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Does Windows 8 = Post-PC?

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Over at the Boy Genius Report, Editor Zach Epstein has an interesting article detailing how Windows 8 represents the Post-PC future of computing; in essence, Microsoft has beaten Apple to the punch. Microsoft hosted their BUILD developer conference this week, and they showed a fairly impressive demo of a prototype Samsung “tablet” running Windows 8. The idea behind the new OS is that the Metro tile interface (introduced in Windows Phone 7) will be the primary method of interacting with touch apps, while the Windows Desktop will remain dormant until summoned, at which point users can interact with their Windows applications in the more traditional manner of Windows 1.0 thru 7. The demo was nothing if not impressive, and demonstrated an innovative UX, but one key point remains: since the product is still under development, this strategy for Windows can neither be thoroughly tested nor proven in real world application, which renders Epstein’s assertion invalid—it is a prediction at best. One particularly bombastic quote from the article demonstrates the overconfidence inherent in deigning Windows 8 the “winner” of the Post-PC era:

The [demo's] reception, as you’ve likely read by now, has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, Apple bloggers were apparently so flustered by the platform that they resorted to bombarding Twitter with jokes about cooling fans and Silverlight instead of stopping for a moment to realize that Microsoft is showing us the future of computing.

Steve Jobs @ D8 Conference
Photo via TechRepublic

Reality vs. Promise

Microsoft has, on numerous occasions, delivered sensational product demos at keynotes, and then delivered equally spectacular failures in the marketplace. Does anybody remember the S.P.O.T watches? What about the numerous demonstrations of Windows pen-based tablets and Bill Gates’ insistence that these are what the public really wants? Has Surface, for all its admittedly cool features, really been a blockbuster seller that recouped its development costs or ushered in a new paradigm of computer/user interaction?

Other bloggers, especially John Gruber over at Daring Fireball, have pointed out the difference in product demo strategies between Microsoft and Apple. At an Apple conference, 9.9 times out of 10 Steve Jobs was demoing a product that was ready to ship within weeks. Betas introduced were either hobbies (AppleTV) or platforms with large developer communities who needed lead time to verify the compatibility of their apps with a new version of iOS and OS X.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is willing to show highly innovative products that may or may not ever reach the marketplace as demonstrated. The Samsung prototype tablets used at BUILD are a perfect example—they are essentially modified Core i5 laptops, complete with cooling fans. One of the problems of Microsoft’s shotgun approach to OS licensing is an inherent conflict of priorities: OEMs will make whatever is cheap and sells well, while Microsoft wold like to see something with the fit, finish, and polish of the iPad. Apple has the power to will their vision of hardware and software into being, while Microsoft can at best provide a helpful shove to its hardware partners. Unless, of course, Microsoft intends to buy Samsung and replicate their Nokia purchase in the tablet market (maybe they can acquire HP’s PC business?).

Island of Misfit Toys

While Microsoft deserves praise for their willingness to embrace the future of touch-based computing, the one-size-fits-all, make-everybody-happy-under-the-big-tent approach of Metro+legacy Windows carries a big risk. Unlike iOS, which offered a completely clean slate, Windows carries with it a huge base of legacy apps that demand backwards compatibility. These apps, combined with the promised support of ARM and Intel x86 chips, present two huge risks to the success of the Microsoft approach.

On the one hand, Microsoft faces a great deal of inertia from users to move away from something that works. Large businesses, for example, still use Windows XP because it is tested, proven, and (currently) still supported. When businesses make the switch to Windows 8, chances are most of their user’s apps will be of the traditional desktop-style, and not the new Metro touch-enabled variety. If users never interact with the Post-PC touch interface, they will be content with low-end hardware that gets the job done, which provides no motivation for slick hardware from Microsoft’s partners. No OEM is going to sacrifice profitability just to fulfill Microsoft’s vision of svelte devices that can compete with Apple; for reference, just look at the effort Intel is making with the Ultrabook initiative, which has hardware makers scrambling to be competitive.

In addition to designating the desktop as an app unto itself, Microsoft has also promised that Windows 8 will support low-power ARM processors. This exponentially confounds the entire Windows equation; the details of how this dual-identity Windows will make consumers’ lives easier have yet to be revealed. Without recompiling, existing Windows apps will be incompatible with an ARM-powered tablet; what reaction can be expected from the technologically illiterate upon buying a tablet “with Windows on it” only to find out their applications will not work? Fragmenting the hardware landscape seems to soundly defeat the purpose of the unified tablet+desktop OS. If you have to buy new apps, why not just buy the iPad? Add to this the impasse caused by developers waiting for ARM tablets to become popular enough to recompile their apps, while tablet buyers wait for their favorite apps to be compatible with the latest low-power tablet, and the prospect of Windows 8 ruling a post-PC future seem rather diminished. Android tablets face a similar conundrum, so how will Microsoft end this vicious cycle?

Who’s Got the Time?

Hardware/software compatibility issues aside, the fact that Windows 8 is currently in beta makes it more difficult to declare it supreme in the post-PC era. Windows 8 may pack some sensational features, but it will still be anywhere from 16 to 24 months before it is a shipping product; 18 months seems to be the consensus for when we will see Windows 8 at retail. Declaring Apple the loser implies the company will stand still and wait to be crushed by this new version of Windows. With iOS 5 nearing imminent release and OS X Lion available for purchase, does anybody really think Apple has not turned their attention to OS X 10.8 and iOS 6? We know Apple’s R&D cycles are about one year for product refreshes, so 18 months equals one and a half new iOS, OS X, and iPhone/iPad versions. Specious comparisons of what might be Microsoft’s future products (remember the brand-new filesystem promised in Longhorn?) to Apple’s current lineup are insufficient evidence to declare one company or the other has reached post-PC nirvana first.

BGR has quality reporting, and the counterpoint to rabid fanboyism Epstein provides is certainly refreshing. As a prediction, his views on the potential of Windows 8 are solid. As a declaration, the idea that Windows 8 “ushers in the post-PC era” could use some editing. A conditional verb is needed in there, something along the lines of “might” or “could,” or even “may potentially usher in the post-PC era when it arrives in 18 months, assuming of course that some real neat hardware comes out sans the clunky fans, legacy connectors, and has decent battery life.”

Microsoft is certainly taking a bold new direction, and their willingness to innovate beyond the traditional desktop OS deserves credit (and looks fantastic). Windows 8, however, is not a finished product, there is no evidence that Microsoft’s “one OS to rule them all” strategy will work, and, perhaps most importantly, any comparison of Microsoft’s demonstrated Windows features can not be validly compared against today’s Mac OS or iOS. Apple declared the unification of the desktop and mobile worlds last summer with previews of Lion; by the time Windows 8 is released, there will likely be a new version of both OS X and iOS available, running on hardware at least one generation more advanced than today’s.

Perhaps at that point we can definitively pick a winner in the race to post-PC.

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