Seventeen months after CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled a Windows slate that never made it to market, Microsoft, the king of the desktop, is taking another stab at tablets.
But the company still isn’t going all in, and some experts say this could prove to be a major mistake.
Microsoft took the wraps off of Windows 8, the company’s first attempt to re-imagine its computer operating system for tablets, at the All Things Digital D9 conference on Wednesday. There’s a lot riding on the radical makeover of Microsoft’s Windows software, a major moneymaker that has attracted more than a billion users, earns Microsoft over $17 billion a year and runs on 90 percent of PCs.
Lately, however, Microsoft’s success in the PC market has been overshadowed by its failure to deliver a tablet offering, while rivals Apple and Google both have their own slates available, or to challenge the dominance of Apple’s iPad, which claims approximately 74 percent of the tablet market.
But while many had expected Microsoft to finally unveil a software specifically for slates, Windows 8 isn’t just for tablets. Instead, the operating system, which has undergone its most radical reinvention in over a decade, is meant to power both tablets and PCs.
Windows 8 will work "with or without a keyboard and mouse on a broad range of screen sizes and pixel densities, from small slates to laptops, desktops, all-in-ones, and even classroom-sized displays,” Microsoft said in a press release.
With Windows 8, Microsoft looks like it's hedging its bets, delivering a product that can work on both a touchscreen tablet and laptop operating system. Whereas Apple and Google have each developed platforms made especially for tablets, Microsoft bets that one operating system can do it all, an assumption many are calling into question.
"The way they positioned it, tablets are almost an afterthought," said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with the research firm Forrester.
Notably, the word "slate" appeared only once (and "tablet" not at all) in Microsoft’s 800-word Windows 8 press release.
Yet offering up only a single version of Windows may help the company avoid confusing the millions of customers already familiar with the ins and outs of Microsoft software. Though Windows 8 will offer a slew of new features and display options, it will also run existing Windows applications and retain the key elements of the Windows interface, guaranteeing consistency across versions of the software and different devices.
Perhaps most importantly, it carries the well-known Windows brand.
"For Microsoft to continue to produce a consistent experience for customers across devices is a good idea," said Epps. "It gives customers confidence that all their stuff will work with a Windows device, no matter what shape it’s in."
Delivering a single operating system for both tablets and PCs may also assure Microsoft a large stable of apps. With Windows 8, developers could build a single app to work on any gadget running the software, rather than having to create different versions of an app for different devices. In Apple’s ecosystem, for example, a Mac app will not run on an iPad, and vice versa.
"Microsoft has a huge install based of Windows machines out there, all of which are running Windows apps," said Richard Edwards, an analyst with Ovum. "Microsoft has to provide a strategy that will take its existing business, that’s primarily keyboard-based, to a market that makes use of touch and ultimately gesture…While the tablet market as exemplified by Apple has spawned an opportunity for a new generation of applications, designers and builders, we have to remember that this is a market that’s been in existence for 20 odd years and Microsoft needs to leverage the [developer] community and provide them with the stepping stone into touch computing."
Still, others doubt that Microsoft’s bet on an all-in-one operating system will pay off. Some experts argue that consumers don’t want the same experience on a tablet than they do on a laptop, pointing to the success of the iPad, which simplifies, rather than recreates, the experience of using a Mac computer. Critics also say that people use tablets differently from PCs and, as Steve Jobs as argued in the past, will not want to swipe, tap or touch the screens of their laptops.
MacWorld called Windows 8 "utterly poisoned by Microsoft’s old ways of thinking."
"The problem with the announcement is that Microsoft has failed to commit to the tablet as a unique type of device," MacWorld added. "Rather than creating a new operating system for tablets, or use the existing (and intriguing) Windows Phone 7 as the basis for a Microsoft-powered tablet, the company will instead use an update to the traditional Windows PC operating system."
The danger, experts contend, is that Windows 8 may prove to be a mediocre software solution for a multitude of devices, while standout software on none.
"Windows 8 is trying to have it all, and I don’t think that can be done," wrote John Gruber, a tech blogger for the site Daring Fireball. "You can’t make something conceptually lightweight if it’s carrying 25 years of Windows baggage."
Delivering something radically different from what Apple has offered up, rather than attempting to mimic the iPad, could ultimately be Microsoft’s saving grace as its device will be instantly differentiated. Where the iPad simplifies and streamlines the computing experience, Windows 8 tablets may give it more punch, equipping people with 10-inch slates that have the same capabilities as a five-pound laptop.
Ultimately, Microsoft can little afford to fall further behind: By the time Windows 8 is available on tablets in the market, Apple will likely be on the third version of the iPad.
"They need to bring this to market in 2012," said Epps. "And it’s not a moment too soon."