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Microsoft is late to the mobile party. It’s never going to make a dent in the tablet market. It will never figure out the new era of hardware and the Web. It will crumble beneath the behemoths that are Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. At least that is what the pundits have been yelling for more than a year. At this point, though, we know everything that Microsoft will do with Windows 8, and we can see more clearly what the company is up to. Microsoft has created a true cross-platform device strategy that will lead it into the next generation of computing.
What We Know About Windows 8
In recent months, Microsoft has been gradually releasing details about what Windows 8 and its iterations are going to entail. First came the user interface that will cross personal computers and tablets. Next came the developer and consumer previews. In the last week, we have seen Microsoft’s plans for its own built and branded tablet, the Surface, as well as Windows Phone.
It is pertinent that the next version of Windows is number 8. As a symbol, an 8 has no beginning. It also has no end. You trace the line of an eight and eventually you will end where you began. That is what Microsoft has done with Windows 8.
We are now seeing the tangible benefits of all the time that it has taken Microsoft to develop its PC, tablet and smartphone strategies. And, taken as a whole, it is comprehensive, detailed and smart. But will it allow Microsoft to take off in the mobile era?
The biggest aspects of Windows 8 for users and developers are how Microsoft has constructed both the hardware and user interface for the platform. Microsoft for the first time is developing options for both x86 and ARM processors. It has traditionally built Windows to run only on x86, a processor standard that has struggled to find a foothold in the new mobile ecosystem. Yet, with ARM (the chip family upon which most smartphones and tablets are built), Microsoft offers a new opportunity to use Windows on mobile devices.
Tablets built for Windows 8 can use either x86 or ARM (running what Microsoft calls Windows RT). Windows 8 tablets on x86 will run a version of the operating system very similar to that of Windows 8 PCs, while RT tablets on ARM will have more limited functionality. Yet, developers looking to create applications for Windows 8/RT will be able to build for tablets, smartphones and PCs by making minor changes in their code base.
There are two reasons for that. First, Microsoft is introducing the new Metro user interface that is heavily informed by the design first seen in Windows Phone 7. No longer will Windows PC, tablets (yes, Windows tablets have existed before, running Windows 7) and smartphones all have different designs and interfaces. Through Metro, Microsoft is making it simpler to design an application once and deploy it to all flavors of Windows 8. This will encourage both developers and consumers to adopt the platform.
The second reason is the new common core base. Microsoft announced the common core last week when it unveiled plans for Windows Phone 8. Common core will allow developers to write applications for Windows 8 and easily port them to Windows Phone 8. In addition, Windows Phone developers will be able to write apps in C++/C code bases in addition to Microsoft’s standard C# and Web-based HTML5 rendered through Internet Explorer 10. In short, Microsoft has opened up app development with the different versions of Windows 8 to make it easier to create true cross-platform and -device solutions for developers.
The kicker with Windows Phone 8 is that, once again, it breaks Microsoft’s mobile platform. Windows smartphones running the latest version of Windows Phone (7.5) will not be upgradeable to Windows 8. That is the cost Microsoft has to pay for integrating Windows 8 design and functionality into Windows Phone. All apps that have been written for Windows Phone 7.5 will transfer to Windows 8, but users who have bought any current Windows Phone device will never see the tangible benefits presented from 7.5 to 8. This is the second time Microsoft has done such a thing to its mobile platform, as Windows Mobile CE was not upgradeable to Windows Phone 7. But it should not happen again, as Microsoft has worked to make all versions of its platform interoperable.
Microsoft’s Mobile Strategy Revealed
Taken as a whole, Microsoft has created a powerful ecosystem from both developer and consumer perspectives. Windows 8/RT/Phone devices will be cloud-connected with each other, have the same user interface and be compatible with just about every standard that Microsoft could reasonably accommodate in both the hardware and software environments.
Windows 8 is like a snake biting its own tail. As a user, you can start from one end or the other and eventually be led around the loop back to where you began. At one end is the full-featured desktop version of Windows 8 running on x86 processors. At the other is Windows Phone 8 on ARM. Traditionally, those two classes of devices would be light years apart in how they functioned and what they looked like. With Windows 8, they are perhaps as close as they will ever get.
The benefits are obvious. For Microsoft, this integrated platform will lead consumers to buy not just one device but a whole interoperable lineup. Microsoft will have desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones all running on the same system with the same interface and capabilities differentiated to suit the varying form factors. Tie it to the cloud and that becomes an extremely powerful marketing message.
It was likely a painful decision for Microsoft to break Windows Phone yet again. But in the long run, it will prove beneficial. All aspects of Windows Mobile CE will have officially been abolished. The decisive shift clears the ground for the Windows 8 ecosystem to flourish as a whole.
Microsoft also aligns itself with the industry trend of unifying desktop and mobile platforms. Apple has shown that it is willing to combine much of the functionality of its Mac OS X desktop operating system with iOS that runs on the iPhone and iPad. The idea is to get consumers (and businesses) into a platform ecosystem that they will have trouble escaping. If you own a Mac computer, it will be easier for you to integrate to an iPhone and iPad. Likewise, if you own a Windows 8 computer, it will behoove you to own a Surface tablet and a Windows Phone. Google would love nothing more than to have that type of cross-device integration between Android smartphones and tablets and its Chrome operating system on laptops. The industry giants hope to herd consumers onto a platform not just for one device, but all of their computing needs. Microsoft it taking its first steps toward that goal with Windows 8, and the strategy is compelling.
Whether or not it will be successful across device categories will be another question.
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The verdict on Microsoft’s new Surface tablet has been mostly positive. Reviewers have praised the device’s fit and finish, operating system and Touch Cover keyboards – not to mention Microsoft’s unusual willingness to try something new. But we haven’t heard as much about Surface Pro, Microsoft’s attempt to go beyond the consumer market and make tablets truly useful for business professionals and digital artists.
But the Surface Pro is a lot heavier (903 g versus 676 g), with a battery that’s exactly a third larger in terms of charge capacity. That’s critical, because the Surface Pro foregoes the less powerful, cooler-running Nvidia Tegra ARM processor in favor of a faster Core i5 chip and a more powerful graphics processor. All in all, the Surface Pro’s specs create the impression of a serious business machine.
But will anyone use it? And for what?
While the iPad has found plenty of applications in businesses, those have largely arisen organically as users bring their own devices (BYOD) to the office, and companies – and IT departments – try to figure out exactly what to do with them. Apple has shown little interest in directly attacking the enterprise market. Microsoft is essentially trying to outflank Apple to establish a beach head in an environment it knows better than Apple does.
To date, only two companies have designed tablets specifically for businesses: Cisco’s Cius, now discontinued, and the RIM PlayBook. Cisco had no business being in the tablet market, and its “tablet” was little more than a front end for a VoIP phone. The PlayBook, for its part, has been forced to dig out from under a corporate reputation that’s declining fast. And its initial lack of email support turned the first PlayBook into a punch line, not a viable business tool.
Microsoft’s Surface is different. The BYOD trend doesn’t apply here. Microsoft is aiming the Surface Pro squarely at businesses, and the device includes a number of business-friendly features that separate it from consumer tablets.
It Isn’t Compatible With Windows, It Is Windows
While Android and iOS both offer hooks into Windows environments, for enterprises that have bought into Microsoft enterprise tools like SharePoint, Lync and even Outlook, Windows Surface should be a much more convenient choice. While it hasn’t given word, it’s logical to assume that Microsoft will provide tools that will let Surface tablets be managed by IT departments. The Surface Pro is due some 90 days after Windows 8 launches. Perhaps that time will be used to develop specific Windows integration tools.
The Touch Cover Keyboard
Tablets have been traditionally used to consume content. But with the Touch Cover keyboard/cover, Microsoft has flipped the script. Yes, you can type on a tablet. But with Touch Cover – and especially Type Cover, its thicker, even more keyboard-like cousin – the Surface suddenly becomes able to take on an increasing number of business tasks that now require a laptop.
In fact, the Surface Pro resembles an ultrabook (MacBook Air-style) laptop in many ways. That can be seen as a complement to Microsoft’s work on Surface. But many businesses that really need a notebook will still choose a traditional laptop. Surface offers greater portability than an ultrabook (although the lack of a solid hinge means you can’t really use it on your lap) but not as much flexibility or expansion options.
Digital Artist and Content Creators
Surface and Surface Pro should also merit a serious look from digital artists and content creators. Microsoft products aren’t always an easy sell to creative types, who typically live within the Apple ecosystem. But Windows 8 is fun and vibrant, and the Metro interface brings some new design cred.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions, though. Digital illustrators typically use a “tablet” – a digitizer from companies like Wacom – to sketch out their designs. Steven Sinofsky, the president of Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Live division who helped introduce Surface Monday night, demonstrated the Surface Pro’s digital ink capability. But he didn’t show pressure sensitivity and other features that artists demand. On the other hand, full-fledged digital graphics suites based on Windows 8 should work natively on Surface Pro – a big plus.
The Heat Index?
Tablets are a godsend on the road, and the Surface Pro should be a perfect one-size-fits-all tool for business travelers, providing both entertainment and full access to their standard work tools. But there’s a potential problem: heat.
Remember, notebooks based on Intel Core chips are notorious for running hot. Microsoft said it has designed an innovative cooling system that vents the Core i5’s heat via the “seam” so that the bottom of the device stays cool. Until we can test how well that works, there’s a real possibility that the Core i5′s speed will be severely restricted to keep the device from getting too warm. Or it may turn out that professionals will have to use the Surface Pro primarily in kickstand mode to avoid setting fire to their laptops and desktops.
That kind of annoyance could make the ARM-powered basic Surface – which shouldn’t run as hot – the choice of consumers and most professionals alike, especially those who can work entirely via the Web and don’t need the full range of Windows applications. But that version runs on Windows RT and may not enjoy full software compatibility with Windows 8 programs. And since the Surface Pro does exist, software makers may be in less of a rush to convert their packages to run on RT.
Still, the Surface Pro appears to be the instant leader in business tablets. With software compatibility and a truly useful keyboard, the Surface Pro could appeal to both business users and corporate IT departments. For some business users, it might even replace a laptop as their primary computer.
Put another way, Surface isn’t really about bringing your own device to work. It’s not BYOD, but BYOS, or Bring Your Own Style.