With Windows 8.1, Microsoft is aiming squarely at mobile devices

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft is aiming squarely at mobile devices

Summary: Don't obsess over the Start button. In a world where desktop PCs are becoming dinosaurs, the real goal of Windows 8.1 is to get Microsoft's operating system onto mobile devices.

TOPICS: Mobility, Windows 8

If you want a graphic explanation of why Microsoft has focused on mobile devices with Windows 8.1, just study this chart for a while. 

The underlying data, gathered by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in a series of studies, shows the percentage of U.S. adults (18 years and older) who own one of five different device types.


Four of those five lines are trending up. It's no accident that those four lines represent mobile devices, while the one line trending sharply down represents the decidedly non-mobile desktop PC. That's the world that Windows 8.1 is going to encounter when it's released later this year (a preview version is due in two weeks).

We are at the very beginning of a revolution in computing. That revolution involves a profound transformation of what we think of as a PC. It's already odd to think you would use just one device in one location to create content, communicate and share with other people, and entertain yourself with music and movies. In a few years that notion will feel as old-fashioned as rotary phones and square TVs, and you’ll judge devices by how well they work together.

So how did we get here?

Start at the left, in 2006. That was the year Microsoft introduced the much-mocked, misunderstood Windows Vista. It was also the high-water mark for the desktop PC, which has been shrinking in popularity ever since. Pew hasn't yet published survey results for desktop and laptop computers, but I suspect that 2013 numbers would show desktop PCs down sharply and laptops flat.

(And a side note: that 73 percent figure for cell phones in 2006 is slightly misleading. Most of those phones were of the dumb variety. If Pew had measured smartphones separately, the line would no doubt have started very low and then climbed sharply starting in 2007 with the release of the iPhone. In 2013, Pew says, 56 percent of American adults own a smartphone. That number was probably less than 20 percent in 2006.)

Skip forward to 2009, when Microsoft released Windows 7, and it's still a world dominated by PCs. At that point, notebooks and netbooks and laptops combined were outselling desktop PCs, but the installed base was still dominated by desktops. Dedicated ebook readers were just beginning to appear, and  the iPad was still a year away.

And now jump to 2013, with Windows 8 roughly halfway through its first year, and look how things have changed. A decade ago, you had a PC (maybe two) and you probably had a cell phone, which you used for making phone calls and not for Internet access. Today the average American adult has multiple devices capable of doing PC-like things, including a smartphone and, increasingly, a tablet or ebook reader. And we expect to be able to pick up any one of those devices and doing the kinds of tasks that used to be reserved exclusively for PCs.

Give Microsoft credit for spotting the rise of the tablet a year before it began. When they started planning Windows 8 in 2009, they focused on making it a worthy engine for tablets the size of a small notebook PC. But they didn't think small enough, because the real growth in tablets now is in the "bigger than a smartphone, smaller than a notebook" category.

That's where new Windows devices like the Acer Iconia W3-810 are intended to fit in.


Its 8.1-inch screen is too small to meet the original Windows 8 logo requirements. Even if you ignored that technicality, the initial release of Windows 8 wasn't designed to run on a device that small. And to add the final insult, most configuration options require you to go back to the desktop, which feels downright bizarre and decidedly not-touch-friendly on a device of this size.

Windows 8.1 addresses all of those issues. It specifically supports the 1280x800 resolution and screen size of this device, allowing two modern apps to run side by side. Virtually every configuration option has been redone in a touch-friendly style that doesn't require visiting the desktop.

Imagine that Start screen flipped to its more natural portrait orientation and only a few icons on the screen: the Kindle app, Music, Video, Mail, Skype. In that configuration, it's functionally not that different from an iPad Mini or a Kindle Fire or a Nexus 7.

The Acer lists for $380 with 32 GB of storage or $430 for 64 GB. Street prices will probably drop slightly thanks to online discounts, making its price comparable to an iPad Mini but at least $100 more than a Nexus 7. Similar devices from other manufacturers will no doubt appear around the same time as Windows 8.1, at the same or lower price points.

But that Windows 8.1 device can do something its competitors can't. It has the power to transform itself into a full-fledged desktop PC, capable of running Microsoft Office and other desktop apps. Use the HDMI cable to connect a large monitor (or use the wireless projection mode in Windows 8.1), add a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and you've temporarily turned this small tablet into a full-fledged desktop PC. Unplug the monitor and throw the tablet into your traveling bag and it's a mobile device again.

Microsoft's gamble is that Windows users will see that capability as a positive, rather than as needless complexity. They're betting that frugal PC buyers will be attracted to the possibility of versatile devices. But in a world where we've become used to thinking of small, cheap devices as disposable, single-purpose tools, can that philosophy succeed?

We'll see.

Topics: Mobility, Windows 8

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
  • MS bet right on half of their product line

    In the end, if it is done right, people want "smart" devices (Android, Windows) not "feature" devices (iP/hone/od/ad/s, Windows Phone/RT). I think MS will have a smash hit with /real/ Windows when you add up all the different kinds of devices it runs on. They will have a spectacular miss with Windows RT, which simply doesn't offer *anything* now that Atom chips have completely closed the performance-to-watt ratio with ARM (and will soon surpass it handily), assuming they can get the pricing right. For Windows Phone to have anything more than the modest success (to put it kindly) that it is having, it will need to become a smartphone platform. Indeed, the not-too-long-term goal should be to kill of Windows Phone/RT altogether and get real live Windows working well across all these devices.

    If the idea of having a two pound tablet in your bag that turns into a full on PC at work is appealing, imagine the appeal of having a six ounce phone in your pocket that does the same thing. This will be technologically feasible by the holiday season with the launch of Silvermont later this year.
    x I'm tc
    • Sorry, but comsumers have demonsrated a desire for iPads and iPhones

      There are certain stark numbers that people are going to have to face sooner or later - 84 million iPads have been sold. Some people arguably have wanted these things.

      In the long run? It is Thurston Heins' bet that your phone will be a computer grade device that can be docked into a workstation, or tablet. He may be right, in time he certainly will be. But until a no-compromise option gets us there, expect targeted devices to keep selling.
      • 84 Million iPads isn't really a lot

        It remains a niche product. A very profitable one for Apple, but not super-commonly used. Sure, they're all over the place, but I see just a handful a day while I see a ton of computers and smartphones! They're around, but they're far from ubiquitous.

        Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about the iPad, but there is a lot more not to like. The reality of the iPad is that its main use is to give to the kids at the restaurant to keep them quiet while mom and dad eat. It can do a lot more than that, but that's probably the biggest selling factor, right there. Actually, it can't really do /a lot/ more than that...at least not very well or, more importantly, any better than the phone in your pocket can do.

        Furthermore, if numbers are your game, Android tablets are /already/ outselling iPads and will continue to do so. I suspect (again, depending on what you consider a tablet) that Windows tablets will also outsell iPads in 2013 (and forever after). Thus, the iPad will be #3 practically overnight.

        That won't stop Apple from making a ton of money on them. And you are absolutely correct that many people will still love them.

        But, on the whole, they will either have to get "smart" or they will fade...fast...as a share of the overall market.

        At least, that's my prediction.
        x I'm tc
        • I don't know... iPads have become part of the "fabric of society"

          They are still the "Kleenex" of tablets (i.e., you find folks refering to a generic tablet as an "iPad"). And, in spite of the fact that they were built with very little (wired) connectivity options, you see them in places that would seem to make no sense (retail, healthcare, even manufacturing).

          They have become the de facto tablet. It's their business to loose, and one thing about the PC an device business is that the "ecosystem" counts for a lot. Their ecosystem is very deep.

          And, for what it's worth, Windows RT in a small form factor suites my needs perfectly. I'm not quite sure what else I'd want to run on a Windows-based tablet other than Office, a browser, email/contacts/calendar and the kind of things available in a modern "app store". I really don't see anyone saying "oh, cool, an 8 inch tablet that runs full Windows on a reasonably powerful Atom chip - the answer to my AutoCAD dreams at last".

          And, for what it's worth, even if Atom matches or slightly exceeds ARM's perf/watt ratings, you will still get more battery life out of Windows RT. It's designed from the ground up to minimize energy use.
          • To add to that...

            I also think Win RT will increasingly come to dominate the consumer space. To be totally upfront about the matter, a very large percentage - say around 60-75% - of the consumer space does not need any functionality that Win RT does not offer. And, I am not simply referring to tablet needs, but to basic computing needs. So, for example, a typical consumer would require a suite of apps/ programs that can do documents, spreadsheets, presentations, note-taking, and email. Win RT offers all this (with email in the form of Outlook to follow in the 8.1 release, allegedly). Then there is the need to go surf the web. IE 10 works well (though I do bemoan the lack of adding additional browsers - and I don't think MS is going to open up RT enough to allow that - though they did do a U-turn on Flash, but that is not the same thing). Then there are the media needs, which the MS market/ app store is gradually filling up with. Remember, these are just the basic computing functions. For most specialized functions, the App Store will, in time, address that in much the same way as Apple's and Google's store did.

            Thus, what I am trying to say is that MS may have worked on the law of averages to come up with the Win RT platform. That, and the fact that they now have a backup OS for a phone. I expect to see a gradual convergence between Win Phone 8.x and Win RT over time. Win 8 proper will continue till legacy apps/ programs and the need for a desktop environment exist.

            This is also the reason, I have also held that of the two Surface devices that MS released, the Surface RT is the more revolutionary of the two. That is the future, while the Surface Pro addresses the needs of the present which is gradually slipping into the past.

            The caveat remains: I am just an observer and a user of such technologies - primarily the Android and Windows platforms - and thus, this is nothing more than a layperson's point of view.
          • Me too

            I am also a casual observer and have no crystal ball. But I think there are two incorrect observations being made.

            First, with respect to battery life: no, x86/64 will offer better battery life than ARM later this year. That is what performance per watt means. Right now, for example, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 gets better battery life than an iPad 4 and offers similar, if not slightly better, performance. That gap will widen; Intel spends more on R&D than ARM earns -- not in profit, in total revenue. They simply cannot keep pace, at least not in the near term. Intel's ability to attack mobile should not be underestimated -- they have not been dominating because they have not been paying attention.

            Second, with respect to RT. It is true that an RT tablet covers 90% of what people need to do. But the problem is the long tail. Even casual users will, once in a while, have something they want to do which is very niche (run a specific macro in Office, launch some archaic desktop application, use a Web site that was specifically designed for FireFox or Webkit, and fails in IE, etc.). And then, suddenly, their RT system will not be good enough. If they have a full Windows system, which can do absolutely everything their RT system can do, by the way, and which can also do pretty much everything that computers can do, then their system will "always" be good enough. And this is the issue.

            Here's my experience: I use a Windows phone, and 95% of the time it is good enough. But there are a few things that I would really like it to be able to do that it cannot. (By the way, iPhone's often can't do these things, either.) But due to the fact that my device is a "feature" device, rather than a "smart" device, there is simply *no way* that it can *ever* do what I want it to do (even if I could write my own applications) because these things are impossible until MS says they aren't. For instance, there is no way to attach a PDF to an email, something that is doable but a disaster in iOS as well (has it been improved in iOS7?). But it is trivially easy in Android and Windows, because these are "smart" systems. And if it wasn't, someone would write an app/hack/patch to make it possible. Even if you only have to attach PDFs once in a while, that becomes a compelling reason to prefer Android over Windows Phone or iOS. I don't have an RT device, but I use quite a few spreadsheets that depend on Visual Basic macros. Thus, there is simply *no way* I could use an RT device. Sure, most of the spreadsheets I use don't use macros, but why would I put up with that limitation when there is a just-as-portable, just-as-long-lasting device that costs the same and doesn't have it?

            Situations like this are individually rare, but collectively happen all the time. And they are enormously frustrating when they do pop up. MS can save us all the frustration by making all of their devices "smart." The best way to do that is to dump RT and Windows Phone and fold them into real, honest-to-goodness Windows.
            x I'm tc
          • iPads are not part of the fabric of society, and they sold big, only

            because, it was something new and easy and mobile, and most of all, there was no competing product out there with those kind of "features". Now that the competition is out there, and cutting into iPad sales, that supposed "fabric of society" is being torn apart. For a product to become something equivalent to a "fabric of society", it needs to be the one product that people can't do without, and the iPad is not "the one product", simply because, there is a lot of competition, many much better than the iPad, and people are fickle, and they eventually migrate their "needs and wants" to the more capable device, and to the "latest and greatest", and iPads are no longer that. They're still popular, but that's because the "coolness" factor hasn't faded fast enough, yet.
        • Re: 84 Million iPads isn't really a lot

          It's a couple of orders of magnitude better than Microsoft has been able to manage.
          • Really? In 2012 alone,

            something like 100 Million PC's were sold, the majority of them Windows based machines. In 2011 alone it was along the lines of 95 million.

            I think that's a couple of orders of magnitude better than Apple has been able to manage in over 2 years with the iPad, wouldn't you agree?
            William Farrel
          • I think you're off by a factor of 3-4

            PC sales are in the 300 million+ per year category.

            MS has sold more than 100 million W8 licenses in 2013 *so far.*
            x I'm tc
        • 84 million iPads isn't really a lot ...

          It's only $44 billion retail dollars for one new product line. That's not a lot, really is it? We cleared like $57 billion* at the middle school bake sale.

          *Give or take $57 billion.
          • Nope

            It's not. Compared to the total size of the cell phone market or the PC market, it really isn't.
            x I'm tc
          • PC and smartphones

            Then you would have to add the Macs and iPhones in. Your argument gets even worse.
          • No, it gets better

            That doesn't make any sense, but I'll indulge you.

            The point is, ~350 million PCs are sold a year. More than a billion cell phones are sold each year.

            It took Apple three years to sell fewer than 100 million iPads. In 2013, iPads will be the #3 selling class of tablet, after both Android and Windows devices. Apple will make boatloads of money and will do very well for themselves. But they will not be a driver of technology in those spaces anymore, as their "dumb" iOS devices will be (actually, long since have been) leapfrogged in popularity by "smart" devices like Android and Windows devices.

            I think the reason Windows Phone is not doing well, relative to Windows proper (which is doing quite well), is that Windows Phone is a "dumb" OS product. It just isn't flexible enough. If Apple wants to stay relevant to all but their niche market, they will also have to go "smart" with iOS.

            Thus, I predict no real penetration for RT or Windows Phone devices but boatloads of Windows devices sold. As (and if!) MS converges these devices, they will only get more popular relative to iOS...unless Apple goes "smart," too.

            As performance per watt gets better and better, "smart" becomes the future.
            x I'm tc
      • If 34% of adults have tablets, ...

        ... 58% have desktop PCs, and 61% have notebooks/laptops, then it is clear that most of those tablet owners have not given up their PCs. The tablet is clearly a companion device to PCs in many instances. BTW, the Surface represents that tablet market, not the PC market.

        Today, Windows represents over 90% of the world-wide PC market (over 1.4 billion units). Compared to 84 million iPads so ...

        There is no reason to think that Windows 8/RT tablets cannot surpass that 84 million mark in the next few years.
        M Wagner
      • Hmmm

        More people buy Android tablets than iPads, more than twice as many people buy Android phones than iPhones which means people want tablets and smartphones. Not necessarily iPhones or iPads. To me this means any vendor in the space that has a great device can compete, no matter who it is.
      • iPad in a Windows Environment

        Initially we rolled out iPads and iPhones to standardize deployment and limit the amount of exposer to our mobile users and devices in regards to viruses and Malware. It was strictly a security issue coupled with a lower learning curve (hidden bonus, in the end). The same capabilities coupled with AD integration, easier deployment, mobile security controls, MS Office tools and lower pricing would get me moving toward a phase in of these newer MS devices in a second.
    • I am not so sure you are right about Windows RT ...

      To survive though, Windows-RT needs to be backed up by a robust ecosystem and a Windows Store that offers more than just Games, News and Weather, Music, Video, and Browsing.

      It has to offer the same kind of productivity offered by Windows 8.x but without the complexity of the Windows desktop.

      If Windows 8 tablets are going to come in between $300 and $500 and have the performance of the iPad Mini, then not much room is left for Windows RT, except as a competitor to Android at sub-$300 price points.
      M Wagner
      • No such thing

        > It has to offer the same kind of productivity offered by Windows 8.x but without the complexity of the Windows desktop.
        x I'm tc
  • Microsoft Hasn't A Clue How To Design A Mobile OS

    Microsoft's only success in mobile was to outspend Palm. As soon as any decent competition appeared (Symbian, Apple, Android), Windows was immediately left in the dust.

    Even with Windows 8½, the problems continue, for example in the poor handling of portrait mode.

    I'm not saying Microsoft should give up. Who else can we laugh at?