If you haven't realized it yet, Microsoft is trying to do something different in tablets. But, the strategy has three big question marks.
I've said it many times before, but I'll repeat it. I don't really like tablets.
I've carried all three iPads, several Galaxy Tabs, the Kindle Fire, the BlackBerry PlayBook, and the HP TouchPad. I always run into the same roadblocks. Almost every time I use a tablet I end up trying to do something like sharing a story to a social network or emailing a photo to someone and I get frustrated because it's just a lot more efficient to do it on my laptop. Plus, on a laptop I can control the experience a lot better. For example, for social sharing I can shorten the URL with the service that I prefer so I can track analytics or I can quickly and accurately crop and edit the photo the way I want before sending it.
Microsoft thinks it's got the tablet solution for people like me.
The software giant is building Windows 8 with a full-screen reading and app experience like the iPad (and its competitors) while also offering the ability to jump into a full desktop experience to do the kinds of things that I was just talking about.
I think it's great that Microsoft is turning its attention to users like me, and naturally I believe there's an opportunity there. But, there are three big questions marks.
1. How many people want a no-compromise tablet?
Microsoft either believes that current tablet owners would like to do a lot more with their tablets or that there are many more people out there who would buy a tablet if they could do more with it. Or both. Two years ago when Apple first released the iPad, I believed the same thing.
However, usage of the iPad has confirmed that a high percentage of people are mostly reading and viewing things and only occasionally have to do much typing, input, or creation. For these users, the fact that the iPad is so much more convenient and easier to use for viewing things than a laptop far outweighs the fact that it's a lot less convenient for data input, content creation, and the kind of stuff I mentioned above. For most users, the iPad is good enough for most of the stuff they want to do and it's a heckuva lot easier to operate than a PC.
Most of them aren't ditching their computers altogether, but an increasing number of iPad users are spending more time on the tablet and less time on a computer. I think this is the mainstream and these numbers will accelerate in the years ahead. Heavy content creators like myself, programmers, and other kinds of specialists are likely to become the equivalent of CAD workstation users in the PC world. Remember when we all used to spend $2000 or more on a computer tower? Now, the CAD specialists are the only ones doing that.
2. Is Windows 8 doing it right?
In theory, Microsoft is going to offer the best of both worlds. Its ARM-based Windows 8 tablets (the ones running "Windows RT") will cost a little less and will not run all of the Windows applications that currently run on Windows 7. Meanwhile, the full Windows 8 tablets will run on traditional x86 hardware and will boast the full desktop operating system embedded within the tablet experience.
There are going to be power users who like the idea of having more flexibility and capability in a tablet and the might love the x86 Windows 8 tablets. The challenge for Microsoft is that in trying to have it both ways, it is creating extra complexity that is going to confuse and frustrate a lot of regular users.
For example, instead of making its ARM-based tablets "Metro-only" and focusing on making them a great tablet experience that is separate from the desktop, Microsoft is still falling back on the crutch of the desktop environment for certain settings and utilities. Sure, that will be fine for power users on an x86 Surface tablet with a full keyboard and touchpad, but trying to fiddle with that stuff on a touch-only tablet is going to result in yelps and screams from average users.
While that full desktop environment on a tablet could be the killer feature for power users, it could also be the crutch that kills the Windows 8 tablet experience for everyone else.
3. Are Apple, Amazon, and Google wrong?
What Microsoft is doing in tablets is essentially a more refined version of its original stylus-based Tablet PC approach, adapted for a multitouch world. Microsoft still believes one machine can do it all and can excel at multiple experiences and multiple use cases. With Windows 8, it's betting heavily on the convergence of tablets and laptops.
Meanwhile, the iPad has mostly been about addition by subtraction. It has purposely removed the complexity of a desktop operating system. Sure, it also threw out a bunch of capabilities along the way. That makes it a deal-breaker for people like me, but the majority of users are shrugging it off. They seem to barely notice or they consider it a reasonable trade-off for a machine that is easy to operate and offers instant-on, long battery life, minimal malware worries, and lots of cheap software.
Amazon's Kindle Fire and Google's nascent Nexus 7 follow the same tablet model that Apple has established and both are seeing some success with it. While Microsoft is taking a few cues from that model — like the low-cost software app approach — overall, it is going in a different direction. It is sticking to its original tablet strategy from a decade ago by betting on a more powerful, multi-use device that harnesses all the power of a PC but just delivers it in more friendly and portable hardware.
Most people don't need a tablet that can also act like a workstation. They just want a tablet that can perform really well as a tablet. Microsoft is building the CAD workstation of tablets. It could be awesome for the people who want that kind of thing and are willing to pay for it.
But, just as people no longer pay over $2000 for computers like the ones CAD workstation professionals use, it's unlikely that the masses are going to pay $800 or more for a high-end tablet. And while many enterprise companies are going to like the ability to easily connect Windows 8 tablets to their backend Windows infrastructure, the higher price tag and the added complexity of using them could limit the number of users who will get a Windows 8 tablet from the IT department.
Now, if Microsoft changed course and went with a Metro-only, ARM-based Windows 8 tablet that cost less than $500 and could seamlessly connect to Active Directory and other backend Windows systems, then I believe a lot of enterprise businesses and individual business professionals would be interested. But, that's not the product we're going to see this fall.