I keep hearing about Windows tablets. Steve Ballmer got up on stage with an HP slate at last year's CES, and nobody was particularly impressed. Now we're hearing rumors that he'll give it another shot this year, perhaps even revealing a bit about Windows 8 (I don't think that's likely, given that we don't expect Windows 8 to be released for almost two years). Redmond, if you're listening: stop it. Windows on tablets is a terrible, terrible idea.
At first, it seems like a Windows tablet would be just what the doctor ordered, right? A tablet that can run all the apps you already know and rely on - full-featured applications that don't just "work with" what you use on your laptop or desktop, they are what you use on your desktop or laptop. Video chat with a front-facing camera? Just fire up Skype or any other video conferencing tool you want. Plug in a USB keyboard, and it just works, because the whole Windows driver stack is available. Windows on a tablet would mean completely circumventing many of the limitations and drawbacks of current tablets based on Android or iOS.
But you can't have your cake and eat it, too. Windows as we know it faces two intractable problems that prevent it from ever being a good tablet OS: its hardware requirements, and its core design around mouse and keyboard input.
Current and upcoming tablets are generally based around the same system-on-chip processors found in smartphones. These use ARM CPU cores and package it together with a graphics processor, video decoding and encoding units, audio processing hardware, I/O hardware, and more. It's all bundled into a single low-power chip. We'll see plenty of tablets follow this mold, featuring Snapdragon, Tegra 2, Hummingbird, and similar system-on-chips. Windows, on the other hand, requires an x86 CPU, the lowest-power of which are Intel's Atom and AMD's upcoming Fusion chips. These are battery-sippers on laptops, but use drastically more power than the ARM-based smartphone and tablet chips. Though they integrate the CPU, graphics, and memory controller, you still need other chips on the motherboard for I/O, networking, audio, etc. Oh, and they're more expensive, too. The result: a tablet that requires a larger battery to have decent battery life, a higher BOM (bill of materials) cost and thus a more expensive tablet, and tablet designs that are thicker and heavier than the iPad (which is already at the threshold of what one can reasonably hold in one hand for, say, reading an e-book).
Windows is an OS designed for running many tasks at once, far above and beyond the "pause and resume with limited background processes" style of multitasking we see in most phone and tablet-oriented operating systems. It's made for running applications in, well, windows - a pointless bit of overhead on a device small enough that you'll really want to run everything full-screen. It requires more RAM to function well than Android or iOS, and puts more demands on storage performance. Windows is a miserable experience with tiny, small, slow hard drives, and the SSDs that make it fly are still very expensive.
Next: Mice and Touch Can't Really Coexist