Microsoft was wrong: Tablets are not PCs. So now what?
A more rational approach
To understand how the platforms might evolve, it’s best to look at each company individually.
Microsoft. Windows 8 may not work on a tablet—defined as a relatively small-screen device with lots of battery life and a detachable keyboard. But there’s an argument that touch screens make sense on traditional laptops as well. It’s easier to open apps by pointing to a big square on the screen than moving your mouse to a little icon. Touch is great for scrolling through long documents, webpages, or lists of items. It’s useful for zooming into particular parts of a screen, or arranging discrete graphical elements in a particular way (imagine Visio or Photoshop on a touch screen), or—yes—taking notes with a stylus rather than a keyboard.
So if you buy the idea that touch can be useful on a laptop, and will become more so in coming years as applications evolve—lo and behold, Microsoft is the leader here.
The trick for Microsoft is getting its legions of traditional Windows developers to make more apps that take advantage of touch. Windows RT and Surface RT were a misguided, back-into-the-problem way of trying to do this—the idea was that RT tablets would launch and immediately be seen as viable competitors to the iPad (competitive on battery life, in particular). Developers would race to create apps for them, those apps would also work on the Modern touch version of Windows 8, and all would be right with the world.
But Windows RT is a flop. So Microsoft is going to have to rejigger its developer approach to explain how touch can work on a traditional PC, while still encouraging its OEM partners to experiment with convertible and hybrid ideas that might eventually catch on. (I still think there could be a market for dockable tablets with slightly larger screens—12 or 14-inch laptop with detachable keyboard might make a nice occasional-use tablet for taking notes at meetings or watching video on the couch at home.)
Meanwhile, Terry Myerson will have to figure out whether and how Microsoft’s relatively solid Windows Phone operating system can be upscaled to work on a tablet—the Apple approach—or how Windows RT can be totally revamped to work and function more like Windows Phone, then be downscaled to smartphones. There are lots of complicated moving parts here, not least of which how to ease developers through any further inevitable platform transitions without losing momentum.
Apple. In Apple’s case, there are aspects of iOS that could make OS X better—and more competitive with Windows 8 on touch-screen PCs.
Apple already took a step in this direction with the Mac App Store, which borrows the app distribution and installation model from iOS.
The trick for Craig Federighi will be taking the touch paradigms that make sense for a laptop, figuring out how to build them into OS X, and creating the right set of tools and guidance for developers. Successful iOS developers can’t just port their programs over to OS X—they’ll have to figure out how and whether those programs even make sense on a full laptop. Traditional OS X developers will have to figure out how and where to add touch to their apps.
There’s also a question of the relationship between Macs and iOS devices in the home and workplace. Today, it’s akin to a client-server relationship—the Mac is the central storage unit where users download and create and manipulate content and users sync their iOS devices to that home base.
Here, Apple has a chance to make iCloud the eventual hub for content—so users can access their stuff from any device, anywhere with an Internet connection, and keep everything in automatic sync across them.
That would turn the Mac and iOS devices into peers, rather than the “parent-child” relationship they have today, and would free users from the burden of having to connect the two devices regularly.
Without merging them into the same platform.
Google. In a lot of ways, Google is already where Microsoft and Apple want to be. It’s got the world’s most-used device platform in Android. It’s got the world’s most popular browser, which is becoming the basis for another device platform. It has loyal developers for both platforms. It’s got a lot of best-in-breed online services that sync reasonably well across different device types. It’s even testing the market for a high-end touch-screen laptop with the Chromebook Pixel.
The trick for Google is finding a coherent business model for its device platforms, apart from the “ general goodness” goal of having more people spend more time online. Does Google want to become a serious hardware player? The acquisition of Motorola and impending hype about the Moto X, along with the Pixel and Google Glass, suggest it has ambitions there.
Does Google want to get more serious about its enterprise services business, providing a real alternative to Microsoft Office and related services from Microsoft? The acquisition of QuickOffice and its inclusion in Chromesuggest maybe.
But again, Google has the least to lose here. It may be enough for the company to keep experimenting with combinations of device platforms and services, even supporting platforms from competitors—as it’s done with its services and apps on iOS—without rushing into any decisions that are hard to back out of later on.
One thing is for certain, however: When Sundar Pichai says there are no plans to merge Android and Chrome, it’s easy to believe him.
New blood, new thinking
Something odd to note: In each company’s case, it took the leader of the less successful device platform and put him in charge of the more successful one. OS X is a solid platform, but has nowhere near the market momentum and massive growth of iOS. The Chrome browser has come out of nowhere to build impressive market share in a very short time, but Android literally dominates smartphones and is moving fast in tablets—and Chrome OS is still a minority player in a shrinking niche market. And Windows Phone, as nice as it may be in some areas, has less than 5% of the market, while Windows is still the dominant PC operating system by a huge margin.
Some of this may simply be personality issues—former iOS leader Scott Forstall and former Windows leader Steven Sinofsky were known to be challenging to work with.
But it’s also interesting that in each case, the companies felt that getting new blood to work on their dominant platform was important. The platform battle is shifting so rapidly, complacency and old thinking simply won’t work anymore.