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Windows 8 - more than the sum of its parts?

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A US Microsoft store employee displays Microsoft's new Surface tablet.

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.

25 comments so far

  • "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."

    You are kidding right? Australia has some of the highest smartphone penetration numbers in the world nearing 60%

    http://www.itwire.com/it-industry-news/market/48388-smartphone-usage-in-australia-tipped-to-hit-60-percent-this-year

    FYI I am typing this on a Windows 8 install and am trying hard to fight the urge to revert back to Windows 7.

    My laptop is used for work, with a mouse and keyboard, not with touch.

    Ultrabooks, some of which are nearly as thin as tablets but with heaps more functionality, are what I see as more practical because productivity is the #1 priority.

    Forcing / Convincing people to adopt the "tablet way of life" when things are slower that their current methods and without having to upgrade hardware is what is going to be the biggest challenge MSFT face with Windows 8.

    Commenter
    dente
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    October 29, 2012, 9:55AM
    • No I havent jumped into a tablet yet as I don't see the exisitng ones as something that can be used for work. crappy third party apps is not what i am after. I want a PC functionality the size and weight of a tablet. If all you want to do is play games and listen to music then stay with apple and android but hopefully the new windaws tablet will cater for people who need a serious tablet.

      Commenter
      MAB007
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 29, 2012, 12:16PM
    • I installed Windows 8 upgrade on a Vista laptop on Friday, and have only had an hour or so to play with it so far, but it is evident that it runs faster on the same hardware, and the new features are easy to use, even without a touchscreen. This is a solid desktop/laptop OS upgrade, and if you pine for Windows 7, just click on the Desktop tile. I was going to throw my old Vista Core2 Duo Laptop away, but it runs like a new PC with Windows 8 - I'll get a few more years' use out of it now.

      Commenter
      AlBo
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 29, 2012, 4:28PM
    • The thing I just dont understand is why MS have brought out this clipped-wing version first. hey are already almost a decade behind but choose to launch a "lite" product when they could've waited and launched both at the same time! What's a couple of months when ou're already a mile behind?

      To the actual interface. I use Ubuntu Linux and they brought a "touch" style interface to the system about two versions ago. I hated it and converted back to a regular desktop as soon as I could find the way to do it. Windows 8 is going to get a massive thumbs down from business users, many of whom are still running XP (like my organisation with over 800 seats) MS thinks like the military. We MUST have a jet that goes Mach 2 and fires a zillion different missiles! When what's really needed is something simple like a Fairchild A10. It might be slower but it fulfills the mission requirements in a far superior way. One day, MS might get the message. We don't want bling we want dependable, consistent OS'es that are bulletproof and easy to use. A similar fate has befallen Office, the new interface does nothing for productivity. Moving everything around to make it look like it's new and modern just pissed everyone off. Then you go to set up an e-mail account and are presented with the same menus you saw in office XP!!!

      How I laughed!

      Commenter
      Violent_Primate
      Location
      NSW
      Date and time
      October 29, 2012, 10:35PM
    • 60% uptake means 40% still to go. You don't think that's a lot of people? As you say Australia has a very high tech uptake and there are plenty of countries that will eat up a windows 8 environment.
      It may take a time to catch up to apple and google but their phone and tablet look awesome. I'm sick of apple and don't really like my friends android devices and I'm looking for a change and windows is looking pretty good at the moment.

      Commenter
      Beeker
      Date and time
      October 30, 2012, 9:44AM
  • Microsoft get it right by not forcing something on consumers ? I almost fell off my chair ! Having said that ... I rather like Windows 8 unlike so many others I have seen posting all over the Net. It has a lot of potential and not just in cross device simplicity and compaatability. The apps that are available and those that will follow are going to be what will make or break this for Microsoft. Learning curve on using this on any device is being overblown in the extreme. Good grief folks it does not have a start button and everyone freaks out like this makes it into some mutant three headed frog from Mars that eats children. Get a grip.... on your mouse, on your touch pad or on your swipe lol... It's just not that hard. I have found it to be both easy to use as well as intuitive and fast loading and a very clean and organizable interface... With ... dare I say it ? A little thought ?

    Commenter
    Woodchucker
    Location
    USA
    Date and time
    October 29, 2012, 10:15AM
    • There is a learning curve, but the steepness has been overblown. Downloaded it on Friday onto my PC - by Saturday myself and my wife were navigating around with ease, downloading apps, linking existing programs via tiles and generally marveling at the connectivity it offers between PC/tablet/XBox/Windows Phone.

      Yes, the experience is probably better on the tablet. But Win 8 on the desktop is, once you get use to it, brilliant.

      Commenter
      Chris
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 29, 2012, 11:56AM
      • Everyone complained for years that to shut down Windows, you had to click on the Start button: now they panic when Microsoft removes their most ridiculed feature! Calm down and give it a chance: everything still works, most things work better, and my son is gob-smacked that I got a free XBox with my new operating system!

        Commenter
        AlBo
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 29, 2012, 4:34PM
      • Yes there is a learning curve but there is with anything new. I upgraded my mother in-laws laptop from windows 7 to 8 at the weekend. Now she is a novice user if ever there was one. However, she finds it much easier to navigate as she clearly sees everything she uses / needs i.e. photos, mail, internet on the home page (you could argue it was the same on 7 or XP). What was noticeable to me was the improved performance... Personally I think the negative reaction is being overplayed. For the record, I use Apple Macbook and iPhone 4s myself.

        Commenter
        Rick Nova
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 30, 2012, 9:47AM
    • My main interest in win8 has been in one strategy for dealing with two ageing but usable XPs - seems to be three main options for the moderately competent (apart from throw/give away) post end of support for XP/ 2014: linux (eg. ubuntu), win8 (probably now while its cheap as an upgrade), or use it offline only (I maintain an old win98 desktop like this for my kids to run educational games on). My pentum 4 couldn't run win8 (no DEP), so I'm trying ubuntu (pretty happy, good for technical stuff but no codecs/dvd's and the install did not go smoothly). On the newer xp I paid my $40 and upgraded to win8 and have been pleasantly suprised - system runs a lot better, and the recovery options are lightyears ahead (5-10 mins to reinstall from scratch using a usb with refresh/reset vs half a day with xp!). I wonder if Microsoft are cashing in on a negative advertising strategy - they could have gone for integration and kept the desktop looking traditional, but by tweaking it a little they've generated all this unpaid discussion in the press about 'ooh its so different' (but you discover alter half an hour that win8 isn't really so different from win7, though seems improved).

      Commenter
      exXP
      Date and time
      October 29, 2012, 12:00PM

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