Microsoft has begun the tough job of answering three questions vital to its future: Why Windows? Why Windows RT? And why Surface? The arguments given at the Windows 8 launch event in New York on Oct. 25 won’t close the deal, but they mark the emergence of a strategy out of what has sometimes seemed a muddle
Microsoft has clearly been watching Apple and learning. It understands that when customers buy iPhones, iPads, or Macs, they aren’t just purchasing hardware; they’re buying into an ecosystem of products, services, apps, and content where everything works together.
Microsoft has long had the pieces, but lacked the integration. Now it is putting them together. Content moves seamlessly from your Xbox to your PC to your tablet to your Windows Phone. The new Xbox Music brings a Spotify-like music service to all devices. SkyDrive lets you share your files easily and all the devices have access to some form of Office. Clever Windows 8 apps connect to Bing services. Windows users will be able to “plug into the largest ecosystem anywhere,” says Windows chief Steven Sinofsky.
How well this all works in practice remains to be seen. Microsoft, with its deep experience in enterprise back-end operations, has a considerable advantage over Apple, which has stumbled often with network-based services. For once, it is Apple that is stuck with the legacy of iTunes, which Microsoft is starting clean. And the Microsoft offering leaves Google, which has tons of stuff but none of it very well integrated, in the dust. Neither Apple nor Google was mentioned by name in the lengthy presentations, but I got the sense that Google, which has left an opening by failing to exploit its early advantage in cloud services, may be the primary target.
Microsoft isn’t forgetting the enterprise, but for the moment, at least, it seems to be taking it for granted; the messaging at the Windows launch was nearly 100% consumer. Except for tablets (Microsoft seems to have given up on the idea of calling them “slates”), the company has no illusions of large-scale enterprise adoption of Win 8 any time soon. But corporations remain wedded to Microsoft and these days, the company makes more enterprise revenue from servers and tools than from desktops and laptops, or even Office.
Why Windows RT
Windows RT, the version designed for tablets based on ARM processors, is a tougher proposition. At the launch, Microsoft started the hard job of differentiating between the two new versions of Windows. The selling point for Windows 8 is fairly simple: Although the new user interface will require a fair amount of learning by users, the operating system remains compatible with the vast array of existing Windows software. If you want to run Autocad or Photoshop or even Microsoft Outlook, you need the legacy support of Windows 8.
But that legacy also brings a lot of cruft with it, and if you don’t need to run these desktop programs, you may be better off with the lean, clean Windows RT. Windows has made great leaps in security since XP, but a traditional operating system that gives programs full access to system resources is always going to be vulnerable
Windows RT is much more locked down and only allows installation of apps through the Windows Store. This should provide an environment that is resistant to both malware and the complex problems caused by software interactions that plague tradition Windows and, yes, Mac OS X
The troubling question is whether users pf RT-based tablets will be able to get the apps they need. As of today, the answer is no. I had hoped that launch day would see a sudden profusion of apps on the barren shelves of the Windows Store, but it hasn’t happened. There have been some very welcome additions, such as a client for the SugarSync cloud synchronization service and a Kindle reader, and a Twitter client is sad to be coming soon. But the Windows Store remains deeply impoverished compared to the iTunes App Store or even Google Play
The preloaded Microsoft apps are a mixed bag. The biggest issue is the awful mail client, which lacks such basic features as a consolidated inbox and support for POP mail services. Microsoft has promised improvements, and I hope that either they come soon or that someone steps up with a third-party offering. Having major components of Office–Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and One Note–certainly distinguishes RT from other tablet OSes, but the allegedly touch-optimized applications still aren’t very touch-friendly. Their use pretty much demands a keyboard and a touchpad or mouse.
It’s clear that Microsoft regards Surface, its first plug into computer hardware, as an entirely new type of device, neither a tablet nor a PC or, more accurately both. Microsoft offers it without either of its two keyboards–either the flat $100 Touch Cover, which looks unusable but actually works quite nicely, or the $129 Type Cover, with keys that actually move a little–both to hit a $499 price point and to avoid a profusion of SKUs. But if you are buying a Surface, don’t even think about getting it without one of these keyboard-plus-touchpad covers.
Apple considers the iPad a post-PC device. Microsoft considers the Surface a kind of PC. Thee difference was summed up, in hyperbolic language, by the respective chieftains. Sinofsky describes the Surface as “not just a tablet but the best tablet I’ve ever used. Not just a laptop, but the best laptop I’ve ever used.” But Apple CEO Tim Cook, who hasn’t actually seen it yet, dismissed it as “aa fairly compromised, confusing product…. I suppose you could design a car that flies and floats, but I don;t think it would do any of those things well.”
Surface is in many ways a more ambitious device than the iPad because it can do everything most consumers want from a PC. Sinofsky even makes a big deal of its ability to work with printers and other peripheral devices through a USB cable (personally, I don’t want to think of connecting a tablet to anything except over a wireless link.
It will be interesting to see how the market shakes out between the ARM-powered Surface and the Surface Pro, which uses an Intel Clover Trail processor and standard Windows 8. The Pro version will be heavier and considerably more expensive. It will truly be a PC in a new design: lighter than an Ultrabook and less capable, though probably capable enough for most uses
To the extent to which enterprises go for the Surface, they are going to choose the Pro (expected to ship some time in Novmber), both for software compatibility and because it, unlike the regular Surface, can be centrally managed like a PC. IT managers may see the Surface Pro as an way to stop the creeping invasion of iPads, giving executives the tablets they want while retaining the manageability IT desires.
Microsoft still has a lot of work to do to sell Windows 8. It’s biggest immediate challenge ia to set customer expectations for Windows RT correctly to avoid a wave of returns of Surfaces (and RT tablets from Lenovo, Dell, and Asus) by consumers who did not understand the software limitations. But Microsoft is off to a good start. It’s good to see the tablet battle finally fully joined.
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.