Microsoft, tablets, Windows 8 and the pull and push of history

Microsoft, tablets, Windows 8 and the pull and push of history

Summary: Redmond's attitude towards tablets and its response to Windows 8 show the pressure that Microsoft is experiencing from two entirely different directions — the past and the future.


The way Microsoft is responding to the competitive pressure created by the rise of tablets, and how it manages its customers' concerns around Windows 8, tells me an interesting story about how such a large organisation deals with a environment of rapid change. A company the size of Microsoft brings a lot of history to every decision, and this week that has played out in two different ways.

As part of an interview with CNBC at the weekend, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates talked a little about tablets.

"With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to gain market share in what has been dominated by the iPad-type device. But a lot of those users are frustrated. They can't type. They can't create documents, they don't have Office." Gates said

Now of course there's a danger in reading too much into a short comment, but mostly I don't think consumers are frustrated by their iPads or other tablets.

They don't want to type on a tablet, and they don't want to create documents. They want to watch movies, play games, Skype (or Facetime) with their friends and family.

Creating a spreadsheet is very low on their priorities, and if they need to use Office or some other productivity software, there's probably a dusty PC around in the background somewhere too (the tablet doesn't always replace the PC, but certainly de-emphasises it — which for Microsoft is almost as bad).

Gates went on to say: "So we're providing them something with the benefits they've seen that has made that a big category, but without giving up what they expect in a PC."

Consumer technology as embodied in the iPad is about consumption rather than creation. Now you may mourn the demise of the creative side of personal computing (in which case I'd suggest you buy a Raspberry Pi), but I don't sense that consumers feel they are "giving up" on anything when they use a tablet.

But if all you want to sell is PC software, everything looks like a PC. Historically that may have been true, but that's no longer the case.

Now, whereas with tablets I'd argue Microsoft's world view hasn't changed fast enough, the reception of Windows 8 reflects the other kind of pressure on Microsoft. When it comes to Windows 8, for some customers Microsoft can't move slowly enough. Take the Windows "Start" button.

Never have so many column inches been expended on the fate of such a tiny piece of real estate.

There has been lively discussion over the past few weeks around whether Microsoft can or should reinstate the start button or boot to desktop instead of the new tiled interface.

But if Microsoft were to do so, it would be creating an obstacle to its own ambitions. That's because it wants to become a services company, and Windows 8 is a transitional product — part legacy desktop, part cloud-facing "modern" interface. Turning back would be painful and would undermine the software giant's roadmap.

Microsoft is being buffeted by the pull and push of its own history — and its response to these pressures will define its future.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Tablets

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  • go Microsoft, go

    The supply of popcorn is arriving shortly.

    But, how will this story develop? A romantic one, drama, tragedy or horror? Or just a funny cartoon maybe?
    • Author is in denial

      Yeah, yeah, yeah, consumers want movies, games and all that, but on top of all it'd better be on a big screen for the best user experience. If you were to watch a movie or play a game, would you do it on a 10' screen or a 27' instead? Don't kid yourself into thinking that a small tablet is enough.
      • Good enough?

        I'm sure the *best* way to watch a movie is on a gigantic imax screen - and yet most people are happy enough watching movies on a TV. Or an iPad. We're in an era of 'good enough' computing. For many people (consumers for sure) a tablet is good enough for their needs. That's a problem if you sell PCs...
        • Absolutely agree!

          Of course, it's best to watch the movie on a big display, especially designed for the task. With the appropriate sound and lighting etc.

          Visual angle etc also plays a role -- but most of all is the removal of all possible distractions.

          At the end, each platform has it's strengths -- it is hard to sell SUVs to racing enthusiasts...
          • it is hard to sell SUVs to racing enthusiasts...

            1 Grand Cherokee SRT8 to go please!

        • Things evolve

          Selling devices that are "good enough" leaves a vulnerability open to another device that can do all those "good enough" features and then offer more functionality.

          If current tablets can't evolve to offer complete solution to a users needs then something else will come along and do it.
          • And so the pendulum swings

            "Something else will come along and do it..."
            But wouldn't that be...a PC?
            Right now the pendulum has swung away from that swiss-army-knife style device that does everything towards something that does a few things (web browsing, watching video) well.
          • by choice or by limitations?

            I think the reason that those devices have limitations were dictated by hardware more than consumer demand. Cost and efficiency of batteries, screens, storage, etc. Desktop operating systems likewise were not well suited to the interface of mobile devices as we know them now.

            Today those limitations no longer exist. The next generation of AMD and Intel might just make mobile devices running full powered operating system a better value and a better choice. They certainly offer the option for one device that can effectively replace two.

            As you point out the current generation of tablets do a few things well, but they don't do it any better than any other mobile device.

            As the old joke goes, what have you done for me lately? What is going to be the selling point for devices that do less? Honest question.
          • Well is a subjective term

            I have a tablet and find the screen too small for video (aside from youtube). Web browsing is ok, but just barely good enough.
      • Whew....

        Boy I get tied of carrying that 27" screen on the plane. I hear the TSA is going to limit screen size to the width of the security scanners. How dare they....
      • Why is your tablet limited to 10"?

        Many tablet docks have hdmi and usb outs. The tablet is only 10" when you carry it with you. When you're sitting on the couch or at the desk, where you want the larger view, you can get your tablet to display on 24-60" screens.
    • Just all hot air

      People always moan when times change, until they understand it's not so bad and there's still a classic desktop there that's faster than the Windows 7 one.
      • and you are for?

        So, you are for the happy ending development?

        They married and lived happily ever after :)
        • I'd go for an intelligent boot

          When logging in, if Windows detects the device being in tablet mode (i.e. no keyboard/mouse and a touchscreen), then boot to the Metro UI, but if a keyboard and mouse exists boot to desktop and have a start menu (where the user will be able to get back to the Start Screen if he so wishes).

          I don't have yet a Windows tablet, but I guess Metro apps are fine on a tablet, but on a desktop and laptop I much prefer have "windowed applications" that I can spread on my desktop. The only Metro apps I used on my desktop and laptops are a few games (I don't really mind games being fullscreen).
  • Tablets are computers but they aren't "PCs" the way Microsoft understands

    Caveat: an iPad is a personal computer. A very personal computer, in that it doesn't do workstation stuff.

    But here's where Microsoft is misunderstanding iPad users: they aren't frustrated, because they aren't using it for the same things. The light text editing an iPad user does is fully satisfied by Evernote or Microsoft's own OneNote and Skydrive. They aren't using iPads to meet the needs their PC met - their 5 year old PC still meets those needs. Come tax time, that's their go to device.

    The 85% of the rest of the time, that time spent looking at cats dressed as wizards on a roomba, or facebooking about that bowling score, the iPad is the most satisfying way to spend that time.
    • Agreed.

      Tablets fill the bill for many users. The MS mistake was forcing a tablet interface on to desktop users who don't have a touch screen. Metro is fine on a tablet, but it should have been a choice for the desktop/power user, not the default. Overall, Windows 8 is a fine OS (minus RT without Outlook). It sounds like 8.1 will be a welcome fix. IMHO, that still won't "save" the PC market, tablets are here to stay. Hybrid PC/Tablets in the $500 range with the new Intel (or AMD) chips will sell well. In this economy, no company needs to spend over $1000 for a Laptop/Hybrid.
    • Is that the ideal situation though?

      People use a tablet for most of their needs, but have to maintain another device the sits around the house somewhere taking up space? Eventually the choice of devices will come down to one that can offer 85% of a computing experience and one that can offer 100%.

      Furthermore, the BYOD movement speaks to the opposite of your theory that people don't want to do more productive stuff on their tablets. As does the countless keyboard accessory options being thrown at tablets.
  • Great blog

    MS has essentially been a monopoly for two decades, only looking after its own interest, failing to consider markets/technology and users/customers to any significant extent. Its primary focus was to maintain/extend its dominance.

    Now that the dam is starting to burst, MS will slowly reap the "benefits" of all those years of tyranny. I cannot say I feel sorry for them.

    I do respect Gates for his past accomplishments, but I really admire him for his philanthropy. As for Ballmer, well, maybe I should keep my mouth shut.
    • Well, well well...

      "maybe I should keep my mouth shut."

      - Probably you should, your arguments, no matter how hard you try make no sense whatsoever.
    • For the last time...

      ... Microsoft does NOT have a Monopoly.

      They have had PLENTY of competition over the years.

      Consumers have always had a choice, there was never any sort of "tyranny" involved.

      The common masses chose Windows because it works, not because Microsoft forced it down their throats.