So yesterday happened what was widely expected, Microsoft announced its own tablet hardware under the "Surface" brand, which was previously used for these interactive tables which are now called "Microsoft Pixelsense". And while neither a Windows 8 nor a Window RT tablet are anything new, at the recent Comdex both types of tablet where shown, the news is that the Surface tablets were developed and designed by Microsoft, without any help of any OEMs and that Microsoft will sell them under the Microsoft Surface brand, again without any OEMs involved. Is this a wise decision, is the overall Windows 8 and Windows RT system ready for prime time and what's next?
Well, first of all we should remember, that Microsoft has a long track-record in tablet PCs. It's nothing Apple put on Microsoft's agenda with the launch of the iPAD. Back in 2002, Microsoft launched its "Smart Display" (codenamed "Mira") which was a wireless extension to PCs and wirelessly connected to the PC, within the same WiFi b network. A little bit earlier, Microsoft already announced its Microsoft Tablet PC which ran Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, because Bill Gates was totally sold to the idea of tablet PCs. Later, at 2006, Microsoft tried a different approach with its Ultra Mobile PCs (codenamed Origami) which failed badly, unfortunately because the idea was brilliant but the devices weren't powerful enough to run full versions of Windows XP and later Windows Vista (like the HTC Shift).
So no, Microsoft isn't a nobody in the tablet field, as a matter of fact, Microsoft was there pretty early (as Apple was early on the PDA field with its Newton) but Microsoft attempts were pretty successes (except Tablet PCs which have their niche in vertical markets today).
And now, Microsoft is trying another attempt, under a new brand, under its own control with two brand new and yet to be released operating systems, with Windows 8 which was designed for rather powerful tablets and with Windows RT which was designed for the kind of iPad class of tablets. Two different operating systems, even if they might share some source code, but with different approaches. Windows 8, which is Microsoft's next desktop full fledged OS, doesn't matter if it runs on Intel-based desktops, laptops or tablets and Windows RT, Microsoft's OS for ARM based mid-end tablets. Both look the same, both are so different and that's the problem!
Microsoft puts Windows Phone's "Metro" design (which was initially released on the Zunde HD) into the center of Windows 8 and Window RT, but this hides the fact, that both version different! You will be able to install your old copy of Microsoft Office on a Windows 8 tablet but you won't be able to install it on a Windows RT tablet. As a matter of fact, the Windows RT tablet is way more a "Windows Phone 8 Tablet" than Microsoft wants to admit! Microsoft is coming from the desktop OS, this was always the center of Microsoft, not a down-stripped mobile OS like Windows Phone (or Windows CE/Windows Mobile before).
Windows Phone, Windows RT and Windows 8 look so similar but are so different
And that's the point where I see major problems will start. Apple was recently often criticized that its iPad looks and feels more like an iPhone but not like a MacBook. But that's good and the right approach it actually makes the end user (and I'm only talking about end users here) aware, that an iOS powered iPad isn't a PC, or Mac, or whatever.
iOS for iPhone and iPad looks similar but different to Mac OS
Let's take a look at Microsoft's upcoming three screen strategy: We have Metro powered Windows Phones, Metro powered Windows RT tablets and Metro powered Windows 8 tablets. All look the same, all are so different. I think an end user has learned, that a phone isn't a PC if it comes to software and that software on phones is different and nowadays called "apps". So far so good but how is software called on a Windows RT tablet? Are these still apps or is it already software? Will Outlook and Office on Windows RT be apps? On Windows 8 it's clear, it's the "Office Suite" and nobody will come to the idea to call it an app.
Let's keep this thought and think about Microsoft Stores or any electronic stores around the world which will carry all three Microsoft products. In one corner Windows Phone, in another corner Windows RT tablets and in the third corner Windows 8 tablets. Sure enough, the end user will understand the difference between a phone and a tablet, but how should he understands the difference between a, let's say 499 Euro Windows RT tablet and 899 Euro Windows 8 tablet, if both look so similar. The answer is "same, same but different" and the end user won't get the "different".
Windows RT won't be able to support Windows (8) software which makes sense because it's powered by ARM CPUs, like Microsoft's Windows Phones, but Windows RT will access the soon to be relaunched Microsoft Marketplace for Windows Phone because these two platforms, Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT share more DNA with each other than Windows RT shares with Windows 8. At the end of the day, Windows RT will be the Windows Phone Tablet, Microsoft tried to avoid to call it for so any years. But if Windows RT is the tablet kind of Windows Phone, why must Windows 8, the mature OS, have to look like Microsoft's phone and tablet OS? Is it clever to also put Metro on this kind of "real" PCs? I don't think so.
I really have the feeling that Microsoft missed an opportunity for a real three-screen restart with, let's call it "Windows Phone 8", "Windows Tablet 8" and "Windows 8" which clearly differentiate to each other like the iPhone, the iPad and Mac OS does. And no wonder, once I hard Steve Ballmer asking in a presentation "who wants a crippled tablet (iPad) if he can get a real tablet (Windows)?" Well, I would say the sales figures gave the answer. The majority of end users want a crippled tablet (including me) because I love to use it for light tasks like reading my E-Mails, surfing the web, playing some casual games and all this while sitting on a hotel pool, commuting to work or simply while lying in the bed.
And having two identically looking Surface tablets, one with Windows RT and one with Windows 8 doesn't helps the end user to differentiate between the different OS versions, its capacities and explaining the price differences.
All together, from a geek point of view, I want both, the Surface RT with Windows RT and the Surface Pro with Windows 8. From the prosumer point of view I only need the Surface RT and from the consumer point of view I have no idea what Microsoft announced yesterday.
Cheers ~ Arne