Following up from my previous post on why Windows 8 is so important I wanted to speculate on what we’ll see next week, or rather what we have to see in order to believe that Microsoft can succeed. First we’ll talk about Microsoft’s strengths and weaknesses and how they need to exploit and/or correct them. Then we’ll talk about the key characteristics of the (general purpose) NUI OS world. And finally we’ll talk about a few key Windows 8 things we need to see.
Microsoft has two big strengths that they really need to exploit in order to make Windows 8 succeed. The first is their classic strength around being a multi-vendor platform. They need to get a large number of hardware manufacturers creating a substantial number of differentiated and interesting devices and pushing them heavily through all available channels (web/mail order, retail, distribution, direct corporate sales, etc.). This is a key strength against Apple, though if done poorly (as with Vista) can turn into a key weakness. They have to give the OEMs a lot of freedom to innovate and differentiate on hardware, but they have to keep enough control to make sure the OEMs don’t create devices that show off Windows 8 poorly. This is something that the Windows Phone 7 guys addressed with their very restrictive “Chassis” definition. Windows 8 can’t be as restrictive as Windows Phone 7, but they need to make some attempt to keep things from turning into the wild wild west. Talking about the channel front a bit, this is where I think Android has stumbled in the tablet space. Android Tablet manufacturers tied themselves too closely to the mobile phone sales channels, making it difficult for customers to find and purchase appropriate devices. For example, for a long time Best Buy kept Android tablets displayed in a back corner of their mobile phone area. This made them hard to find, and hard to find expertise to help you with them. Or I know someone who wanted a WiFi-only Samsung Galaxy Tab. Samsung withheld this device for many months in favor of 3G-enabled devices that you could only buy with 3G service. Finally my friend gave up waiting and purchased a WiFi-only iPad. Microsoft has well-developed channels in both the PC and Mobile spaces, with vendors like Dell able to work magic in the PC distribution space (even though it has bombed in the Mobile Phone distribution space). If Samsung, Toshiba, and others use both their PC and Mobile businesses to create and sell Windows 8 tablets then Microsoft has a huge advantage over Apple or Android.
The second strength Microsoft has is the one that really has differentiated the target end-user successes of Microsoft and Apple over the years. Apple targets multi-media consumption (and creation with the Mac) while Microsoft targets the Information Worker. If Microsoft pulls off the trick of being truly competitive with Apple for consumption-oriented users while being the clear offering of choice for Information Workers, then it can recreate the success it had with Windows 3.0 and beyond in the new world. And Microsoft brings many advantages to the table in trying to do this. For example, the ability of a Windows 8 tablet to join an Enterprises’ Domain (and have all its management and security benefits) would immediately make Windows 8 the tablet favored by Corporate IT (including the Chief Information Security Officer) for all internal use. But this won’t matter if end-users don’t love the devices, so Microsoft can’t count on Domains to overcome a weak end-user experience. But if the end-user is excited about Windows 8, this becomes a huge differentiating feature. Another factor will be how seriously Microsoft’s other products, particularly Office, embrace Windows 8 tablets. Everyone of my friends and family who has switched to the Mac has also run Microsoft Office for Mac on them. Imagine now that a full-fledged version of Microsoft Office (including Outlook) comes out that is fully usable on Windows 8 Tablets; suddenly carrying just a tablet with you on business trips becomes a real option. So Microsoft has a lot to bring to the table, and bring it they must!
One more strength is Microsoft’s view of Windows as a general purpose platform. Whereas Apple has been somewhat hostile to third-party e-book readers (e.g., they won’t let them actually sell you a book through their app) Microsoft is more likely to be telling Amazon et al “Please come make Windows 8 Tablets the best e-book readers on the market; what more can we do to help you succeed?” That attitude, spread across the entire application space, could be a huge advantage.
A final strength? That docking station that turns your iPad into a Mac replacement I mentioned? That could be a truly trivial thing for a Microsoft OEM to do with Windows 8.
I’ve already alluded to one weakness, that the same ecosystem that is such a strength can kill you by producing bad products. Or by ignoring you. One of the problems Microsoft initially had with Windows was that its ecosystem (e.g., Lotus) wasn’t developing for it. Windows 8 has to be exciting enough that the ecosystem clearly favors it over Android.
Another weakness is Windows bloat. This one has probably caused more advanced criticism about the idea of a Windows 8 tablet than anything else. It is usually couched in terms of “why would you want something as bloated as Windows on a tablet”? But then people forget that IOS is a reworked Mac OS. So the real question is, has Microsoft reworked Windows sufficiently so that a Windows 8 tablet doesn’t suffer from Windows overall bloat? There are promising signs. In Windows 7 Microsoft introduced MinWin (part of a multi-version restructuring cleanup they’ve had underway) as well as made changes that allowed many services to not be started until they were needed. Windows 7 was the first version of Windows to run well on smaller hardware configurations than its predecessor. Assuming they’ve continued to invest in this restructuring work it would be easy to see how they could keep bloat from killing the Windows 8 tablet experience. Even a recent reveal, that Windows 8 COLD boot time may be as low as 8 seconds, is evidence that Windows 8 is lean enough for tablets rather than suffering from the bloat we became accustomed to a decade ago. But still, until we see otherwise most people will continue to worry that Windows is too bloated for tablets.
Another weakness is that from an end-user perspective Windows has been way too non-prescriptive and confusing as a platform compared to IOS. For example, media experiences are spread across Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, Zune, Silverlight, Flash, HTML5 and others. While Windows 8 will no doubt continue to support all of these (and Windows 8 tablets most of them), is there a clear primary streaming media story for Windows 8 tablets? This is a space where for decades Apple has really shined and Microsoft has continually shot itself in the foot. Microsoft has no more toes to blow off and needs to have a clear preferred experience, in this area and in many others, to gain the consumer love that Apple currently enjoys. And yes, I do realize that I’ve made openness of the platform both a strength and weakness. One that Microsoft will have to navigate carefully.
Lastly I’ll mention “3 screens and a cloud” as both a strength and weakness for Microsoft. Microsoft has talked about this for many years, but to date hasn’t shown much in terms of their offerings. The 3 screens references the PC (which would include tablets), the phone, and the TV. Unifying these can be a critical advantage for Microsoft, or an achilles heal. If we see more unification around Windows 8 it becomes a powerful advantage. If not, Apple (and Google) are pursuing their own “3 screens and a cloud” strategies that will eclipse Microsoft. Fortunately there are both hard signs (e.g., XBox Live on Windows Phone 7) and many rumors that suggest Microsoft is finally getting its act together in this space. Hopefully BUILD will offer us some more evidence this is true.
Ok, so what are the key elements that we now associate with a NUI environment that Microsoft must address? The first is the most obvious, which is a modern visual and interactive style that takes advantage of TOUCH and GESTURES as the primary interaction method. This must extend throughout (e.g., you can’t have people trying to touch little X boxes to close things or drag scroll bars as you would do with a pointer; either at the OS or app level). One of my test experiences playing with a Windows 7 tablet was the NY Times Newsreader App. On my iPad I just swipe to go to the next page. On a Windows 7 tablet I have to find and tap (nee click) on an arrow to go to the next page. On a Windows 8 tablet just swiping has to work. Incorporation of voice recognition, use of the camera and other sensors, etc. are all pluses that Microsoft can (must?) use to differentiate. Microsoft has good enough voice recognition to do free form speech-to-text. Will we see that finally achieve widespread usage in a Windows 8 tablet? Will Microsoft, or its OEMs, build support around Window 8 for virtual projected keyboards? Or 3D video conferencing? Or….
A second element is a more locked down application environment. You may recall that apps were dead prior to the introduction of the second version of IOS and the App Store. This was because Windows (and Mac OS and Linux and…) had such a wild west attitude towards applications that they made systems unreliable, slow, and non-secure. Phrases like “DLL Hell” may still ring a bell. And certainly you’ve experienced the inability to fully uninstall an application. Any modern OS has to have an application model that can be sandboxed for reliability and security, can install apps simply and quickly, can uninstall apps just as simple and quickly, and doesn’t have side effects on unrelated apps. Windows 8 must have such an app model or the end-user experience will suffer greatly compared to IOS. In fact, the existence (and enforcement?) of such a model would do a great deal to eliminate most of the major issues that Windows has suffered over the last 20 years.
An “app store”. Apps have been around forever. But until the iPhone’s App Store came out there was no easy way to find them, know they weren’t laced with malware, know they weren’t likely to reduce system reliability, purchase them easily, download them easily, and install or uninstall them easily. Attempts to create marketplaces for existing applications didn’t really work because they addressed few of these characteristics. But with a new app model, and of course its own experience with the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace, Microsoft could introduce a Windows 8 “app store” that has all the characteristics necessary for a modern NUI-based OS to succeed.
Lastly, I’ll mention a design center for Consumption-oriented experiences. The truth about the iPhone, iPad, etc. is that they are replacing newspapers, books, DVD players, portable game players, etc. They are how you keep your kids entertained on a long road trip, and yourself on a long plane trip. They have become our companions when dining out alone, and our personal shopping assistants when we are in a store. Their larger screens make them more suitable for this than a Smartphone, yet they still are of a size and weight that you can carry in a purse or your hand. And so it is critical that any modern OS put consumption experiences ahead of creation experiences (where such tradeoffs are required).
Microsoft has already revealed some key elements of Windows 8. We know it will support the tablet form factor, including the use of ARM-based chipsets (a practical if not absolute necessity). We know it will offer both a modern NUI-style user experience evolved from the Metro experience designed for Windows Phone 7 as well as the traditional GUI experience. On the rumor level we’ve heard about a new app model reportedly called AppX, along with an associated “app store”. There are also plenty of rumors about relationships with XBox and Windows Phone 7 (e.g., that Windows 8 will run WP7 apps, which is technologically trivial to accomplish). I imagine tablets will always use the NUI interface, but that’s one thing we’ll have to wait on. For example, will Microsoft do anything to enforce this (e.g., a tablet edition that doesn’t include the old interface while the Pro or Enterprise edition includes both). I think we can assume this is all true, including the rumors.
But there is much we don’t know. How deeply will the NUI experience extend? Will new applications be NUI through and through? What happens when you run them from within the GUI (aka, traditional) shell? What happens when you run an existing GUI-based app in the NUI environment? Did they alter the common dialogs and graphical elements to make them more finger friendly (as Windows Mobile did with 6.5)? We should get answers to these questions next week. And they better be good.
What is the new App model? This is going to be the most revolutionary change to the Windows ecosystem since Windows itself. What is happening with graphics? This is one of the most awaited disclosures we’ve seen in a long time. And tell us please about that “app store”. This is the most important discussion next week because it impacts the expertise of the entire Windows developer ecosystem. How much their existing knowledge and skills is still applicable vs how much they have to start from scratch will impact both their enthusiasm for Windows 8 and the time to market for apps that conform to the new model.
There is a lot we may or may not find out next week. This is a developer conference, so Microsoft may withhold much in the way of end-user feature information. Will they, for example, disclose what the primary media strategy for Windows 8 is? I don’t know. They will certainly save as much news as they can for nearer the launch of Windows 8, but it will be small compared to what we learn this coming week.
I’ve run out of steam so I’m going to leave things here. Windows 8 will either be the release that propels Microsoft to leadership of the next two decades of computing or that confirms it is on the road to oblivion. Yes, I think it is that important. Are you looking forward to the big reveal as much as I am?