On Windows Phone 8 & Surface

From all appearances, not even journalists who’ve claimed to have “hands on” time with Microsoft’s new “Surface” tablets actually got their hands on one. At this point it’s premature to predict either wild success or wild failure. Logically, this means it’s also premature to do what I’m about to go ahead and do anyway: predict wild meh.

Apple’s OS X appears in what’s effectively two incarnations: iOS for the iPhone and iPad, and OS X on desktops and notebooks. Microsoft has taken the bemusing approach of creating four incarnations of their new OS: Windows Phone 8 for phones, Windows 8 for desktops, Windows 8 RT for tablets, and Windows 8 for tablets. This is far better than having entirely different operating systems for the devices—in theory, porting from Windows 8 to Windows Phone 8 will, as Extreme Tech’s Sebastian Anthony wrote, “be as simple as flipping a switch in Visual Studio.”

Except, of course, that the vast majority of Windows apps have to be rewritten for the Metro UI first. And then—if there’s any lesson anyone should take away from iOS, it’s this—you have to understand that the user experience, no matter how similar both the developer API and the user interfaces are, is different on the tablet, the phone, and the desktop. There’s a reason that iPad users don’t run iPhone apps on their pads unless there’s no other choice, and that iPhone apps don’t look like iPad apps but just smaller. Microsoft appears to be preaching the write once, run anywhere gospel of virtual machines through time immemorial, and it’s quite possible that they’ve got the virtual machine problem finally solved. That doesn’t mean they have the user experience problem solved.

With that in mind, I present my boldly flavored bowl of claim chowder.

Windows 8 on the desktop: It’ll be successful because seriously, you have no choice. But I don’t see users rushing to adopt Metro on the desktop, despite Microsoft’s best efforts to make it difficult not to; it appears to be pretty clunky when you’re using it with a keyboard and mouse. If users are unenthusiastic about Metro on the desktop, that’s going to make developers unenthusiastic about it. And most businesses—especially “enterprise” customers—aren’t going to switch immediately, which means a lot of business applications won’t leap to Metro any time soon. This has ramifications for the entire Windows 8 product line: programs that aren’t rewritten for Metro on the desktop aren’t going to appear on the phone or tablet unless entirely new versions are written for those targets.

Windows 8 (non-RT) tablets: These are undoubtedly going to be the best “full OS tablets” ever, because they’ll be the first ones that have an OS that actually works well on a tablet. But I don’t think that’s going to determine whether they stay niche products like Windows tablets in the past have been; what determines that will be the price level. Bluntly, Windows users who pitch fits about Apple’s pricing may not be gung ho about a Windows tablet that costs what a Macbook Air does, even if it does everything that a Macbook Air does. They may not be gung ho about a Windows tablet anyway, actually; they might be much more gung ho about a Windows 8 laptop that does everything the Macbook Air does. (Except one that costs a more sensible $599, thank you very much. Never mind that it’s got a lower quality screen and is made out of garishly colored plastic: it’s festooned with ports you’ll never use, and that’s what matters.)

Windows 8 Phone: Yes, yes, Microsoft always gets everything right on the third try, and this is the third major release, so on and so forth. But WP7 lags far behind Android and iOS in apps, has only been made available on ugly and/or underpowered phones (HTC and Nokia, respectively), and its market share remains not only well behind Blackberry but well behind last-generation smartphone OSes like Symbian and Java ME. I think it’s a serious question at this point as to whether it’s too late for WP8 to do, well, much of anything. Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher lays out the case that WP8 will finish killing off the BlackBerry based on the enterprise-friendly features it has, which will cut off RIM’s remaining oxygen. He’s probably right. But knocking RIM out of the enterprise in 2012 no longer means becoming the king of the hill; it means taking third place.

Android and iOS entered the market when the last-generation smartphone OSes were kings, and they were clearly an order of magnitude better than anything else out there; Windows Phone is entering the market when Android and iOS are the kings, and it’s not an order of magnitude better than they are. Even if it increases its market share by an order of magnitude—which I think is about the best possible outcome—it’ll still be not only in third place, but fairly distant behind iOS.

Windows 8 RT tablets: These have a curious problem. This sounds like a great tablet OS in a lot of ways, but its success is going to be dependent on the existence of Metro applications that are optimized for touch screens—and I suspect that means its success is tied more to the success of Windows Phone 8 than it is to the success of Windows 8 on the desktop. I don’t think WP8 is going to be a wild success, and that suggests to me that W8RT tablets aren’t going to be, either.

Surface Tablets: These will probably be the most successful of the various 8/RT tablets made, just because they’ll be Microsoft’s—the plan to sell them only in Microsoft Stores might prove a limiting factor, but if it does, I expect that plan to change. But there are a lot of questions other people have pointed out: pricing, availability, timing, and whether a keyboard that looks dismayingly like the Atari 400's is really going to be that awesome.

The elephant in the room is what Microsoft licensees do about Microsoft’s move into hardware. Other companies may be a lot less enthusiastic about producing Windows 8 tablets now that they know they’ll be competing with Microsoft Surface—which undercuts the primary advantage the Windows ecosystem has always had over Apple, i.e., multiple competitive vendors.

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