Windows 8: My 'disaster' is not their 'catastrophe'

Windows 8: My 'disaster' is not their 'catastrophe'

Summary: I've argued that Windows 8 was going to be a disaster. Amend that one: Without a hardware home run, it could be.

TOPICS: Tablets, Microsoft, PCs

I was a guest on the "On the Verge" show last week, where the Verge crew and I talked a lot (predictably) about Windows 8.


I told the Vergers (Vergerati?) that until I saw the Microsoft Surface, I thought Windows 8 was going to be a disaster. Maybe my word choice was less than optimal, especially given two gaming honchos had said they believed Windows 8 would be a "catastrophe" for OEMs and those in the PC gaming space that same week.  It seems to me like those in the "catastrophe" camp are worried about the new Windows app store and Xbox Live integration with Windows 8 possibly impacting their revenue stream, more than anything else.

I believed, and still do, that without hardware designed to simplify the use of Windows 8, Microsoft's next-gen operating system faces a rough road. (When there's a need for something like a Windows 8 Survival Guide for mouse/keyboard users, you know things are not so smooth.) And yes, this is just my opinion. I've talked to a number of others who agree. But your mileage may vary.

The reason I've been a Windows 8 doubter? Windows 8, to use Microsoft's buzzword of which I'm not particularly fond, is a "reimagined" operating system. The hardware running it needs to be reimagined, too. But the Windows 8 PCs and tablets we've seen to date have been underwhelming, in my opinion. They've either looked like dime-a-dozen, run-of-the-mill tablets or odd hybrids that seemed too clunky or weird to win over the masses.

Microsoft's just-announced Windows 8-optimized mice and keyboards with all their Start button and Charms goodness -- coming to consumers in the next few weeks or months -- should help make Windows 8 more usable by the average person. But to sell Windows 8, Microsoft needed a "hero device." And I believe Microsoft's Surface could be the ticket.

Microsoft made an operating system design choice with Windows 8: It decided to straddle the fence and offer something that company officials believed would be equally at home on PCs as on tablets. This was in keeping with Microsoft execs' claims that tablets are PCs. Until the Surface, I thought this claim was absurd.

But, if the Surface actually works as promised, Microsoft will have created a true hybrid: A pablet (or a TC, if you prefer). A tablet that is a PC and a PC that is a tablet. Yes, there are still a lot of ifs... and key among them is whether the touch and type keyboards that double as covers are ergonomically friendly and functional. But Microsoft's decision to break ranks and sell a few million Surfaces in year one could be exactly what was needed to make Windows 8 palatable.

And ... in case you missed it when Microsoft announced timing back in June, the Surface RT -- the ARM-based device that won't run existing third-party apps except remotely -- is going to be available when Windows 8 is generally available, which is October 26. Microsoft has said the Intel-based Surface Pro will be out three months after that, which puts it around the end of January 2013, if Microsoft sticks to its own timetable.

So, yes, I did use the "D" word on the Verge show. But I'm still holding out hope that the Surface, and possibly some OEM-made devices meant to compete with the Surface in a credible way, will be good enough to convince me to buy my first Windows tablet later this year.


Topics: Tablets, Microsoft, PCs


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • I don't understand your comments on hybrids.

    Why do you think the Asus Transformer style PCs are too weird for the masses??

    I greatly prefer this design to the Surface for several reasons: Longer battery life with the dock's second battery, better keyboard and trackpad, the ability to angle the screen. The TransformerBooks even have a second GPU for better graphics when docked.

    You're saying consumers won't go for hybrid PCs, I'm saying in a few years there won't be anything but hybrid PCs and we'll just call them PCs.
    • The Hybrids are a "No Compromise" solution.

      I agree. Hybrids give more flexibility for users who want a single solution and don't want to sacrifice functionality.

      I'm personally going to wait for the 13" Transformer Book. It will have (I believe) 1080P res, Core i7, 64 & 128 GB options, NFC, FFC, MicroSD, USB ports, and when docked with its base, have NVidia descrete graphics (hopefully m640 or greater) and an optional second HD. This should be enough to make it my primary device as a tablet/laptop and have enough horsepower to run most of my Steam games. :-)

      Right now its at the head of the pack for me. We still haven't seen the final specs, but my coworker has a Transformer 700 and its a nice device, but it has Android on it which means it can't fill all of my portable needs. Similarly iOS can't meet my multitasking or productivity needs, and carrying a bluetooth keyboard without the additional functionality seems to be a cobbled together solution that doesn't quite fit. The Hybrids seem to be a perfect combination of form, function, and portability.
      • Hybrid including a Hybrid

        Hybrid device: check
        Hybrid OS: check.... uhhhh.... say what!?!

        Which will you get? Pro or RT? and just how compatible are they? Will buying into RT be buying into another ecosystem?

        I will get Surface Pro. RT is tbd.
        Just to be clear; Pro is in place of a UL or UB. RT would be in place of a Transformer or iPad. That is where I am debating on buying into another ecosystem.

        So we have hybrid hardware that runs Win8 Pro and WinRT - two OS's.
        • I see your point, but...

          Asus is releasing two models in their transformer line: One that is RT and one that is Full Windows 8 pc.

          The Transformer line is what MS should have tried to emulate with the Surface. I don't find the idea of NEEDING a flat, stable surface to use PC functionality very appealing. Hard to work on the go, if work always relies on you having a table close by.
          • And how is it that the Surface NEEDS a flat surface...

            ... any more than the ASUS Transformer? If you ask me, the requirement is almost exactly reversed. Unlike the Transformer's keyboard which is a stand-alone dock (admittedly with additional battery power) the Surface's keyboard serves as a magnetic cover similar to Apple's that never gets left behind the way the Transformer's dock would.

            Outside of that, you are quite right about the advantages of a true tablet.
          • Seems quite obvious

            The Tansformer is as sturdy as my laptop ever was. The dock firmly holds the screen upright. It's lap friendly, or corner of the chair friendly, dashboard friendly, or whatever lumpy and and uneven surface you need friendly. The Surface relies on the kickstand to make it stand upright. As a tablet alone, this is fantastic, but as a device that I can work on, this is not ideal, as I would need an actual tabletop to use it for such purposes.

            I understand where you're coming from in saying that the laptop dock is less convenient than the mag keyboard, but it has not been my experience that I ever left it behind. I take them both with me wherever I go, because in my day to day use, I need the keyboard way more often than I need the tablet on its own. In fact the only time I feel the need to undock it is if I'm reading a book or playing a game. I watch movies with it docked, I surf the web with it docked, and (obviously) I write with it docked. This is, of course, my personal preference, but anyone who works on the go would do well to get a Transformer before they went with the Surface.

            That said, Surface is perfect as an entertainment device, that you only occasionally have to use for word processing. It's just not my preference to sacrifice function for form.
      • "No compromise" means "no design"

        Plain and simple. Design is about making about making choices and those choices are about compromise.
        • Car of Truck.. or may a Cruck or Tar?

          If I want to take my family to the movies show or go shopping for a few groceries, I will use our car. If I want to bring home some furniture I just bought at an auction, or a bunch of garden supplies and plants, I will use our truck. Using those vehicles for each other's job is absurd. Using a tiny screen on a tablet for a big spreadsheet or a complex design is like using a car for the job of the truck. There are very few people that have an iPad that also don't have one or more computers. If Microsoft can indeed pull off the idea of close integration between a desktop PC and a tablet, The Way, Apple is doing, then there is hope that they may sell a few. If not, their entire Windows enterprise will take a big nosedive.
          • min van

            Mini vans can do both of those jobs pretty well.

            Hauling dirt or gravel is another issue :-)
          • You said it yourself

            Pretty well is not necessarily good enough. It really depends on the user as to which platform will truly serve the need.
          • Mini vans

            If you haven't heard, mini vans are becoming obsolete. I think only 1 or 2 companies are making them now.
          • docking

            I dock a trailer to my vehicle when I need extra capacity.
          • Never....

            ....bring a knife to a gun fight.
          • Car or truck....

            check out the Asus Padfone!
            This is a sportsbike with a 500hp engine that you dock into the engine bay of a sportscar (tabletdock). The back half of the sports car can be swapped out to become a 6 seater wagon with long range fuel tank (keyboard dock, full size USB & SD plus extra battery)
            I think the Padfone is the way of the future for PCs.
            Hopefully they can standardise the docking bay across all manufacturers except Apple of course.
            Apple will eventually join the fold about 10 years later like they did with Intel platform instead of Power PC, PCI slots instead of Nubus, SATA instead of SCSI, and USB instead of ADB. They will wake up when they realise their sh17 don't smell like roses anymore.
      • Hybrids themselves are a compromise--not a solution

        They are little different from the netbooks that died so quickly after the advent of the iPad and a true tablet concept. That's not to day they don't have their place, however.

        The Surface tablets themselves are a kind of hybrid, with their attached, effectively hard-wired keyboards, but they offer a more tablet-like form factor that keeps the keyboard out of the way until it's needed. The difference here is that depending on the specific Surface tablet you choose, you get a basic Metro-only device or a Metro-plus-Desktop machine that offers what so many techies seem to think is absolutely necessary for a tablet despite ten years of failure for that platform. The M+D Surface offers a single advantage over those older devices by being less expensive (about half the price of its predecessors).

        No, what I believe is happening is that both Microsoft and Apple are racing to develop a new desktop form factor that takes the UI of touch tablets and somehow combines them with a more ergonomic desktop paradigm that doesn't have you paying tens of thousands of dollars for a piece of furniture. In both cases the OS is leading the way with Apple and Microsoft both looking at ways to make the hardware comfortable to use. Microsoft has a lead by having created the Surface table several years ago, but the price and bulk of the item both made it prohibitive for all but the highest-level executive use. Apple, on the other hand, has the lead with the touch OS. The end result in either case will not be a "Hybrid" computer.
    • Many could have argued 3 years ago that tablets themselves

      are too weird for the masses, and yet here we are with people buying Galaxys, Kindles, iPads, ect.

      How would a Transformer be "too weird" for the masses, if a single purpose tablet isn't?
      William Farrel
      • Exactly. But never underestimate Apples sales force.

        To be honest, I think if anyone but Apple had of been selling the iPad it might not have caught on. To this day, I only know of about 5 people myself I guess who bought one. One being a student who uses it as much for Angrey Birds type games as anything it seems.

        The others who bought it are adults. I still think they bought it for the wrong reasons. All four of them have it sitting about the house on most occasions. Laying around on the coffee table and such. It makes it handy if one just wants to pick it up for a quick web search. They have the money, its their issue.

        I know its not what they expected. They thought it was a full fledged computer. It was made plain to them the operating system was not WIndows, it was explained to every one of them that it was iOS, safer and better than Windows. It was a computer they were told. Demonstrations were given. Its just that they were never told what it cannot do.

        They figured that out on their own.

        If this had of been a Windows device, they never would have bought it. But it was Apple and, well...Apple made the worlds greatest most popular mp3 player, the iPod, they revolutionized the smartphone with touch screen capability. They thought Steve Jobs was the next Thomas Edison and the iPad was going to be something like the "light bulb" was for Edison. You know...the first tricorder. It was never advertised as a "hobbled computer".

        So ya, your right. A few years ago who would have thought you could get rich selling a hobbled computer?

        Never underestimate Apples sales force.
        • Yes, Thomas Edison

          Yes, Jobs was Thomas Edison. I know we should not be talking bad things about dead people, but that is the sad truth.
          I just hope there are still people like Tesla around.
          • Elon Musk is Tesla

            Real electric cars and commercial space travel. Elon's the new Telsa.
        • The problem with your complaint

          Unfortunately for your analysis, if you were right the iPad's sales should have peaked and started falling by now, but they're accelerating instead. People are finding out that the iPad can do most of what they have used a desktop/laptop PC for in the past.

          Yes, I do admit that the iPad is a popular gaming device; it's also great for reading, watching movies and even web surfing. But the iPad can do quite a lot more than that, too. Just because you see those adults' iPads sitting on a coffee table doesn't mean they're not seeing use, it only means they're not being used at that moment; I'll admit I rarely use mine while I'm sitting in front of my desktop. The iPad--with the right apps--can handle home budgeting, art, messaging, full-on writing (with bluetooth keyboard especially), art, photography, video editing and much, much more. This is something few other tablets have managed at the same price, much less trying to do it at a lower price.

          Never underestimate Apple's paradigms.