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Bad bet on tablet sizes and shapes
It’s worth remembering that the initial design work for Windows 8 began in early 2009, a year before the iPad launched.
Microsoft’s vision started with the idea that a tablet is a PC without a keyboard. The inevitable by-product of that core design decision is a device built to work primarily in landscape mode. The trouble is, many of the things people want to do with a tablet, like read an ebook, are best done in portrait mode.
The mandatory 16:9 aspect ratio of Windows 8 was an obvious miss from Day 1, as was the lack of support for smaller devices. Windows 8 arrived to a market that had already digested the full-size iPad and was eagerly snapping up smaller devices. A year later, Windows 8.1 finally supports those devices, but that lost 12 months is the equivalent of stumbling out of the starting gate.
And even now, it looks like some of the people involved in planning Windows 8.1 haven't got the memo. When I went searching for pictures of the new 8.1-inch Acer Iconia W3-810 tablet, virtually every image I could find showed the device in landscape mode. I had to mock up the picture shown here using a stock photo and a screenshot from my own device.
Weak first-party apps
If any developers had an advantage in the race to build the new-style apps for Windows 8, it would be Microsoft. In fact, having a collection of excellent apps ready for the platform should be table stakes.
But the first-party apps that shipped with Windows 8, the ones written by Microsoft, were weak, especially in key categories that are supposed to define the tablet experience: music, photos, and e-mail. Some of those apps felt as if they had been thrown together hastily. The limit of 10 simultaneous tabs with the Metro-style Internet Explorer 10, for example—what was that all about?
The original Photos app has rudimentary rotate and crop features but otherwise does almost nothing in the way of editing capabilities. Given that digital photos are a crucial part of the tablet experience, that’s a horrible omission.
I don’t know anyone who thought that the original Windows 8 Mail app was anything more than mediocre. An update in March smoothed some of the Mail app’s rough edges, but it’s still embarrassingly feature-poor, a situation that won’t be remedied until sometime after Windows 8.1 is released.
Part of the explanation is that the platform and the apps were being built at the same time. Maybe so, but anyone who tried to use the first generation of those apps probably has little patience left.
Third-party apps slow to arrive
If Microsoft’s in-house app developers had problems building decent apps for the launch of Windows 8, what chance did third-party developers have?
A few big-name apps for Windows 8 are available in the Windows Store. Twitter finally pushed out an official app in mid-March, more than four months after the launch of Windows 8, but Facebook and Flipboard are still in the “promised, but not yet delivered” category after a full year. If you go to the Windows Store and search for Facebook, you’ll find more than 1600 entries, as I just did. But none of them are the official app.
There’s no Pandora, no Words with Friends, and no Google apps except search. In some cases that’s just capitalism at work: “We’ll build apps when there’s a market.” In Google’s case, there might be more to that decision.
One big part of the problem is that app developers don’t need to target the tablet side of Windows 8 when they can point to their desktop apps and say, “Use these instead.” And if anyone critiques that strategy they can point to the most glaring example of all: Microsoft Office.