BitDepth#857 - October 23

Is the Surface Microsoft's dream state for the way its new operating system will work in a tablet form factor.
It the tablet PC’s time?
Microsoft’s reference hardware for Windows 8, the Surface tablet. Photo courtesy Microsoft.

This is my fourth week of working on this column exclusively on Windows 8 on a tablet. The device was supplied for use with a Bluetooth keyboard and a hardware specific dock, neither of which I’ve used on the project.

The thesis I’ve been pursuing over this month is whether it’s possible to buy a tablet PC and press it into productive use as a laptop replacement on its own merits.
This will be the most compelling selling point for Microsoft as it seeks to drive a competitive wedge into the saturated and largely committed market for tablet sized devices.

The company’s challenge will be to persuade people with Android based tablets (basically Samsung devices), Kindles and iPads to consider a new entrant with a familiar software ecosystem.
It’s going to be difficult for the company to gain any traction in the market if it pursues a strategy of happy coexistence with its competitors. Windows 8 on a tablet is only going to succeed in that space if it persuades tablet users to switch.

Desktop users will get some valuable improvements over Windows 7 and will soon survive losing the start button once they realize that the Modern UI interface is that navigation tool writ larger and more usefully across their entire screen.
My test bed for Windows 8 is a year-old preliminary tablet design, and newer systems will be sleeker and crafted in greater harmony with the evolved version of the new operating system.

An even clearer expression of its intent has already been unveiled in its hardware reference platform, the Surface tablet.
The company recently announced prices and availability for the Surface within a range of US$499 and $699 with the type cover costing $130 more.

The Surface posits a laptop replacement that puts an almost invisible keyboard into the device’s protective cover. Buy the version of the tablet designed to run the full version of Windows instead of the RT version designed for ARM processors, and you have a small form factor tablet that’s capable of replacing a well kitted Ultrabook or replacing a low end desktop PC.

That’s the positioning that I’m divining from the rather pointed axis of the simultaneous release of the new OS and the Surface, along with what’s likely to be a flood of tablet PCs from Microsoft’s traditional hardware partners.

Will this strategy work?
In my own limited experience with this new way of working with a PC, it’s something that the average user can adjust to if they are patient and give it enough time. I couldn’t for instance, use the screen keyboard to type the way I sometimes like to, with laptop on a support platform while relaxing in a comfortable chair.

I was most successful with the software keyboard when I propped the slate at a 10 degree angle (a thick pen wedged under the tablet works like a champ), placed it on a desk and addressed it from a proper chair (yes, if you went to secretarial school or were trained by someone who was, you learn to ‘address’the keyboard).

Working that way, I quickly began to pick up speed and accuracy, gaining about 50 per cent of my regular typing speed over a few weeks of intermittent use.
Running the full Windows operating system on a tablet is going to be a big win for PC users who have been envious but wary of touch based computing. Count such users as the low hanging fruit of this initiative. Next up will be tablet users who miss having a readily accessible file system and the ability to run popular desktop apps. There’s a market there, I suspect, that neither Android nor iOS has adequately met.

Beyond that, Microsoft will face a significant challenge gaining market traction for the new operating system outside of these areas of strength.
Major corporate deployments of Windows 7 are likely to be daunted by the substantial interface changes that the new OS brings, which will look, to an IT department, less like features than costly retraining.

Current tablet uses who never got the intricacies of anyone’s desktop OS are unlikely to be wooed by a tablet-based version of something they never fully understood in the first place.
It’s a razor’s edge game, and Microsoft is entering it late. There was a real opportunity when tablet apps were sparse and relatively crude, but that’s no longer the case. The work the company has done so far is impressive, but it’s going to have to drive twice as hard just to catch up.

Microsoft has built a good racing engine in Windows 8, and the company has the most extensive pit crew technology has ever seen in its developer and hardware network, but this is a race of simplicity and efficiency and it remains to be seen how well and how quickly the Redmond company adjusts to a computing market that’s very different from the one it’s mastered in the past.

Everything you might ever want to know about the launch of Windows 8 is linked here…
BitDepth#859, Expect Turbulence
Business Guardian report on the Latin American Launch of Windows 8
BitDepth#858, Microsoft: All In

Working with Windows 8 on a tablet device...
BitDepth#856, Software for the Modern UI
BitDepth#855, Tailoring a Tablet-ready Windows
BitDepth#854, Windows 8 on a Slate
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