Microsoft is ready to join the tablet party this year with Windows 8. As dominant as the Apple iPad is, there is demand out there for a more versatile and powerful mobile platform. So far, Android tablets and other rivals like the HP TouchPad and BlackBerry PlayBook have failed to capture much attention, so there is still an opportunity there for Microsoft.
Having an opportunity available, and capitalizing on that opportunity are two very different things, though. Currently, there are a number of unknowns--we have just as many questions about Windows 8 tablets as we do answers. Windows 8 tablets will bring some unique functionality to the tablet game, but there is still plenty of room for Microsoft and its partners to make Windows 8 tablets dead on arrival if they’re not careful.
Recipe for Success
First, lets look at what Windows 8 brings to the table that differentiate them and could make them a success in an iPad-dominated market. For starters, Windows 8 tablets have Windows. That may seem obvious and silly, but don’t underestimate the value of having a consistent interface and cross-platform applications that exist on both the desktop and tablet.
Frankly, it is one of the primary benefits of iOS as well--just in reverse. iPhones started the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and consumerization of IT revolutions. The iPad rode in on the coat tails of the iPhone, and now the seamless syncing and integration with Mac OS X is causing more businesses to look at switching to Mac. Microsoft has a much larger base of Windows users, though, so if it can provide a similar integrated experience across tablets and smartphones it will be a huge win.
Onuora Amobi, executive editor of Windows8Update.com, says that the Metro UI, true user profile portability, and tight integration with Windows on the desktop are all features that weigh in favor of Windows 8 tablets.
Potential Stumbling Blocks
There are a number of issues that could make Windows 8 tablets dead on arrival, or at least a very tough sell. Two of the biggest will be price, and confusion over differences between Windows on ARM (WOA) tablets, and x86/x64 architecture tablets.
ARM-based devices will probably be better tablets than their x86/x64 counterparts. WOA tablets will most likely be lighter, cooler, have longer battery life, and--most importantly--be cheaper. ARM-based tablets will be more on par with the competing tablets already in the market like the iPad, Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab, and others.
That all sounds great, but WOA tablets also come with significant handicaps that nullify most of what makes a Windows 8 tablet appealing. For example, WOA tablets can’t run traditional Windows software--they require apps written for the Metro UI.
Wes Miller from GetWired.com and Directions on Microsoft poses the question, “For enterprises who will have to rewrite their (non-Web) applications in Metro for WOA anyway, the question comes up, "why wouldn't I rewrite it for iOS instead?", since there is no way to run non-Microsoft Win32 apps on WOA.”
The bigger issue for WOA tablets is that Microsoft has revealed they are intended for “unmanaged environments”. What that translates to is that WOA tablets will not be able to connect to Windows domains and be managed like x86/x64 Windows 8 tablets, and other Windows systems.
Amobi says that there are arguments to be made for and against WOA tablets, and it’s still too early for a final verdict. But, he stresses, “If they cant join domains--game over.”
No worries. We still have x86/x64 Windows 8 tablets to fall back on, right? True, but there are some caveats.
An x86/x64 tablet is just squeezing a notebook or desktop into a touchscreen, flat-panel form factor. That has advantages, but we also know that running Windows takes a fair amount of processing horsepower and memory. While it may be possible to run Windows 8 with less RAM, 4GB is probably the minimum for acceptable performance. That is four times what most ARM tablets use.
When you build a tablet on x86/x64 architecture, and try to beef up the RAM to deliver adequate performance, the tablet starts to face other issues. As previously mentioned, users want tablets that are thin, light, and have endurance to last all day on a single charge. It is unlikely that x86/x64 tablets can truly compete with ARM-based rivals in these areas.
To a large extent, Microsoft is at the mercy of its hardware partners. Microsoft seems to have done its part in creating an innovative, appealing, capable operating system suitable for tablets. But, if the hardware it comes on is too bulky, or costly, users will just opt for similarly priced ultrabooks, and Apple will continue to enjoy a virtual monopoly in the tablet arena.