On Tuesday, Microsoft offered many more details about its next-generation operating system, Windows 8, to an audience of developers and invited media at its Build conference. I was present at the initial Windows 8 unveiling a few months ago, and came away impressed but disappointed.
The root of my disappointment is this: I think Microsoft has, for the first time in a long time, created a product that is truly innovative. It's Windows Phone 7.
Microsoft's mobile OS does not feel like an iOS photocopy (as opposed to Android and WebOS, which are very clearly inspired by the iPhone's interface). Windows Phone 7's interface design, "Metro," offers a fundamentally different approach to a touch interface. Microsoft went its own way with Windows Phone 7 (although sadly not with its name) and it made me enthusiastic about the possible innovations that interface could offer on tablet devices.
But with Windows 8, Microsoft has embraced Metro while rejecting the concept that touch devices and PCs are different classes of products. There will be no "tablet edition" of Windows Phone 7, there will just be Windows 8. It doesn't matter whether you run it on a tablet, or a desktop PC, or something in between.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this means Apple and Microsoft are apparently taking entirely opposite approaches to the future of personal technology.
Views of the future
There are a couple of factors at play in Microsoft's decisions to create a single operating system for tablets and PCs. First and foremost, this is Microsoft. The company does not believe in a post-PC world, which you might expect from the folks whose software runs on most PCs. Microsoft has a real, business reason to try and keep everyone in the Windows ecosystem where it dominates, rather than a mobile ecosystem where it's way behind.
As someone who covers Apple and is used to that company killing its hit products in order to transition to something even better, and as someone who works in an industry with its own challenges, I am predisposed to appreciate businesses that embrace the new rather than opting to squeeze as much money out of the old thing as possible before turning off the lights forever. So yes, my instinct is to dislike Microsoft's PC-centric approach. I understand it, but it feels like denial.
But what if it's not denial? Let's give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt here, because the company may also be betting on the fact that new technologies will make the distinction between PCs and phones and tablets completely irrelevant. Maybe Microsoft did miss the smartphone and tablet waves, but there's a third wave coming and they're going to try to surf that one. The company is protecting the past while making a bet on the future.
In this future world, you can use your device in many different ways. If you want to travel with a tablet but also need to run a Windows app, Microsoft will oblige: plug in a keyboard and mouse and your touchscreen tablet interface vanishes, replaced by old school Windows. Carry a tablet with you for reading a book on the bus in the morning, then plug it in to a stand at the office and it becomes your PC. Maybe even something as small as your smartphone is actually your entire computer, docking to a tablet screen, TV set or traditional desktop setup as needed. Microsoft is also counting on millions of PC users running Windows 8 on their desktop PCs and then demanding that same familiar interface on a tablet device.
I think I understand Microsoft's vision here, but I'm not sure I can believe it'll work. What made the iPad successful, where a decade of Windows tablets had failed, was that it was a focused product that omitted features in order to keep that focus. It was absolutely not a Mac or PC, but something new that was built from start to finish as a touch-based device. Not only did that make it a consistent, easy-to-use device, but it also made it relatively cheap and energy efficient.
The Metro interface on Windows 8 looks really good. What I can't get over is that Microsoft wants a regular PC underneath. I suppose it offends me because I am trying to see the product through an Apple lens: If Microsoft had announced that Windows 8 Tablet would not support old Windows software and would run on dedicated tablet hardware only, I would have cheered, because I think that could be a really cool product. But I can see why Microsoft won't do that: If it does, it risks just being an also-ran. PCs are its lot, for better or worse.
What if Microsoft is right?
Apple's product philosophy up to this point has been that touch interfaces and traditional PC interfaces do not intermingle, that nobody wants to spend time with their arms out touching their PC screen, nor do they want to plug in a mouse to an iPad.
But at the same time, Apple has released Lion, an operating system that brings numerous features of iOS "back to the Mac." Apple is, at the very least, trying to create as much alignment between its two operating systems (which are related, remember) as possible.
Would Apple consider truly merging OS X and iOS into a single operating system, like Windows 8?
Right now, I can't see it. Though OS X and iOS have a lot in common, and more all the time, they run on hardware that's built for different purposes. Software can adapt, but hardware really can't. A tablet is not a laptop, and Apple's not the kind of company to design a tablet with an optional snap-in accessory that sort of turns it into a laptop with a keyboard and a mouse.
As I see it, ultimately how we use these computing devices of ours will depend entirely on context. A tiny device in your pocket needs to behave differently than a 10 inch tablet in your hands or a 20 inch display with a keyboard and mouse at a workstation.
Apple's philosophy is to create hardware that's appropriate for a particular use, run appropriate software on that hardware, and (with the advent of iCloud) sync all your documents and data to whatever device you're using at the time. All of Apple's stuff is clearly part of the same family, and follows many of the same conventions, but a MacBook Air just isn't an iPad. Even if it ran iOS on top of OS X, it still wouldn't be an iPad.
iPads run apps meant to be used on tablets. iPhones run apps meant to be run on phones. Macs run apps meant to be run on laptops (and sometimes desktops).
Microsoft is doing this its way. The entire approach here is uniquely Microsoftian, at a time when almost everyone else in the tech industry is trying to take a page from Apple's book. Perhaps it'll even work this time.
But as someone who was excited to see Windows Phone 7's Metro interface come to a tablet device, I'm disappointed, because it seems what we're getting is a small Windows PC with a tablet interface shell floating on top. It just feels like the wrong approach to me, but I'll say this for Microsoft, it's consistent.