The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

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.



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

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

    I agree. But I think Windows 8 has competition only from Android, not iPad. People who are already hooked on to Apple won't leave them easily. That part of the market isn't available to either Microsoft or Google, from what we have seen over the last few years.
    Both these companies have almost identical sets of problems - fragmentation in both hardware and software. I am of the opinion that Win8 will probably trump Android on tablets, and from there on, *maybe* on smartphones as well.
    • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

      @regsrini Windows 8 needs to compete with the iPad though, as the only proven market of a size to fit MSFT. Android tablets are doing OK, but not selling anywhere near as well as the iPad.
      • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

        You're right about that, they do need to compete with iPad, but I was trying to say that MS most likely won't affect Apple's bottom line anyway, because of the loyalty that Apple commands.
      • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

        @JamesKendrick Even though Apple has the bestselling tablet device at the moment it is still a sector in its infancy. As MS pointed out at Build they???ve got 400 million Win 7 users. MS should aim to migrate existing Windows customers plus make gains in emerging markets.
      • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

        @alecfoundry: Do not ever confuse selling to the supply chain, with actual installed base. Microsoft knows exactly how many licenses are active, but like they do for other things, Microsoft only count units shipped.
      • Win8 Tablet is the future of the PC


        Why do they even need to touch the iPad's market? Its still a very niche group of owners. The rest of society is waiting for a more compelling Tablet to dump $600 into.

        Win8 on tablets will redefine the Laptop/Netbook market. I think people who are stuck in this mindset that the Tablet is a separate market, are REALLLLLY missing THE BIG PICTURE.

        The Win8 tablet will be your future PC. Dock it into your desktop at home and use it as a content creator with the traditional desktop UI. Grab it to go and use the touch UI while you are out mobile.

        I find it mind boggling how short sighted Tech Bloggers are. It makes me wonder how they are considered qualified for the job.
      • Please justify your statement

        "Windows 8 needs to compete with the iPad "

        You state this as fact with nothing to back it up.

        Windows 8 slates need to sell in large, profitable numbers. Windows 8 does not need to compete with iPad. In fact, it would be suicide to compete with iPad. Apple has killed every competitor that has gone up against it.

        I really wish everyone would stop calling on MS to copy Apple. Apple could not beat MS on the desktop. They couldn't do it. So they wisely killed the Apple clone. Most Apple profit comes from their devices and Apple changed their name to reflect this change in focus. Everyone who asked Apple to copy MS was wrong. Likewise, everyone currently asking MS to copy Apple is also wrong.

        MS is not copying Apple and this is a good thing.
      • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

        @JamesKendrick Except Windows 8 is meant for ALL PCs tablet or not. So it could quite conceivably fail utterly to dent the iPad but still be a huge success.

        I think everyone (Microsoft included) are rather too fixated with the iPad (though to be fair Apple don't seem as fixated on it - there is still a lot of activity around the Mac).

        Windows 8 seems to forget it's core market - PCs (with pointers) as it heads off to "finger computer land".
      • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

        We all know that the total world uses Mac OSX including the ones in the Microsoft.
        Ram U
    • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

      @regsrini I think Windows 8 on tablets will eat Android's lunch, mainly due to an improved user experience. I also think Windows 8 won't touch Apple's iPad for at least a few years. It doesn't have anything to do with Apple user loyalty, though. It has to do with Apple already having a great user interface, longer batter life, very extensive ecosystem of third-party hardware and a truly massive application library. I will have no problem leaving Apple when something truly better appears. That means better battery life, better user interface, better screen resolution, better cameras, better add-ons, better applications, better weight, and better performance. I just don't see that happening any time soon. Apple has a huge head start on everyone else.

      So, I think the pecking order on tablets will be iOS, Metro/Win8, then Android very soon after Win8 ships. Basically, Win8 will appeal to the same type of folks who like Android and want to avoid the Apple lock-in. The uptick for Microsoft is that Win8/Metro on tablets may convince more people to try Windows on their phones.
      • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

        @BillDem <br>Nope, windows 8 has no appeal to me at all. I'm an android user, and love the whole google thing. Maybe its just because I hate MS (due primarily because of their undisclosed patent threats against linux and android). This reminds me of when android tablets were comming and they said "wait until people see what a real tablet can do with the dual-core, 1GB memory, sd card and usb port". Turns out, relatively few cared based on that. The ipad proved that with the tablet, the simpler and more limited, yet refined, the better. I tried ubuntu on my tablet and it worked fine but then I remembered why I had a tablet in the first place (quick and simple consumption device and email) and went back to android. I left the desktop OS to my full blown laptop.
      • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

        @willyampz<br><br>Nice post. Competitors first need to understand the target market to challenge Apple. If consumers really wanted a full traditional PC on a tablet/Slate form factor they would have bought these decades ago. Like I've been saying the form factor will always dictate the use cases. A slate form factor is ideal for consumption and light computing. Efficient computing. No fumbling with updates - OS updates, Flash, Java updates, Anti-Virus prompts, Firewall prompts, crashes, slowdowns and other OS/UI complexities. When I am reading the morning paper or an eBook on my tablet <i>device</i>, I just want the technology to get out the way. Apple nailed this with the iPad. <br><br>If I want to do serious system tasking work (photoshop, Autocad), I grab my Sony laptop.
      • dave: Only because you have to

        "If I want to do serious system tasking work (photoshop, Autocad), I grab my Sony laptop."<br><br>Go back 5 years to before the iPhone came out and most phones in the hands of consumers were feature phones. Would this statement be true?<br>"If I want to do any web surfing or emailing, I grab my Sony laptop."<br><br>Yes, this was true. History tells us that this didn't stop Apple from creating the iPhone and this is a good thing.<br><br>So just because todays tablets aren't good for doing "real" work doesn't mean that this will always be true. Just like Apple wasn't scared away from creating the iPhone because everyone knew that phones can't be used for emailing or surfing, I'm glad that MS isn't scared away from creating slates that can do more "serious" work.<br><br>" If consumers really wanted a full traditional PC on a tablet/Slate form factor they would have bought these decades ago."<br><br>Keep in mind that these tablets always cost significantly more than $1,000. While there are many reasons these failed (I tried a Windows 7 tablet at an MS store and hated it) price was a big factor in the "failure" of the tablet PC. Hardware prices fall and if MS can truly create a more efficient Windows in Windows 8 then it is possible that you could get a very functional Windows 8 slate for $700.<br><br>"No fumbling with updates - OS updates, Flash, Java updates, Anti-Virus prompts, Firewall prompts, crashes, slowdowns and other OS/UI complexities"<br><br>Somewhat agree. There are still OS updates with iOS devices so no, Apple has not gotten rid of this. In fact, Apple currently has the most annoying and inconvenient OS update process which I believe they are fixing with iOS 5? As for other updates, I update my iPad and iPhone approximately once per day so again, consumers are obviously not averse to dealing with constant updates on their tablets. AV prompts? I never get any AV prompts on my desktop with MSE, not sure why this would be any different on the tablet. And if MS is going with a walled garden approach for tablets (I think they are) then AV is no longer required. iOS devices don't require AV and there is no reason to believe that a walled off Windows 8 tablet would be any different. As for crashes and slowdowns, of course you are right but this almost never happens in Windows 7 today, no reason to believe Windows 8 would be worse. And again, with the walled garden approach, Windows 8 on the tablet could be just as stable as iOS.
    • MS Tablet will never succeed like the iPad

      MS Tablet will never succeed like the iPad for one simple reason. iPad is hardware and software merged seamlessly into one device.

      MS only makes software with little control over the hardware design. Impossible to make a compelling device with software alone.. it's like the brain without the body...
    • I disagree.

      @ regsrini

      Apple's 'core' users are extremely loyal, but with the iPhone and iPad they've moved far beyond their core user base to people who are largely indifferent to the brand. I know iPhone users who absolutely hate Apple PCs, iPhone users who have switched to Android and iPad users who use Windows PCs and Android mobile phones.

      If Microsoft can offer a better experience than the iPad (a big 'if', for the reasons James Kendrick outlines), then they can almost certainly attract some iPad users away from Apple. If they can't do that, it's difficult to see how they'll succeed in the market.
  • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

    I agree that from a performance standpoint, Windows 8 has to be significantly better on tablets than anything MS has put out before but I also think that users will be more forgiving of problems with Windows 8 on tablets if they get decent performance and they can do a lot of the things they can do with their current Window laptop.

    I love my Iconia and I will defend it with my last breath but neither it nor iPad can replace a laptop or even a netbook for many things. MS needs to fill that gap and they will have a hit on their hands. I know several old timers that really want to be able to run existing Windows software on a tablet and if they can't, the form factor isn't useful for them.

    I have Windows 8 running on my netbook and on a virtual and it is nice. I am guessing they will have a configuration option to turn off the metro UI for desktops and laptops. I would like to see the metro UI pop up in a non-full screen window when you press the Start button on desktops and laptops.
    • To rephrase the Bill Clinton campaign slogan .....


      ... used in Clinton's race against George Bush Sr.: it's the user experience stupid! As long as MS nails the user experience, all that it adds on top of it, will just make Win 8 PCs more compelling. (Apps are crucially important as well.)

      I think it's important that MS goes significantly beyond what the iPad can do, and essentially 'iPadify' the Windows PC experience across all devices. People need to not only be able to just consume content with their tablets and other PCs, they also need to be able to use their tablets / PCs for work, and create content. I also believe MS needs to push the entire PC ecosystem to touch computing plus stylus over time - away from the current mouse / trackpad / physical keyboard paradigm. This going to be very important for the PC ecosystem to evolve, and not stagnate - like it is now doing.

      Watch <a href=>this video</a> on the use of Numbers for the iPad. (You can watch <a href=>this video</a> as well.) You are able to see where touch makes interacting with productivity apps such as spreadsheets, simpler and more effective. Numbers accomplishes this with a simplified, engaging user experience, custom soft keyboards, etc. Mind you, people complain that Numbers is not very compatible with Excel, is too slow, and is not sophisticated enough. The videos however show that productivity apps can benefit significantly from a touch interface over the traditional GUI. I believe this points to a bright future for Windows with metro apps, which can deliver better and new user experiences for both consumption and productivity apps, while also providing the horsepower required for productivity apps to be truly useful and enjoyable.
      P. Douglas
  • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

    Windows 8 Tablet has no competition. For all the other users out there that want a full computer in a tablet like myself, this is it.
  • RE: The big Windows 8 tablet challenge

    I agree with most of the points in the article.<br><br>When Win 8 comes to market, I believe there will be lot of win 8 tablets from different OEM with different capabilities and different price points so that techies and no-techies can choose the one that suits them.<br><br>From what I see from the developer preview version, its fair to say that Win8 will run pretty smooth and will have a great user experience. Security is built-in in Win8, so users dont have to install any ant-virus and antimalware. And the tablet version may not need weekly on monthly updates. Most users dont mind updates once in 3 months or six months.
  • May, maybe, might, could be...

    Sorry but your fan boy sttitude is showing. Trust me, Windows 8 is going to kick butt in the market.