.
Let's assume that late in 2012—around the time we hear MS will actually release its Windows 8 code—Apple will again refresh iOS to version 6, introducing another raft of improvements and new features. What these are we can only guess, but glancing through Apple's patent archive should give us a hint, and they're big.
We also know that through 2011 Apple was working to bring some of the same user experience found in iOS to its major refresh of its Mac OS X operating system into the Lion edition. This trend is likely to continue, and who knows when iOS and OS X will achieve a merged synergy that equals the fact Microsoft's Windows 8 also runs on "traditional" PCs. Some speculation that Apple could be testing ARM chip-based Macs in preparation for this future could suggest this evolution is happening sooner rather than later.
Then there's Google's Android OS. The first tablet-centric edition, Honeycomb 3.0, is still relatively new and hasn't found its way onto many devices yet. Honeycomb already impresses, and Google's working on its next edition, Ice Cream Sandwich. We have a hint that the version after that is already in development. Where Apple goes Google will follow—if not surpass.
Finally, Windows 8, for all its tablet-focused goodness, has some controversial facets we don't understand yet—in its x86 installation it may run legacy Windows apps, but in its ARM-based installation it won't. It will run Metro as an iOS-like tablet-only app. This means it has a lot of legacy Windows design in it, needed to support that Outlook/Excel/Word/legacy software that MS is so proud of.
During the Windows 8 demo this week, Microsoft even felt compelled to note they'd improved the OS's running code burden by limiting the number of system processes it needs to run. This suggests that all the old Windows bug-bears, like task managing, crashed applications, viruses, and the Blue Screen Of Death may inflict themselves upon Windows 8 tablets. And this is in an era when Apple's training people to think that devices like the iPad "just work" seamlessly, no IT geeks required.
[Image: Flickr user buildwindows]