A US Microsoft store employee displays Microsoft's new Surface tablet.
Rather than producing killer gadgets, is Microsoft's strength its unified ecosystem?
On Friday I pondered why you'd want to spend $559 on a new Microsoft Surface RT tablet when it only runs Windows RT -- supporting the tile-based Modern UI interface (pictured above) and tablet-style apps. The question is not whether the Surface RT is a slick device. The question is whether it really offers any advantage over the established Apple and Android competitors which enjoy more mature app stores and wider ecosystems of accessories. Personally I'm more interested in Microsoft's Surface Pro and third-party Windows 8 tablets, which offer the best of both worlds with access to Modern UI and traditional desktop applications.
You might ask the same question about Windows Phone 8 smartphones such as Nokia's Lumia 920. As slick as it is, Windows Phone 8 will struggle to win people away from the Android and Apple flagship handsets. Apart from choice, what exactly do these Windows 8 gadgets bring to the party that make it worth turning your back on both Apple and Google?
The clear response from the pro-Microsoft crowd was that tight integration with the Windows ecosystem is the Surface RT's strength. Cross-platform gaming and integration with the Xbox 360 platform will grab some people's attention, while others might be tempted by the streaming music service. The big attraction for many seems to be Office compatibility along with the flexibility of USB and micro-SD ports. Initially I dismissed the pre-installed Office RT as an advantage because both Apple and Google offer Office alternatives. I'm happy enough to use Windows 7 but personally I stay as far away from Microsoft Office as I can.
But the truth is that many people don't want to use these Office-like alternatives. They live in an Office-centric world, whether it be for work or study, and want a tablet experience which "just works" rather than needing to shift their documents in and out of iCloud or Google Apps. They also want a seamless experience when jumping between desktop and mobile devices, something which can still be hit and miss in the Apple and Google ecosystems.
Ecosystems is the key word here, as it's at the heart of the battle between the technology giants. Once you're an Apple user, for example, it's easier to keep using Apple products and services because they all play nicely together. The more Apple or Android gear you own, the more sense it makes to keep buying the same gear. Unfortunately for Microsoft it's arrived late to the handheld ecosystem party. A lot of people have already sworn their allegiance to Apple or Android even if they still use Windows on the desktop. If this sounds like you, it's quite reasonable to ask why you'd want to embrace the Surface RT rather than an iPad or Android contender.
But the truth is that many people are yet to take the plunge on a smartphone or tablet and thus still haven't aligned themselves with Apple or Android. If they're not particularly tech-savvy they may simply use Windows on the desktop, perhaps more out of necessity than any passion for technology. These people are ripe for the picking, assuming Apple or Android evangelists don't convert them first. Tight compatibility with the Microsoft ecosystem may also win some people away from their Android and Apple gadgets, although that's a tougher challenge.
Windows 8 on the desktop will present a steep learning curve for some people and amazingly Microsoft isn't going out of its way to make it any easier. But once people become familiar with Modern UI on the desktop then Windows tablets and smartphones may seem the logical choice offering zero learning curve.
If Modern UI and interoperability really are Microsoft's killer feature then it needs to do a great job of conveying that in a cross-promotional blitz. It should also make the desktop transition as smooth as possible, rather than risk alienating people by forcing Modern UI down their throat. Users who resent Modern UI on their PC are unlikely to want it on a tablet or smartphone.
It's likely the success of Windows 8 tablets and smartphones hinges on people's acceptance of Windows 8 on the desktop. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft gets this one right.