For Microsoft, the timing of Windows 8 looks to be just right. Here's why.
When Apple launched the iPad in the spring of 2010, pundits assumed that a slew of competitors would quickly follow, all powered by Google's Android operating system. These iPad alternatives were supposed to beat Apple on pricing while adding features that the original iPad lacked, such as cameras and USB ports.
At the time, the thought of the Windows operating system running a tablet was limited to business applications and vertical markets, not to the consumers that Apple and Google had in their sights.
In reality, Apple's second iPad beat the vast majority of first-generation Android tablets to the market, and even now, there's no evidence that these competitors are breaking Apple's stride.
App developers, for the most part, have ignored the tablet side of Google's Android operating system, creating an opportunity for another OS to attract both consumers and the almighty app developers that make and break platforms.
Enter Microsoft and Windows 8. With no release date in sight, Microsoft took a deep dive into its upcoming operating system at the company's BUILD conference for developers this week. Tablet support took center stage as the company showcased a drastically different interface designed for touchscreens.
[Read: Windows 8: A Close-Up Look]
At every turn, Microsoft executives emphasized "fast and fluid," suggesting that Windows isn't a mess of legacy code. Everyone who attended the conference got a prototype slate running Windows 8, to use in developing and testing new apps. Better still, Microsoft made this Developers Preview version of Windows 8 available for download by anyone who wants to try it out.
With tablets taking off, and Android failing to capitalize, Microsoft and Apple are on track to rekindle their old rivalry. But this time, Apple's got the upper hand. Can Windows 8 be a legitimate competitor to the iPad? Here's why we think it has a shot.
A New Take on Tablets
Windows 8 is both an acknowledgment and a rejection of how Apple's iPad works.
With iOS, apps are everything. They're all you see on the home screen, and when you're running an app, there's not much else to do besides exiting the app and launching another. Because the iPad has such great apps, this simple approach has been a rousing success.
Other platforms, like Android and webOS, are failing because their navigation improvements--say, better multitasking and faster app switching--don't make up for their lack of great apps.
Like Apple, Microsoft wants full-screen apps to play a big role in Windows 8. But Microsoft also wants to change the role of apps. Forget the idea of independent widgets that show live info: Now, on the Start screen, app icons become living tiles, with their most recent updates brought to the fore.
In the file browser, cloud data stands alongside local data, making more documents and photos available for the plucking. Within every app, you can call upon other apps to perform certain tasks, such as sharing a link with friends or posting a photo on a social network--simply because this capability is integrated at the operating system level.
Whereas iOS gets out of the way, Windows 8 wants to be part of the action, connecting apps in ways that the iPad does not. Whether that's actually useful depends on developers and the apps they create. At the very least, Windows 8 has gone in a different direction from the iPad's other competitors. It doesn't simply rely on having more apps than the iPad or a better interface for moving between them--as Apple's other competitors have proven, those battles are lost from the start. It instead tries to improve the very nature of apps by connecting them to each other, to the OS, and to the cloud.
The Traditional Windows Desktop Is Not Dead
When compared to the new "Metro interface" of Windows 8, the Windows desktop looks ugly and outdated. But it's also a big reason why Microsoft has a chance to succeed. Windows remains hugely popular--Microsoft has licensed more than 450 million copies of Windows 7 to date--and isn't going away anytime soon. That means hundreds of millions of people will be exposed to Windows 8's new look, and perhaps persuaded to purchase tablets or touch-equipped laptops and desktops.
And that desktop interface still comes in handy. It has software that the Metro side of Windows does not. It has Windows Explorer for file browsing. It has a taskbar for moving quickly between programs and resizable windows for multitasking. It supports multiple monitors. And it's where your legacy applications will live. None of those things are hugely important for tablet users, but they remain useful for enthusiasts and professional users.
More important, the desktop was, and still is, primarily designed for use with a keyboard and mouse. With the right peripherals, a Windows 8 tablet can become a laptop or a desktop PC. For consumers, that's the Holy Grail: Everything you need in a single device.
Questions and Issues Remain
Given the early state of Windows 8, a bit of bet-hedging is in order.
Hardware is still a huge issue. The developer preview slate that Microsoft loaned to the press runs smoothly on Intel's second-generation Core i5 processor, but it gets hot, it has a noisy fan, and its 3-hour battery life is pitiful. Right now, Intel and AMD don't have processors that are great for tablets. The chip makers have about a year to create one.
[Read: Windows 8 Tablet: Hands-On]
Windows 8 will support ARM-based processors that run cooler and draw less power, but they're not yet ready for developers to try. And ARM introduces a complication: Legacy apps won't run on ARM-based Windows tablets unless they're rewritten. Microsoft is downplaying this issue rather than addressing it clearly, which, at a conference for software developers, seems kind of strange.
Meanwhile, with all the focus on tablets, the Windows desktop has been lost in the discussion. Microsoft surely has much more to reveal about the desktop side of Windows 8, but already, we've seen some undesirable side effects from Windows 8's new "Metro" interface.
Clicking the "Start" button on the desktop no longer brings up a list of favorite apps and the "All Programs" menu. Instead, Start just leads back to the Metro interface, a big change from the current norm. It's as though the start menu is now full-screen, and full-screen only.
And at the moment, there's no way to boot directly into the desktop and avoid the Start screen entirely. It's easy to imagine a constant struggle between power users, who want to keep Windows the way it is, and Microsoft, which wants to push forward with Windows' new aesthetic.
But for now, we're staying optimistic. The iPad needs good competition, and Microsoft has laid the groundwork.