Foley on Microsoft

Why 'Windows 8' Isn't What I Thought It Would Be

Mary Jo Foley explains why Microsoft's Windows 8 strategy looks like a faulty one to her -- especially when it comes to tablets.

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Like many Windows Phone users, I thought a tablet running the Windows Phone OS would be a home run. After seeing a few early demos, I assumed this was what "Windows 8" would give me, and I was raring to put my iPad on eBay and jump on the Windows 8 bandwagon.

But it turns out Windows 8 isn't Windows Phone on a tablet; it's the Windows Phone interface on top of Windows on a tablet. By trying to be all things to all people, Microsoft is running the risk of pleasing no one at all.

Microsoft basically had two OS options going into the next-generation tablet race: existing Windows (retrofit with a touch-centric UI) or the Windows Phone OS. It went with the former -- the "safe" choice, but not necessarily the right one.

There are several reasons I'm skeptical that Windows 8 will be an automatic win on tablets, but they all boil down to my belief that tablets are not PCs or PC replacements for the majority of users. Microsoft officials continue to insist that tablets are just a sub-category of PCs. They insist that users want to be able to run both legacy and new apps (but not necessarily existing Windows Phone apps) on their tablets. While this positioning may provide Microsoft with a ready retort to critics who suggest that the post-PC era has arrived, in my view it contorts market realities to fit Microsoft's existing business model.

By opting to make Windows the foundation of its next-generation tablet OS -- and attempting to convince developers to write "killer" native Windows apps (namely "Metro style" apps) -- the 'Softies are reverting to Microsoft's tried and true playbook. But remember: With Windows Vista and Windows 7, that playbook was already outdated. There were few, if any, killer Windows-exclusive apps. I'm not sure that the killer-app concept has the ISV attraction and customer appeal or lock-in potential that it used to a decade or so ago.

Another reason Microsoft likely opted for Windows over Windows Phone as its tablet OS choice?

Microsoft gets more per copy from OEMs for licensing Windows than it does by licensing the Windows Phone OS. (Estimates of the price-per-copy for the two OSes are all over the map, ranging from $3 per copy per Windows Phone, to $30 to $100-plus per copy of Windows 8.) The Windows franchise has fueled Microsoft's existence, and execs want to keep that franchise alive and profitable for as long as possible by collecting the most the company can get for its OSes.

But there are other kinds of savings the 'Softies could've garnered by using Windows Phone in Windows 8 tablets. By switching to the Windows Phone OS, Microsoft would have and could have cut the legacy cord in an acceptable way. The 'Softies could've steered users who wanted a touch-only experience toward Windows 8 tablets running the Windows Phone OS. Those who wanted and needed legacy apps and a keyboard/mouse-input-first experience could've been channeled toward Windows 8 PCs running the Windows OS.

Instead, via its current approach, Microsoft is adding a layer of complexity to Windows 8 with the "Desktop" application/mode, which will allow legacy Windows applications to run on Intel-based tablets (and ARM-based ones, though only after recompilation). Switching between the Desktop app and the Metro environment is jarring, testers have said. And users who've tried the Windows 8 Developer Preview are already clamoring for ways to hide the Metro UI and stick with a non-touch-centric way to navigate.

According to a number of leaked reports, Microsoft is going to remedy its dueling-OS problem, possibly even as early as next year, when Windows Phone 8 comes to market. Rumor has it that Microsoft is going to switch out the Windows Embedded Compact guts in the Windows Phone OS and replace that layer with a slimmed-down, MinWin-ified Windows 8 core. Will this switch do anything to improve Microsoft's tablet OS strategy? Not much for users, but maybe a bit (after some Windows Phone app porting pain) for developers.

I'm willing to give Windows 8 on tablets another look once it's closer to being done, but for now, my iPad's not going anywhere.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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Reader Comments:

Wed, Jan 18, 2012 Dan Iowa

"Rumor has it that Microsoft is going to switch out the Windows Embedded Compact guts in the Windows Phone OS and replace that layer with a slimmed-down, MinWin-ified Windows 8 core." - So in other words a normal evolution of the Windows Phone OS? I mean if Windows 8 will run on ARM anyway, wouldn't we expect Windows Phone to evolve beyond the old Win CE OS? Why would you freeze the fastest changing devices on an old ARM OS? What you said is basically just common sense not even worth mentioning as a "rumor". It's like stating the obvious.

Wed, Jan 18, 2012 Dean Chalk

When Windows 8 comes out Ill be getting an ARM version - I dont want my hardware to be puffing and wheezing under a mountain of legacy software. I love the windows phone experience, and I want my tablet to be the same. 99.9% of people who own a home PC could use an ipad instead, so why not just make a slim, light, feature-full tablet running metro-only apps. The hardware will be cheaper, and allmost all user will be delighted

Wed, Dec 21, 2011 Mark Morgan Atlanta

Currently, tablets only run minimalist versions of applications that most people still need a full PC or Mac for. Tablets don't replace the full desktop at the moment. Yes, there will be $50 Android tablets readily available that an MS tablet won't be able to touch. However, there have been plently of $0 to $50 smartphones out there as well and people still shell out the $200 to $300 for the latest phones. Most people long for the more powerful device that can run better, more powerful apps. A Win8 tablet will NOT compete in the $50 tablet market, and it isn't intended to. It will be competing in the $400 to $800 tablet arena. There are plenty of those out there right now, and they don't hold a candle to the capabilities of a full PC at a comparable price. Yes, they are easier to use, but many find themselves fighting against the limitations. There will be a market for the Win8 tablet. It will primarily steal market share from the Netbook and laptop market, and will have a small impact on the premium iOS and Android tablet market. Business IT environments will LOVE the Win8 tablet because they will be able to lock it down and control it with the EXACT same policies that they use on Windows 7 and XP machines now. This is about Microsoft SURVIVING in the tablet arena, not dominating. Name one other platform that, at the moment, can share apps from a desktop version to a tablet version, and can plug right in to the current IT environment. Their tablet will be complementary to the Windows desktop, and that will be a good thing for those of us who stick with the Microsoft brand. Microsoft can't make their own iPad, nor should they. It's already been done. Now it is time to take the power of a desktop OS, make it finger friendly, and put it in a truly portable package. Mark Morgan

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 Russ California

I'm not sure why MS doesn't just give you the option, when loading the OS, which version you want. If you like the Metro, you choose the Metro UI and you get an "app" that allows you to switch if you need to. If you choose "traditional", then the opposite happens. This allows me to decide. I think MS is making it harder than necessary.

Thu, Nov 10, 2011 Stephen

Failing to look at any future Microsoft Product outside the philosiphy of '3 screens and the cloud' is simply failure. Microsoft is not out to sell you a phone or a PC anymore - they want to sell you an Information Environment. I work in a Windows environment, both my desktop and my servers. I use Windows on my home PC, my laptop, and I have a 360. When W8 tablets come out Im ditching the laptop and getting a tablet - its more suited to my needs.

Sat, Nov 5, 2011

I believe MSFT is right on target with their current Win8 approach. We are truly talking about an OS with a radically split personality, one of which can compete successfully with Android and IOS, and may surpass their capability in due time. I expect ARM and low powered x86 systems implementing only the WinRT and the Metro UI to be competitive with the next IOS and iPad crop right out off the gate. The core kernel ,and now the user mode API are efficient, so can keep out of the way. All while maintaining full compatibility with prior Win versions on more powerful x86 and x64 systems. And developers will love the platform because the development experience continues to be superior. I also believe in MSFT's argument for pushing the new UI. I was skeptical at first, but using this UI on a tablet for a month has shown me the light. I think most will migrate to it once the bugs are fixed, and there are more compatible apps, and touch centric input devices are common on laptops and desktops.

Sat, Nov 5, 2011 Phil GIlbert

I bought an Acer Iconia W500 Win 7 tablet. I installed Windows 8 32 Bit version and the experience has been great. The Metro UI has all the bling that you expect with a tablet, yet the Desktop actually allows me to use the tablet as a portable business capable workstation when needed. I don't get the shell shocked experience when switching from Metro to Desktop. This is a useful tablet.

Fri, Nov 4, 2011 Scott San Diego

x86 vs ARM - The argument is irrelevant. What is relevant is the fact that world is changing quickly into two categories. Those who require high powered processing, and those who don’t. Consumers, by definition, consume. This goes for entertainment, information, and communication, the primary purposes for most consumer computing. Outside of the hardcore gamer, programmer, or graphic artist, consumers are quickly realizing that that Quad-Core “whatever” is probably way overkill for what it is their trying to accomplish. So why go out and buy a full blown, high powered computing device to occasionally edit a picture or video, write an email, browse the Internet, or post to Facebook? What is relevant is that societal norms have quickly changed over the past few years, (at least for the consumer). People, (the consumer), have become so acclimated, so dependent upon technology that their computing device must always be with them, always available and on, and always convenient to access. ARM processors, and many other low powered devices, are designed exactly for this purpose. And so, from the consumer perspective, if they can do 95% percent of their tasks on a low powered device that’s always on, and handily nearby, the usefulness of a high powered computer, in the corner of their house or the cubicle at work quickly diminishes. x86’s challenge is that it’s architecture was never designed to be used in systems that are always on and always portable. It was designed for the sit down, plug in, turn on, computing age of thirty years ago. Unfortunately if your business depends on the high powered x86 model, and if you are not able to adapt to this rapid change in the consumer’s decision making, then you are destined to loose consumer interest. But if the consumer isn’t your business… then why care? (I bet you and IBM are smart enough to argue with that aren’t you?)

Fri, Nov 4, 2011 Jagan

Mary Jo, I thought you can do better than this! MS needs to include touch as a first class input method in all of their software since touch laptops/ultra books are about to flow in. Only if Windows OS starts supporting touch in a big way, there is a chance of office and other millions of productivity applications can receive touch interface in the future. Isolating touch to windows phone 7 + silverlight dont get the main-stream touch and HTML5 is a safe bet for MS than silverlight. WinRT is going to open up lots of groundfloor opportunities for software developers as well! Hope you will change your thinking!

Fri, Nov 4, 2011

Actually there will be a Windows Phone 8 for tablets too. MS is trying to please everyone with not one product but 2. Windows 8 for those who want full Windows experience on the go and Windows Phone 8 for those who want to compromise performance for a better UI and something that just works.

Fri, Nov 4, 2011

There's a great book on UI design called "Don't make me think" - Microsoft executives need to read it. The lack of technical direction at MS since Bill G left has caused failure of EPIC proportions. Whilst you geeks get all excited over MS's academic research projects titled Windows 8 / Metro on tablets, Apple is leading the tablet world on ALL fronts. Great quality products with great "User experiences" that work NOW. I am an MS developer for 12 years and work for one of the largest corporates on earth who invest heavily in MS. Guess what all the managers carry around with them? iPads. And they love them! The Windows 7 global roll-out has only just started and will complete in 2013. There are no plans at all for Windows 8, and managers and the trading floor want iPad interfaces NOW. Guess who's building them? :) Microsoft used to lead and now they follow.

Fri, Nov 4, 2011 Anon TX

All this a little silly. Say what you don't like about it and ask Microsoft to fix it. And Win8 won't be out for at least 8 months. When it come out and it doesn't work for you, don't use it. And vise versa if you like it. Speculation on something that is so far out and that a very small amount of people have used is inmature and childish. Once the system is out, these articles hold no weight.

Fri, Nov 4, 2011 albsure

Jack of all trades, master of none! I know why from a technical point of view it was good to go with WinRT(Win8) rather than Silverlight/.Net(WP7). Low level API's allow you to do everything and anything. You know how the real geeks love to have the "full power" of any system. In theory thats great. You can then compete with the best iOS apps like garageband or hipstamatic that use existing C libraries to do filtering and audio manipulation in the fastest way possible. Thats great as well.. What would Bill Gates have done though? The rule for MS is make something that is "good enough", not perfect. And get that out as soon as possbile to block off the competition. Bill was paranoid, much like the original Intel owner who famously said "only the paranoid survive". Bill would have taken WP7 with its 10,000 + low powered SL apps and good number of dev's already. He would have asked the .Net team to add some more native hooks into the existing SL 4 WP7 framework (i.e like running COM unmanaged in .Net for Silverlight 4/5). He would have had an Ipad competitor ready to buy NOW! Not in summer / autumm 2012 whenm the ipad would have sold another 40 million units! That would have spread the uncertainty that the consumers/devs needed to pause a bit and think whether the ipad was the right thing to focus on. It would have given MS the ability to pause the loss of customers to the ipad and MS would have been in the game. They did this with Xbox 1 and then came back with Xbox 360 to do real battle. Thats how you do it. The reason timing is everything is simply this. Apple have iCloud ready. They have device lock in right now. I have 100's of apps on my iphone/ipad. I will have photos in iCloud and eventually all my music. I WILL NOT BE LEAVING THAT FOR SOME HALF BAKED SCHIZOPHRENIC SYSTEM THATS COMING OUT IN A YEARS TIME! No one else will either, and by that time, iOS customers will have accumulated even more iCloud lock in. I think Sinofsky and Ballmer are playing with fire right now. They dont realise the crap there in. Bill would have been doing things now, not next year. If the drop in IE market share isnt an indicator that the tide is changing I dont know what is..

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 Anthony

This article fails to explain one single way that Windows Phone is better or more desirable to anyone than Windows 8. Windows 8 boots faster, it can run much better modern apps than the current version of Windows Phone. Windows 8 can do side by side multitasking, it has system wide search and app wide search, you can PRINT from a Windows 8 tablet, and you can if needed do actual productivity by connecting a mouse. The Live Tiles are more advanced, Windows 8 supports apps that are larger than 800x480, etc. The list of advantages of Windows 8 over WP 7.5 go on forever. Are you seriously telling me that if you walked into a store and were presented with the choice of a Windows 8 ARM-tablet or a Windows Phone 7.5 tablet (for $500) you would choose the Windows Phone tablet? Enjoy your crappy 800x480 apps blown up to fit an HD screen tablet. Sorry Mary Jo, you're insane and don't have a clue what the reality of a Windows Phone tablet would be. What business is going to buy tens of thousands of Windows Phone tablets? Get real.

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 Joseph

iOS/iPad is becoming more of a PC every day. Microsoft is just beating Apple to the punch. If you seriously think that 5 years from now an iPad won't be much more PC like then you have no idea where the industry is going. Within a few years iOS and Android will have side by side multitasking and serious productivity apps comparable to Mac/Windows. Apple is just slowly reinventing the wheel and Microsoft is smart enough to see through that.

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 John

They can't even sell Windows Phone OS on phones, you want them to put an OS that nobody wants, that has very few developers onto tablets too? On what planet does Mary Jo live where Windows Phone is more desirable to the public than Windows proper? Windows Phone is such a limited platform from a developers standpoint even compared to iOS. You can't run native code on Windows Phone OS. Compared to Windows 8, Windows Phone is useless, it is a toy with marginal functionality. Suggesting that Windows Phone could ever give Microsoft a leg up on iPad/iOS is idiotic. It demonstrates no knowledge of how much more extensible and useful the real Windows kernel is. What we have here is another tech journalist drinking the Apple Kool-Aid that we are living in a post-PC era. The tablet is a PC. The average consumer does not need to own a smartphone, tablet, and laptop. The Asus Transformer has proven that a tablet is capable of functioning as a laptop while still maintaining all of the desirable traits of an iPad.

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 Paul DeGroot United States

There's a lot of focus on the UI in this thread, but one of the key elements in Mary Jo's argument is the dev platform issue, which is much more important, because it can lock customers to a platform. Microsoft's idea is that developers will write applications for a full Windows 8 tablet that they wouldn't write for a lighter-weight phone-style OS. That horse left the barn a long time ago: writing apps for a thick client OS is dangerous, as everyone who tried to upgrade XP to Vista and Win 7 discovered. Most of my customers develop browser-based apps now, which will run on any client and lets them upgrade, stay in place, whatever, without affecting their ability to get work done and makes them quite platform agnostic. I think Apple has laid that argument to rest as well. Compare the number of new apps written for iOS in the last 2 years with the number of new apps for the Mac and Windows combined. My guess is that there's a quantum differential. Developers aren't feeling much pressure to write apps for the thick client anymore and putting Win 8 on tablets will do nothing to change that. So MS would be better off with a great tablet OS, rather than porting an OS designed to support keyboard intensive apps, like Office, to it. That simply accelerates the shift away from the PC to the tablet, with no net gain to MS.

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 Grant

So I installed the Win8 Dev Preview on my formerly Win7 Acer tablet. Plugged in an external DVDRW via USB to install it. Set it up with my live account as the user. Immediately have access to my Skydrive/MSN contacts/emails. Linked it to my Windows Homeserver so I now have access to all my pictures, music, videos (.mpg, .avi, .mp4, h.264,native DVD rips). Installed my SageTV software and now in additon to streaming and watching all of the above anywhere, allows me to interact with my whole-home DVR, security cameras and Homeseer home automation controls anywhere. Once some apps appear, this thing will finally be useful.

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 Max

The incredible success and growth of the smartphone and tablet market IMHO is mainly based on the vastly increasing capabilities of the underlying ARM CPUs combined with the ever increasing bandwidth of mobile broadband connections. And this development hasn’t stopped yet, nor will it stop soon. Actually it’s accelerating. The upcoming family of ARM based CPUs will be easily capable of running a full-fledged desktop OS and the 4G networks will deliver high bandwidth and low latency network connections to accompany them. You might not want to call a smartphone or slate a PC, but you have to keep in mind that they are equally powerful. Actually they are more powerful already then a lot of “PCs” I’ve used. Microsoft is headed in exactly the right direction with Windows 8, and I think Windows Phone will be replaced by Windows 8 Phone sooner or later. In fact I think this is where the whole industry is headed. Canonical just announced to bring Ubuntu Linux to smartphones, tablets, and smart TVs ( and they put a date on it: April 2014. Smartphones with a full Linux or Windows will have some surprising features, like: printing, joining network domains, remote desktop as host or target and especially on Windows some enterprise candy like App-V or MED-V, support for SCCM – you get the picture. MSFT hasn’t announced anything of that yet, and they won’t confirm anything about it for sure. But we are talking about the future here and I’m pretty sure that Steven Sinofsky and his team are far more imaginative then I am. The most important thing about Windows 8 is: It’s not done yet. And the devices designed to run it are not done yet. And the Metro Style applications – especially MS Office – are not done yet. So, before we call the verdict on the usability or productivity or whatever on Widows 8, we’ll have to wait just a little bit longer. There’s just one thing for sure: there are interesting times ahead.

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 Richard

I very much agree with your opinion that MS is trying to fit a table into its existing business model. A license for full size Windows is just part of it. There is also the license for full Office and, in the enterprise, all of the CALs for sharepoint, servers, SQL server, etc. An MS tablet built on the WP7 OS would forfeit all of this revenue for each tablet purchased. With the head start that Apple and Android have, many enterprises may finally realize they don't need all those licenses for every employee.

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 Ray Texas

The first time I saw WP7, I asked why MS hadn't made a tablet with that OS. A full OS like W8 may work, but after my experiences with W7 and Tablet XP, I bought an iPad.

Wed, Nov 2, 2011

I'm in the process of setting up Win 8 on a tablet to experience it myself. I'm a skeptic on it setting up the chrome legacy desktop as a Metro tile and not giving the user a preference of it as a default. And, yes, I read Microsoft's blog on the topic including an impressive array of stats. I remain unconvinced. I want to test this for myself. That said, while I admire Apple's innovation in this space, I don't think me-tooing them like Android does is the best choice (I own an Android phone). Win 8 allows PCs, tablets and phones to scale up their features based upon their hardware capabilities. iOS5 puts a box around you, crippling it for many uses. Also, I think MS is using Metro in Win 8 to get millions of users acclimated to their new UI so they'll prefer Metro on tablets and phones. The lack of success of WP7 would doom a table version based on it. By the way, the criticism that you have to recompile a Metro app targeting x86 or ARM is really lame. We do the same thing with 32/64 bit Win 7 apps. No big deal.

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 Joe

Sorry Mary, I don’t agree with this. Windows 8 introduces a new style of application that enables both touch and mouse/keyboard inputs. It suggests that there’s no need to rewrite the application for touch and maintain a more traditional application for mouse/keyboard interaction. Metro is not ‘tablet mode’ on regular windows. I don’t think that’s come across very well so far, first because there were no real applications demonstrated in Metro other than the Intern apps and, secondly, the keyboard/mouse usage in the Metro shell still had issues.

This is really the only thing that Microsoft can do. As tablets become more sophisticated they MS are faced with either the option of enhancing WP7 (and WinCE) or stripping down regular Windows into a managed sandbox sitting on the capable and mature kernel. They have taken the latter choice and I think that’s the right thing to do. Windows has a much, much wider market share and by doing this they have effectively blurred the market segment boundaries. This is also the right decision as the emphasis for regular applications moves towards an app store model with limited access to local storage. This means desktop applications are changing too.

The big question is, can they pull it off. How effective are metro applications with a keyboard and mouse? They can’t be lightweight applications, they *need* to be full blown apps. This is the new windows API and porting an application wholesale needs to be feasible for this strategy to work. There are technical issues with this, as with a touch interface being liberal with screen real-estate. This is going to be interesting to watch to see if the desktop can left behind so easily.

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 Jamiet

I totally agree with Jan Hannemann. You want the Windows Phone interface on a table? Windows8 is gonna give you that! Who gives a crap what the inards are?

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 Dewey2000

Windows 8 Tablets are already a failure. Yes, the enterprise may like Windows 8 tablets, but that's not the real market for tablets, and certainly not the market MS was aiming for. By the time Win8 ships, there will be Android tablets under $50, running 500,000 apps. The market iPad founded, which MS was seeking, will have morphed into a low cost arena where a WP7 OS could have thrived. Win8 will thrive on laptops, especially the Ultra Laptops from intel, and on PC, but it's doomed in the tablet space because it's going to be too pricey. We're talking sub $50 tablets, and full featured tabs in the $100-$150 range by XMas 2012(barring the Myan doomsday predictions coming true, lol) with TONS of apps. They do get a sweet spot in the enterprise, but not the market share of the huge consumer prize!

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 Jeff Atlanta

But... as consumer devices get into enterprise more and more, the big issues are security, compatibility, etc. So, if the tablet was Windows, you get Group Policy, Domain join/enroll, VPN/DA, etc. Or, put a USB stick in it? Run real MS Office? Managed by a real Systems Management toolset? The integration/split is more important between consumer and enterprise than metro/legacy.

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 Jan Hannemann

I don't get it. Metro is just WP7 upscaled to the tablet form factor. Just unpin and forget about the Desktop and you exactly get what you asking for. Except it run on the full Windows kernel and without the Phone apps which wouldn't scale to the screen resolution anyway.

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 Tom

Would have liked to see the Courier tablet as it looked pretty neat in pictures.

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 Bryan

Microsoft absolutely should put full windows on tablets, and not some version of Windows Phone. A recent survey indicated that many people would like to have Windows on their tablets, which some people seemed surprised by but makes perfect sense to me. Application compatibility is probably a large part of that (and I predict the ARM-based Windows 8 tablets won't do so well, at least intially). "...There were few, if any, killer Windows-exclusive apps..." It's funny how you are downplaying the importance of apps while others claim that is the major reason for the success of the iOS devices. Having a Windows Phone-like UI on top of Windows is the right answer for tablets. However, that's not to say it's easy to do. It's tricky to have both the new Metro UI and the "legacy" desktop UI coexisting - that's the challenge before Microsoft for Windows 8. I'm also worried that they will make the desktop user-interface worse. It's fine right now, MS don't mess it up.

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