Windows 8-based ultrabook tablets have an opportunity to slow or reverse the erosion of the PC market caused by the mobile OS revolution in consumer computing. But if Microsoft doesn't get it right, Windows 8 may become another embarrassing Windows Vista or ME for Redmond's struggling software giant. Here are five things Microsoft should focus on and buyers should look for.
1: Mobile apps
If Windows 8 doesn't match the app libraries of Android and iOS, especially on the most popular and desired titles available on those platforms, people will be disappointed with the overall experience. We've already seen that effect with the disappointing adoption of Windows Phone 7. It isn't that WP7 is a bad platform — in fact, it consistently reviews well with tech bloggers — it just doesn't have a compelling app library, and WP7 apps are relatively more expensive than Android and iOS versions. Microsoft can't afford to have apps priced higher on their platform than on the competitors' markets.
2: Hardware standards that support app features
Google somehow managed to get all device manufacturers on board with a certain list of base reference features for handsets (and to a lesser degree, tablets) necessary to make a viable product. Apple simply doesn't have to worry about this, because they control their whole show. Features like accelerometers for gaming, GPS for location-aware applications (weather widgets and local attractions), and cameras for barcode and tag scanning are vital.
It's unclear yet if there's a consensus among hardware manufactures on what will be considered "basic" features to support the widest range of Windows 8 apps. A fractured hardware environment is going to cause devices with high-end features to be ignored by developers. This leads to less rewarding application experiences for the sake of reaching a larger market share of Windows 8 devices. That could be a disaster if apps for Win8 seem lacking compared to the same apps on mobile devices.
3: Leisure computing
We know Microsoft wants the enterprise, and I think that this is a given if Windows 8 is a success. Businesses will replace aging PCs with new hardware, and increasingly, those replacements will be tablet-convertible hybrid PCs, as traditional PCs become dinosaurs. We'll see executives embrace these machines first, then middle managers, and eventually the regular workforce. Business users won't be as concerned about the leisure features like gaming, social media, music, movies, and entertainment.
However, Apple has proven that massive consumer sales lie in appealing to leisure computing desires. Microsoft has shied away from combining the two in the past. For example, they wanted Windows Mobile PDAs to be seen as "executive enterprise devices" and discouraged leisure applications. That mistake may have cost Microsoft an early lead in smartphones. We'll see if Microsoft has learned their lesson.
Mobile devices have changed consumer expectations on acceptable runtime and standby time. Using a device on a coast-to-coast flight to work and watch movies and arriving with juice left over to catch up on social media and email before going to bed is normal now. Being able to instantly power on and load an app to capture an idea is mandatory. If consumers find these devices letting them down on battery or slow startup or app load times, Windows 8 will find itself rejected by the market.
5: Backwards compatibility with the traditional PC experience
The promise of the Windows 8 ultrabook convertible is to deliver all of the benefits of modern mobile OS platforms with all of the benefits of the traditional Intel PC computing experience. If Windows 8 arrives with significant challenges that make backwards compatibility problematic, users won't buy in. The success of Windows 8 and ultrabook convertibles are dependent on one another. The OS platform doesn't make sense without the hardware format, and the hardware format doesn't make sense without the OS platform. Together, if they work well, they're worth a premium, because they can consolidate a lot of different equipment into one device. If they don't, there are already better solutions available today that cost less.
I think the Windows 8 ultrabook convertible notebook/tablets are a promising platform that could revitalize the diminishing relevance of Microsoft, Intel, and their hardware vendors — if implemented correctly. I think the formula must be carefully balanced to be successful. I have my concerns that Microsoft, Intel, and their vendors haven't been paying close enough attention to the points on which they have been losing for the past several years. They've got the right direction, now we just need to see if they have the resolve to deliver a successful alternative.
What else do you think Windows 8 ultrabook tablets need to be a success? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.