Is Windows 8 a bad OS for tablets? It's time to decide...

Is Windows 8 a bad OS for tablets? It's time to decide...

Summary: Last week I said that "Windows 8 was not a good tablet OS." Several of you challenged me on it. I rebooted and had an objective look and now we can all decide--is it, or isn't it?

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TOPICS: Tablets, iPad, Windows 8
173

In a piece last week on the practical portability of the Surface Pro, I rather glibly mentioned that "Windows 8 is not a good tablet OS." Several people called me on this. Well, everyone called me on it in the comments, on Twitter, and over email. In hindsight, it was perhaps too broad a comment to make.

Thumbnail - Tablet Happy and Sad
Frankly, this could go either way...
(Credit: Microsoft; Face-smile image by The Tango Desktop Project, public domain)

What I wanted to do with this article was have a look at how the tablet-optimised parts of the Windows 8 and Windows RT operating system--separate to any hardware--compared to the market leader, iOS. I wasn't concerned about the behaviour of Old Windows features on a tablet. What I focused on in my investigation was how native apps (Windows Store/Metro-style apps on Windows), the launcher (Start screen on Windows), and basic system configuration bits (setting up a Wi-Fi network, account configuration, etc) behaved across the different OSes.

The details

Usability

Let's look at usability first. I've broken this down into several bullets.

Basic touch

A key part of the Windows 8 reimaging was making touch a first-class input method. Old versions of Windows were touch enabled, but this only worked as an approximation of mouse input. By creating the new Metro-style UI, Windows Store apps, and the new Start screen, Windows 8/Windows RT implements basic touch operations in an optimum way, and it does this in easily as capable a way as iOS. (As mentioned, I'm ignoring touch when using Word and Old Windows desktop apps as there's no fair comparison and frankly this is always going to be a dirty hack.)

Equal scores here for Windows 8, Windows RT, and iOS.

Gestures

On paper, iOS' gestures are as complicated and non-intuitive as Windows 8/Windows RT's. The general problem with gestures is that you have to be shown them to know them. On iOS you generally don't need to know gestures to use the system, whereas on Windows you do. A user cannot find their way around without knowing about charms and app bars. For this, I'm going to have to ding Windows--although iOS loses on consistency (each iOS app can put the search function somewhere unique, but in Windows Store apps it has to be on the charms), Windows requires additional cognitive load and explicit training.

Winner: iOS.

Joining a network

On this point, both are equally difficult. iOS bafflingly buries this common system function in the settings app. Windows requires that you know that you need to use the charms bar in order to set up a Wi-Fi network.

Equal score here.

Launcher

People are starting to talk about how iOS' launcher is outmoded, but it is demonstrably very simple. The Start screen on Windows seems more complex, but I'd argue it's more usable than iOS as it allows the user to set up things how they want. It also allows developers to find new ways to push data front and centre to the user.

Winner: Windows.

Built-in apps

The two most important built-in apps on a tablet are the mail app and the browser. On Windows, the built-in Mail app is half-baked and essentially useless, especially in business. iOS' does a decent enough job. In terms of the browsers, I'm not a fan of IE, but for most tablet-based browsing activities both Safari and IE are just about good enough.

Winner: iOS, because Windows 8/Windows RT's mail app is so lacklustre.

Performance

iOS' raw performance is much, much better than Windows'. On the one hand, Apple has had longer to optimise it. On the other, Apple has always pushed developers to build apps with a user experience that is as good as possible and their toolset reflects this. (The toolset is hard to use, but gives good, smooth results.) Microsoft's philosophy has been to give developers tools that provide for rapid development.

Winner: iOS.

Security

Next, we'll look at security.

Exploitability

We know that both iOS and Windows RT can be jailbroken. In that regard, those two platforms score equally badly as it's the same problem. (Jailbreaking is about getting the OS to do something the original designers didn't want it to do. They rely on exploits, which could be used to do achieve something you as the device owner don't want to happen.) On Windows 8, this story remains a "PC story" and not a "post-PC story." In a post-PC world, the level of exploitability in a non-hardened OS like Windows 8 is not acceptable.

We have a split, with iOS and Windows RT doing equally well, but Windows 8 scoring about a billion minus points.

Hygiene

I'm using this term to mean how well separated apps actually are, both from the perspective of whether two apps installed together cause localised or system instability, and how well application data is protected on a per-app basis. Both systems are hardened, and native app APIs are protected to prevent intentional and accidental data loss and/or damage.

Again iOS and Windows RT score equally well, but from a post-PC perspective iOS and Windows RT score the same, Windows 8 minus a billion again, mainly because of stuff like this.

Updates

The ability for a platform owner to "force" patches down to a post-PC device is important, as this is the only practical way to smooth over problems in the security surface area. iOS has the edge here because its updates are simpler and atomic. Windows RT and Windows 8 have the battle-tested Windows Update system, which is fiddly but effective.

Both score equally pragmatically speaking--but I'd prefer to see Windows' update system more like iOS'.

Utility

Finally, "utility." This is a look at features that the platform vendor can badly implement so that any resulting device is less compelling.

Portability

My prejudgement on this one was that Windows 8/Windows RT would be less than usable without a physical keyboard and this would hurt portability. But, just like you can still use Windows without a mouse (Alt+Space, anyone?), you can use Windows 8 and Windows RT equally well without a keyboard. The virtual keyboard on Windows 8/Windows RT is just as good as the one on iOS.

Practically, portability scores the same. In reality, Microsoft's insistence on positioning Windows 8 and particularly Windows RT as needing a keyboard from a marketing perspective is unhelpful.

Battery

When talking about the battery, hardware is only half of the story. One of the major engineering tasks at Microsoft was limiting the OS' use of the battery, and limiting the ability of apps to abuse the battery. Windows 8--like the security points above--has no real protection against legacy Windows apps merrily draining the battery.

iOS and Windows RT have similar protections and score equally well.

Connectivity

This is relatively easy--iOS and Windows 8/Windows RT are equally good at connecting through to wireless networks and (when required) onto VPN. iOS and Windows RT score equally well and better than Windows 8, however, because of inconsistent implementation of "connected standby." (Surface RT has it, Surface Pro does not, for example.) This is an operating system mode that puts the device in a state where it's using very little battery, but is still network aware.

iOS and Windows RT again score equally, but Windows 8 is dinged because of that inconsistent implementation of connected standby.

Conclusion

I went into this article inclined to believe that Windows 8 and Windows RT--together or separate, I've frankly no idea how to split or combine the two of them--were bad operating systems for a post-PC tablet device. What I've discovered doing this exercise is that, objectively, they are not. Well, Windows RT isn't a bad OS for a tablet. Windows 8 has some...issues.

iOS and Windows RT score more or less the same throughout. Windows 8 gets badly wounded by the fact that under all of it it's still the same eminently malleable but endlessly abusable operating system that it always has been. Post-PC devices need to be closed and controlled, because only in that mode can they be trusted, and only in that mode are they useful to the majority of people who are not technologists. Which is, as we know, most of humanity.

I'm surprised that iOS and Windows RT are so close in their objective scores because--subjectively--my iPad is a joy to use, and I use it daily, but my Surface RT device I use only when I absolutely have to for work. Despite the objective measures, Windows RT is too unfinished, the reliance on Old Windows (desktop, Office, half of Control Panel) is too prominent, the Metro design aesthetic and UX metaphors too rudimentary, and the performance too lacklustre to be a truly great post-PC tablet device.

But I have to qualify that by adding "at the moment." Last week my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott and I debated whether "Windows RT was worthless, or the future of Windows." I was in the "worthless" camp. I guess now I can modify that to: "it is worthless, today." An objective assessment of iOS and Windows RT demonstrates that Windows RT could get there. It's just unfinished.

Of course, Intel's machinations to drive capability of x86 so that it negates the entire ARM proposition is a problem here. Windows RT is a good tablet OS, objectively. Windows 8 is not (hopefully objectively) measured on the fact that the security (whilst improving) is relatively hopeless on PCs compared to any post-PC tablet or smartphone you care to name. Intel managing to get its fingers in and keep Windows firmly in the "PC Plus" rather than "post-PC" camp where it could go with a more refined Windows-on-ARM implementation is disastrous to Windows actually being a good tablet OS.

But, let's say that Windows RT stays the course. Microsoft is famous on relying on time to help it conquer markets, building an organisational structure that collects instrumentation and feedback to help it make v2, and then v3 better than before and better than its competitors. (You don't think that happens by chance, right?)

The question remains: at the pace the post-PC market is developing, does Microsoft have time to make Windows RT great? Or will iPad, Android tablets, Kindle Fire and--dare I say it--the next-generation PlayBook (if there is such a thing), render it worthless after all?

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Tablets, iPad, Windows 8

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173 comments
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  • I'm confused...

    The name of the article says: "Is Windows 8 a bad OS for tablets?" yet you then go on and explain why you're an iOS fan boy. I mean, if you prefer iOS more power to you but what does that have to do with whether Windows 8 is a bad tablet OS?
    Calistan
    • Because .....

      nothing exists in a vacuum. Whatever you look at or evaluate, you always have to compare it to the available alternatives, which in comparison may be better or worse.

      And yes, it is often a highly subjective process, but often one particular solution or alternative ends up serving the majority of us better and ultimately "wins".

      This process is what has allowed us, as humans, to move from living in trees to where we are today. If you are too emotionally involved in any one particular solution, you may find that YOUR little part of that human journey turns out be a painful one, which we see here all the time in fanboy "debates".
      D.T.Long
      • i see you pain

        You just explained it in details. Thank you for your honesty
        Master Wayne
        • Changed your handle?

          From Master Bate to Master Wayne?

          How about Master Pain? Yes, I like that. Master Bate or Master Pain. Which one would you prefer?
          D.T.Long
        • AND THANK YOU...

          Toddbottom 3, AKA Master Wayne, AKA Michael Alan Goff, AKA William Farrel... etc, until infinity.

          :0 |
          orandy
          • orandy....also AKA Lovcerock Davidson

            Everbody just loves Loverock Davidson
            Over and Out
          • orandy, you've already been outed as pottybottom7, Troll Humper J, and

            5 other user names.

            Not sure what your problem is cloggeddbottom, or why you're so anal retentive and fixated on 30 other people here, but you really aren't doing anything, except to show what a sad shape today's youth is, and that everyone should fear for the future of this world.
            William Farrel
      • just stop rambling

        You shocker
        Trentski
      • Take a break from trolling

        You seems to know more about grammar than tech and plenty of time to proof read others comments.

        Your points are vague and lacks logical sense. No wonder you are fan of plastic toys
        Owlll1net
        • Hmmm

          Trentski, Master Pain (aka Master Bate) and the old and painfully familiar Owlll1net are all attacking me. Interesting and amusing. It looks like the usual MS shill suspects felt the need to call in some reinforcements in what they must have felt was a losing battle.

          I have often wondered how these obsessive, aggressive, ignorant, inarticulate and apparently unintelligent posters can be helpful in what to a significant extent is a battle for the consumer mind share.

          MS has long been perceived as a bully, but has been trying to change that (the "kinder and gentler MS" anyone?) Yet the fanboys/shills here are about the biggest bullies on this forum.

          As far as I am concerned, they are highly damaging to MS efforts to win the mobile battle, but MS is entitled to undermine its own efforts.
          D.T.Long
          • Micosoft is the one that has to prove itself.

            They come 5 years late to the party with a reasonable OS and the fanboys expect everyone just to accept it, when we have two other very good OS's that have been around for 5 years and already have many of bugs and kinks worked out.

            At this point Microsoft has to prove why RT is better and why we should switch. Fanboi blind enthusiasm doesn't help. Saying our favorite OS is now almost as good as the others is not going to make many people switch.
            wiseoldbird
          • switch???

            Who is switching?? My approach and Apple's approach to life are different. Hence I've never bought an Apple product. Since 95% of the world has never bought an Apple product, switching away from Apple is not necessary for Win8 to be a success.
            mswift@...
          • market share

            Hi :)
            Lol, i love those spurious claims about market share. Probably most people in the world don't own a computer or any other electronic gadgetry as they on the brink of starvation or living under oppresive regimes or have other reasons why IT is less than their top priority.

            I thought Apple had more like around 20% of the overal desktop/laptop/mobile devices market. Is it possible to even count?
            Regards from
            Tom :)
            Tom6
          • They've proven it to me

            I have had a long standing hatred for all things windows.. As a Unix Engineer I take great pride in not owning MS products.. I hate the xBox for the sole reason that it's made by MS.. However.. With the introduction of Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT I feel MS has changed somehow.. They have made me a believer.. The did it right the first time.. The made a completely lightweight OS for the Tablet world to allow for a less productivity more fun based tablet that is still far more functional than any iOS can dream of being.. They also opened the doors for Hardware vendors to create new devices that can take advantage of productivity and fun use that a hybrid laptop has to offer..
            How someone can scoff at what MS has done here is beyond me.. I wasn't a fan of Windows 8 at first, but the more I used it the more I realized how good of an OS it really is.. Based on windows 7 (which does work well when properly equipped) it has most of the windows bugs worked out and can only use a few refinements.. (I shouldn't need a separate app to change the charms/start screen)

            Until people walk out of the Apple store and walk into the MS store and give it try they won't be convinced..

            As far as any company being the big bully on the street, can you say Multi Billion dollar lawsuit for making a rectangle phone??
            I'm glad Apple sued Samsung, though.. It forced them to take their toys and go home.. Good Luck with your displays now Apple.. Samsung has the edge there and you're losing the pixel battle.
            dferreira1975
          • HEY DT...

            It's just Toddbottom 3. I revealed yesterday that he has at least 20 alter-egos... that we know of.
            orandy
          • Schizophrenia?

            It is all making my head spin ;-)
            D.T.Long
          • No, I revealed yestarday that you are toddbottom7, troll hunter, itguy and

            DaveRight and a few others.

            Remember, I added the links where each of you mentioned Apple's stock Price at "$700", 5 of "you" mentioned Apple's market cap, and 3 of you mentioned both the "Zune HD" and "Kin" specificlly by name, even though they where not mentioned in the articles.

            Hmmmm.

            What I don't understand is that now that you're outed, why prenetnd to be someone other then cloggedbottom7?
            William Farrel
          • I am also toddbottom 7 and William Farrell......

            But I pull the strings here.... See.....

            Will Todd say more good things about windows 8.....

            They always do what I tell them.
            xach
          • As long as you keep signing those checks

            I-will-say-whatever-I-am-instructed-to say.
            William Farrel
          • News but not news?

            I don't believe you're a fanboy, a shill, etc.
            But I did flag because I've read a couple comments
            And now I know for certain that you're just an a**hole
            Obviously not groundbreaking for you though, amirite?
            adrian913