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Can New Tactics Save Microsoft’s Old Tablet Strategy?

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As people digest what we saw of Windows 8 at BUILD yesterday, folks are questioning whether Windows on tablets is the wrong approach to take on the iPad. I think they have a shot, but only if the shift in tactics goes all the way because their strategy, the one in place since before the iPad, hasn’t changed, nor can it.

Strategy and tactics

Strategy is the big picture view, the overall approach. In personal computing, Microsoft’s strategy is simple: Windows Everywhere. That’s been their approach to tablets from the introduction of the Tablet PC in 2001 to Origami and UMPCs in 2006 to “touch-first” Windows 8 tablets next year. They’re all running the same version of Windows as desktops.

Tactics are fluid. Tactics are about available resources and technology and how you deploy them. With Tablet PCs, Microsoft chose active pen input. With UMPCs, they shifted to touch. With Windows 8, they’re throwing in everything. The technologies change, but the strategy of using the same desktop version of Windows underneath remains the same.

Looking at that precedent, it would be easy to claim Windows 8 tablets will fail, same as those other Windows tablets before it. Tweaking XP for Tablet PCs and Vista for UMPCs didn’t work, so why should Windows 8 tablets be any different? Well, the strategy may be the same, but the tactics appear much improved.

Not just a new coat of paint

Microsoft has gone a lot further to integrate touch into Windows this time. They didn’t slap a pop-up input box on it and call it a day. “Touch-first” isn’t a hollow motto. “Fuzzy Hit Targeting” means touch is now recognized differently from a pinpoint mouse click. The whole Start Menu has been transformed into a touch-based menu. The changes are system-wide and obvious. Everyone who uses Windows 8 on any form factor will see its tablet features, unlike previous versions which hide tablet functionality so well that most people don’t know they’ve been included in every premium version since Vista.

You must be this tall to ride

I have a long-standing gripe against running desktop Windows on handheld devices (7″ display and smaller) because the OS simply is not designed for screens that small. The 800×600 resolution on most UMPCs was absurd. With the Metro UI on Windows 8, Microsoft has established minimum and preferred resolutions, set a distinct landscape orientation, and firmly laid out interface element rules. My call for a tailored interface is finally being truly answered.

Broad developer support

If the limits of Windows with tablet form factors was a weight around the ankle, then the lack of support for developers was a crowbar to the knee. The early Tablet PC software environment was full of innovation and enthusiasm, yet tablet software for Windows never got anywhere near the attention that we’ve seen this week alone with Windows 8. Once we had real alternatives to OneNote. They have since diminished and dwindled. Tablet software is no longer a forgotten niche; it is the focus.

The last mile

With Windows 8, Microsoft is going much further with tablets than ever, but there’s still one piece missing: Office. The Office team refused to support Tablet PCs from the start and, aside from OneNote, have offered meager concessions since then. Marking up documents with Ink is easy. Working with them in conventional fashion is still a challenge.

That must change with Windows 8. I don’t expect to be able to write directly in Excel cells with the pen, but Office must be accessible in both classic and Metro interfaces, not just to view documents but to edit and create. As Microsoft’s flagship software suite, Office must set an example for other developers to follow, show them that Metro can work with traditional desktop software. This is what Apple did with iWork for iPad. Warner is right; Microsoft Office must be tablet-ready at launch.

What if the strategy really is flawed?

I’ve been using Windows Tablet PCs for seven years. During that time, I’ve defended the form factor against more than a few detractors and offered solutions for its many flaws. More often than not, those solutions have been tactical in nature – a better interface, better software support, and better exposure, everything that Microsoft now seems committed to providing in Windows 8. Clearly I believe Windows can work on tablets, but I’d be lying if I said I never doubted that strategy.

"Matter up front, energy in back"

Less than a year ago, I compared the old “slap a touch-centric interface over Windows” approach to the mullet haircut – business in the front, party in the back, horrible all around. How ever dazzling it looks, how ever well it’s supported, the Metro approach with Windows 8 is fundamentally more of the same. It’s much more ambitious to be sure, but if the direction is wrong, running harder and faster won’t get them where they want to go.

If that strategy really is flawed, then Windows 8 tablets will fare little better than the three generations before them, at least not without considerable cost. But the big change, the one that really matters, is that Microsoft no longer has to figure out how to get people interested in tablets. Apple did that for them. Microsoft’s challenge now is to get people interested in Windows tablets, and the only way to pursue that is with Windows on tablets.

Alleged Apple fanboi, accused Android apologist, and confirmed Microsoft MVP for touch and tablet Mark Sumimoto a.k.a. Sumocat dabbles in all areas of mobile computing with a focus on Windows-based Tablet PCs and pen input. A mobile computing enthusiast since 2004, he pioneered the field of ink blogging via his personal blog, Sumocat's Scribbles. His current tools include a Fujitsu Lifebook T900, TEGA v2, and iPhone 4. Email: sumocat [at] notebooks.com

3 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    09/14/2011 at 6:50 pm

    I’m not going to hold my breath on the Office team embracing change. 

  2. ChrisRS

    09/14/2011 at 7:14 pm

    Office may be the killer app, if MS takes touch/pen/tablet seriously. They need to send the extermintors into the office team and get rid of teh mouse(s)!

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