Last week, I wrote about how the schizophrenic nature of Windows 8 might just be its biggest asset. In essence, Windows 8 attempts to preserve the traditional desktop experience, while simultaneously introducing the touch-centric Metric experience. Done well, Windows 8 will provide tablet and desktop capabilities from one OS, maintaining the same set of user data and applications with some limitations attached (particularly around the new ARM processor version of Windows 8).
With an OS that can pull off this split-personality maneuver, one can't help but consider the possibility of hardware built with the same objective. A recent Microsoft patent makes it apparent that Microsoft is also considering this new paradigm and doing research in this area. The patent is for what amounts to a "dockable" tablet.
Conceptually, this is nothing new, but Microsoft appears to be taking the concept a bit further. Rather than the dock merely providing a keyboard, additional drives, or similar, Microsoft's patent envisions a dock that provides increased processing power, memory, or other low-level hardware. While this is clearly early stage research, the end concept is compelling: one device to rule them all.
Docking station 2.0
Most corporate citizens are familiar with the trusty old docking station. Put your laptop in the dock, and you have a larger monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers, all with your familiar applications and data. Where this paradigm breaks down is in the tablet space.
Need something smaller than your laptop, but want to retain the same data? You're out of luck. Microsoft's concept could extend the traditional dock hardware, combined with its split-personality OS, to a multi-role computing device. Want to read some e-books on the plane? Your Windows 8 device could act like an iPad or Android tablet with the finger-friendly Metro interface. Need to write a long email or report? Slide your tablet into what amounts to an ASUS Transformer on steroids. Drop the tablet into an enhanced dock in your office, and your processing power and RAM become suited for anything from encoding video to playing 3D games.
While this presents a compelling model for future computing, there are clouds on Microsoft's horizon, mainly in the guise of cloud computing. One of the best features of a single, multi-role device is the fact that you can access consistent data across different computing platforms. Data are already moving to the cloud, and concepts like virtualized desktops may disconnect applications from the hardware on which they run as well, further commoditizing hardware and allowing you to access any connected device — ranging from tablets to televisions — and access the same data and similar application functionality.
The other major wrinkle is that the concept of "one device to rule them all" requires everything from new hardware standards to a successful launch of Windows 8 and widespread corporate adoption. Quite a few things must go right, and there are myriad opportunities for things to go wrong.
Pundits have been predicting the death of Windows and the mouse and keyboard-centric computing experience it brought to the masses, but it hasn't come to pass. What's interesting and exciting for enterprise tablet users is that Microsoft still seems to have a bit of fire in its belly in the innovation space. While its patent may suffer the fate of most patents and end up on the shelf, enterprise tablet users are in for an exciting ride.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.