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

on October 16, 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.[pullquote]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. [/pullquote]

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.