Tablets, Phablets, and Phones: Microsoft’s Confusion Continues

by Steve Wildstrom   |   October 16th, 2013

Windows Phone 8 with expanded display (Microsoft)An update to Windows Phone 8, due to begin rolling out soon, has some good news for fans of really big phones. Devices with 1920×1080 pixel displays will get an assortment of new user interface features, including the ability to display three columns of tiles on the home screen. The stated goal is to provide better support for screens up to six inches, a device type that has, alas, become known as a phablet.

This will be a boost for companies, most likely Microsoft’s soon-to-be Nokia subsidiary, that want to make big Windows Phones–or small tablets–to compete with the Samsung Note, a device that has won surprising success, especially in Asian markets. But it reveals the befuddlement about tablets that continues to cripple Microsoft’s efforts to compete.

I have to confess to a strong bias. Ever since Microsoft began to discuss its plans for Windows Phone and Windows 8, I have been arguing that they have been doing it all wrong. Instead of trying to somehow make Windows, an operating system developed for the desktop and with desktop deep in its code and DNA, work on mobile devices, it should have built up from a mobile phone OS, something it already had in Windows Phone.

When Apple designed the iPad,  it did not try to cram its desktop OS X into it. Instead, it went with a version of iOS, a lean operating system designed to the demands and constraints of mobile devices. (iOS and OS X, like Windows Phone and Windows 8, share a number of core components and development tools. But they remain distinct operating systems.)

Microsoft tablets, both its own Surfaces and those from third parties and both those running Windows 8 and Windows RT, have been hobbled by software that just doesn’t fit touch devices very well. The upcoming Windows 8.1 improves matters by reducing the frequency with which users have to resort to the traditional Windows Desktop UI, but it can’t change the fact that this is an operating system with mice and keyboards and a traditional desktop file system at its heart, with a lot of touch features bolted on. This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that the features Microsoft counts on to distinguish its tablets, such as keyboard in the ability to run Desktop Office, define them as ultralight PCs, not true tablets.

The enhancements to Windows Phone only confuse things further. It is entirely possible that coming months will see Windows Phones with 6″ displays next to Windows 8 or Windows RT tablets with 7″ screens. For devices this close in size to be running different and incompatible operating systems is a recipe to deepen the bafflement of customers, OEMs, and software developers.

It’s remarkable that 3 1/2 years since the introduction of the iPad, only apple really seems to understand what tablets are and how they are used.

It’s remarkable that 3 1/2 years since the introduction of the iPad, only apple really seems to understand what tablets are and how they are used. To Google, an Android tablet is a great big phone without voice capability. Although there are rumblings that this is about to change, there is still no way to distinguish phone apps from tablet-optimized apps in the Play store, something Apple took care of when it shipped the first iPad. And to Microsoft, a tablet is just a laptop with a detachable keyboard. I have Apple, Windows, and Android tablets and the iPad gets used all the time, while the Windows and Android version get picked up when I need to check a feature or evaluate an app.

Tim Bajarin has a post (for Tech.pinions Insiders) speculating on the possibility that Apple might build a larger iPad that would be something of an iPad-Mac hybrid. I’m dubious, but I am convinced that Apple would only do it if it can devise a software package that makes sense for its intended uses. When Apple introduced the iPad, it had no way of knowing how big a success it would become, but Steve Jobs perfectly articulated its use case when he said the Macs and PCs were trucks and the iPad was a car.

There’s still no evidence that Microsoft has figured on how the uses of laptops, tablets, and phones differ. And until it does, it will continue to struggle.

 

 

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Defendor

    ” it should have built up from a mobile phone OS”

    No, Win-CE kernel (Windows Phone 7) was a dead end, regarded as inferior for a modern OS, even in mobile. Intel publicly criticized CE, and now in Windows Phone 8, CE has been replaced with the superior NT kernel. It was better to go with the NT kernel and work toward moving that to the phone.

    iOS is an offshoot of OSX, and now Windows phone is now running more in line with what Apple did.

    At the core, they are doing the same thing. Using the kernel from robust desktop OS for the basis of the mobile problem.

    They chose the right kernel for tablets, they just executed badly.

    BTW the scripts you have running to mess with simple copy/paste from the story are a massive PITA for no real benefit.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I said a phone OS, but never specified WP7/WinCE, which I agree would have been a mistake. There are basically three general-purpose OS kernels in use today: Windows NT, Linux, and Unix. iOS and OS X are both built on a BSD Unix kernel (Darwin.) Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 are both built on the WinNT kernel, and Android, just to complete things, is built on Linux.

      But I’m talking about more than kernels here. The iOS/OS X and WP8/Win8 pairs are alike in that the mobile and desktop versions share APIs, but neither is a pure subset or superset of the other. The problem with Win8 as a mobile OS is that it is a huge, heavyweight operating system designed to scale from laptops to big multiprocessor servers, but not to scale down to mobile devices. It is also saddled with two user interfaces that are forced to coexist in a way that prevents you from working purely in one or the other, and specifically on mobile devices, in a pure touch environment.

      Apple has a much more elegant solution to this problem, which is the primary reason that an iPad is a delight to use and a Windows 8 (or RT, while it lasts) tablet most certainly is not. And Microsoft, by promoting Windows Phone devices that approach tablet form factors, simply adds to the confusion.

      As for the scripts, the only thing I know about is adding the attribution to a pasted selection. I’m not sure how much good it does, but it’s intended to get credit where it is due. The amount of scraping that goes on is very annoying.

      • Defendor

        If they built from the phone for tablets, there was only the CE kernel version when they were working on the tablet OS.

        I suggest that the work they did to get Metro on NT kernel was used to back propagate NT to the phone.

        There was no building from NT based phones, unless we are only looking at seeing touch tablets starting even later than they did.

        Also building from the phone, might have left the tablet too feature compromised (AFAIK, windows phone 7 was behind even iOS for features).

        The dual mode OS is central to the Microsoft strategy of selling convertible HW.

        I have long argued that windows RT, should jettison the crippled desktop and it might once two things are accomplished:
        1)Metro is feature complete so it can stand alone.
        2)There is a true Metro native Microsoft Office.

        IMO this was the right way to go, they were just late, incomplete and made other strategic blunders.

        If they had Window 8 that:
        1) Was truly and completely switchable and could be 100% Metro, or 100% desktop at the user discretion.
        2) Had a full Metro Office software.
        3) RT version that dispensed with the desktop altogether.

        Then there would be no real cause for any complaints.

        Building off Windows Phone 7 would have left them nowhere. It isn’t like Windows phone being independent from Windows desktop brought it piles of love.

        • steve_wildstrom

          I think our disagreement is more semantic than substantive. If Microsoft had built a pure touch OS on WinNT and gotten rid of all the legacy cruft instead of attempting this chimera of a dual-purpose OS, they would have satisfied me. But everything, as you note was dependent on having a Metro version of Office since Office was central to the strategy. I’m not convinced Microsoft was right about Office, but judged on its own terms, this was a critical strategic failure.

          • Defendor

            Simply running WinPhone on a tablet, would not have been better.

            It would have been the most feature weak tablet OS. It would NOT have had Office. It would have had no real (or even imaginary) advantages over iOS/Android.

            I don’t like playing Devils Advocate for Microsoft, but using WinPhone as the basis for their tablets would not have helped them at all.

      • Defendor

        That script simply choked when I tried to cut n’ past that simple quote from your story here. I had to completely disable scripting to make that quote.

        • steve_wildstrom

          For troubleshooting, what browser and platform?

          • Defendor

            Win7, Firefox

        • steve_wildstrom

          OK, it’s not locking up for me, but it isn’t pasting either. This seems to be a problem unique to Firefox and I’m not sure whether it is a Tech.pinions problem, a WordPress problem, or a Disqus problem, but I will pass it along.

          • Defendor

            Yes not pasting, but I also get the effect that after attempted pasting, I can’t type in the input box either. So I called that locked up. I had to reload the page so I could type again.

            Not a huge deal. I just won’t quote the story here in comment boxes, but I do think these kinds of scripts are a waste of time and more hassle than benefit.

            Anyone stealing content won’t be hampered by it. Anyone wanting a short quote will remove the attribution (if/when it works properly).

            This is the same sort of problems you have with DRM. It mainly interferes with honest, well intentioned users, while not actually preventing abusive ones. More PITA, no real benefit.

          • steve_wildstrom

            We’re working on it.

    • Bill Smith

      I seem to have no problems with copying from the story or the comments.

      • Defendor

        The solution to poorly implemented and inadequately tested features is not changing computing platforms.

        • steve_wildstrom

          I’m trying to replicate your issue, but without luck so far. Copying and pasting Tech.pinions content from Firefox (Windows 7) into Word works as it is supposed to: I get the copied text plus a tagline with the source URL.

          Is there any more information you can give me about exactly what happens when you copy & paste?

          • Defendor

            “Copying and pasting Tech.pinions content from Firefox (Windows 7) into Word works as it is supposed to”…

            That works fine here as well.

            What fails for me is copying from the story above, and pasting into the message box here. So I want to make a quick quote from the story into the comments, if chokes the text entry box.

            I can copy and paste comments as I did above, but copy from the story and repaste here, and the comment box just locks up.

      • philpon

        In Safari, when zooming in to the text (old eyes) the sidebar text bleeds over into the article, making it hard to read

  • 20,000

    Microsoft has permanently screwed the consumer side of their business. If it survives at all, it will be so weak that it would be #4 in the market if BlackBerry was still significant.

    The enterprise side has good products for the back office. But the mess that is now Microsoft the company has dealt the enterprise side a heavy blow, and their flagship product, Windows 8, is badly crippled.

    The top management has made a long series of errors, but the acquisition of Nokia was a colossal one. Microsoft has tied themselves in so many knots, I don’t know if they’ll ever get straightened out.

    • Brian M. Monroe

      So true! One of the problems with Microsoft is that they just do not get how to talk to consumers. The problem is that consumers HATE complex solutions. Most of them are not tech people who can get the latest buzzwords or really care about speeds and specs. They just want it to work with the least hassle as possible.

      For the IT guys that are used to dealing with Microsoft and their complex licensing terms, we can understand what the various different versions of Windows do but to the average consumer, trying to explain to them the differences ends up making their heads spin. What we are seeing is that the paradox of choice the consumers are much happier to just chose an iOS device as they know that they are not going to get stuck with a device that was sold to them as doing one thing and ends up doing another.

      Also, yes, Windows 8 is a major step back for Microsoft in their enterprise efforts as many of them are just finishing up deploying Windows 7 systems. From what I have seen most of them will end up skipping over ever other major release of Windows and that is why they have stuck with Windows XP and not moved to Vista after the hardware and software issues where worked out.

      I am not so sure that the merger with Nokia was that bad as I do think that they did not really have a choice in the matter. From what I have read, it did sound like Nokia was going to jump ship and start to really push Android. As the only OEM that has been pushing Windows 8 Phone it would have been the end to Windows 8 Phone’s.

  • Brian M. Monroe

    What Microsoft is doing here is just more of the same that they have done over the years. We have seen this same dog and pony show before. All versions of Windows before Windows 2000 ran DOS under the hood and you had to drop down to DOS to do many things. Just like how on Windows RT you have to switch to the desktop to do many tasks. The difference this time is that I do not think Microsoft has a the decade it is going to take them to make a pure metro OS.

    Not only do they not have the time, I do not see the active 3rd party developers spending the time to make metro app’s as their time is used up making iOS, Android and Web App’s. Thats where you are seeing all of the long tail and interesting development that has been in the past what we saw on Windows that made Windows the must have platform of the 1990′s and 2000′s.

    If you want to look further down the line with the “Internet of things”, they are not going to be powered by any Intel or Microsoft technology other than maybe patents.