The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

Summary:Windows 8 is much more than a tablet OS, and that may be its downfall in the hot mobile market.

It is obvious that Microsoft is throwing the engineering book at Windows 8 from everything we have seen so far about the next version of Windows. The decision to make Windows 8 work on every type of computer, with basically two OSes in one, is ambitious and points the new OS at both mobile and conventional computer users. This is a huge challenge to get right, but it is clear Microsoft is giving this its best shot.

What the dual OS approach fails to address is that tablets and computers are very different devices that serve very different purposes. The success of the iPad is in large part due to the fact that Apple focused it to do tablet things very well, while ignoring conventional computer tasks. Microsoft has taken a different path with Windows 8 that may prove to be difficult due to its aim at addressing the needs of everyone, not just the mobile crowd.

Why the iPad has succeeded

Many argue that the success of the iPad is due to the Apple effect, as the faithful will buy anything. I believe different factors were at play, as the iPad focused on what mainstream mobile users really need. This can be broken down as follows:

  • Reasonable price: Apple nailed the price the first time with the iPad, and forced the competition to meet its pricing. This has proven difficult for them to do.
  • Easy user interface: The iPad interface may be too simple for some, but it has resonated with users. The simple "apps as icons" home screens coupled with consistent touch controls appeals to non-techies.
  • Performance is king: Tablets don't need to be the best performers, but users will not tolerate lags in operation. The iPad delivers this and the perception is that performance is very good.
  • Good battery life: The iPad was the first computer that delivered all day usage on a single charge of the battery. Competing tablets had to match that, as consumers are not willing to plug a tablet into the wall in the middle of the day. Throw the tablet in the bag and use it as desired all day.
  • No maintenance: I can't stress this point enough. Consumers want tablets to just work, with no effort required on their part to keep things running smoothly. Regular updates that are easily applied are the secret sauce behind the iPad's success with users.
  • Easy/ cheap app purchase and updates: The iPad has changed the way program purchases are made by users. Clean apps that cost just a few dollars have become the norm, in large part due to the iPad.
  • One running task at a time: Techies love multitasking and the ability to run lots of things at once, but the iPad has proven that most users don't care about it. Tablets have limited screen real estate, and users are happy with doing one thing at a time as long as switching to other things is easy.
  • Simple hardware: The iPad has proven that fancy hardware such as external memory cards, USB hosting and the like is just not needed by most users. The key to user satisfaction is thin, light hardware that works well at the basics.
  • No security concerns: Malware is nasty business but not even a concern to iPad owners. Security updates to protect them happen as needed as part of the standard maintenance of the iPad.

The iPad delivered on all of these needs, and Apple's standard good marketing drove these points home. The results are plain to see, with iPads flying off the shelves in a steady stream since release.

What Windows 8 must bring to the tablet

Windows 8 is not designed just for tablets, it will power desktops and laptops, too. I focus on tablets with this article as it is clear Microsoft recognizes the importance of the genre, and has put such a big effort into getting the interface and design of Windows 8 for tablets as good as possible. What we've seen so far is promising, but making Windows 8 work on all of these types of computers, as different as they are, may impact the user experience on tablets negatively.

The "one OS fits all" philosophy that Microsoft has adopted with Windows 8 offers more flexibility to the user, but it may fall short in two key areas on tablets. Windows 8 will work on sophisticated hardware, but as demonstrated by the iPad that is not necessarily good for tablets. Android tablet makers have already fallen victim to this to varying degrees, by including additional hardware (think SD cards, 3G/4G connectivity, etc.) that appeal to some consumers but not many.

This hardware makes the tablets more expensive than they need to be, and more complex for the OS to handle. The pricing impact is easy to understand, but the system complexity makes hits on the performance and the reliability of tablet operation. Either of these can be fatal in the marketplace, and blame for poor performance will fall on Windows 8. Users blame the OS when things are frustrating, not the hardware, and this is what Microsoft has opened itself to by making Windows 8 so broad-reaching in scope.

While techies may be willing to put up with minor performance glitches in tablet operation due to the expanded usage possible, most consumers will not be. Tablets running the first version of Honeycomb fell victim to poor performance and instability, as did the HP TouchPad, and consumers stayed away from them. Tablet customers don't care if you can do more things (and more complicated things), if you can't do the basic things fast and easily. The complexity that Windows 8 brings to the tablet is going to make this hard to deliver, I'm afraid.

Microsoft must deal with Windows maintenance much differently for tablets than it does currently for Windows systems. While Windows PC owners will put up with the need to handle maintenance as they do now, tablet owners won't because the iPad and Android tablets has shown them they don't need to. While those in the know realize that security updates are required to head off the bad guys that attack Windows systems relentlessly, the simple fact is the iPad (which Windows 8 tablets will be compared to) security concerns are nonexistent to the end user. That is what Windows 8 has to compete with, and compete it must.

I am looking forward to seeing Windows 8, especially on tablets, as it gets near to production form next year. I'm on record that I believe my dream tablet will have a Windows sticker on it. That comes down to how well Microsoft delivers on not just the overall OS package, but the tablet subset in particular. That is the big Windows 8 challenge.

Related:

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Topics: Software, Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Tablets, Windows

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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