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Windows tablets are a recipe for confusion

Windows 8 is Microsoft’s foray into the Apple dominated world of tablets, but on my first viewing at the IFA 2012 tech trade show, it doesn’t make a terribly convincing case.

It’s fashionable to beat up on Microsoft, particularly Windows 8, at present. And much as I’d like to buck that trend, my first serious glimpse at Windows tablets has done little to whet my appetite.

At IFA 2012 last week, Europe’s largest showcase of upcoming tech, Windows 8 was everywhere. There was lots of innovation, mainly involving varieties of tablet and laptop hybrids running Windows 8.

But untangling the mess that is Windows on tablets is hard – let me explain why.

Windows 8 or Windows RT – kind of the same, but not really

It mainly stems from Microsoft’s decision to sell two different types of Windows for tablets. There’s bog-standard Windows 8, the same OS that’ll find its way to laptops and PCs the world over come the end of the October. With it you get the tablet experience – once dubbed ‘Metro’ by Microsoft but now known ‘simply’ as ‘Modern Style UI’ due to a legal dispute – in addition to the full Windows 8 experience with all the programs you’re used to using.

Then there’s Windows RT – a pared down version that’s focused purely on the tablet experience, but with a limited standard desktop and a modified version of Microsoft Office 2013 installed. It can only run dedicated tablet apps, not the full Windows programs supported by Windows 8, with the exception of Office 2013, of course.

While the two are broadly similar, the end result is fundamentally different. Windows 8 tablets won’t be cheap – most of the ones we saw were pitching a circa £1,000 price point. They’re aiming at a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario, but to me they’re falling into the exact same trap as the Windows XP tablet PCs of yesteryear. Too heavy, too expensive – the quintessential jack of all trades and master of none.

Windows RT is a more interesting proposition, but it’s fraught with problems of its own.

Windows RT and great expectations (missed)

In principle Windows RT tablets are in iPad territory. Most will be priced similarly and use the same kind of technology as found in the iPad and Android tablets. Clearly they’re at a disadvantage in coming to the party so late, but Microsoft is banking on the allure Office 2013 being pre-installed to draw people in. It’s not much of a selling point.

There are so many problems here that I don’t know where to start. First of all, Office on Windows RT isn’t a proper tablet app – it runs in the standard desktop mode. It has a ‘touch mode’ but it falls a long way short of a genuine tablet experience. Having spent some time using it at the show, it seemed an apologetic attempt at Office for tablets. It won’t even be ready for launch – Windows RT tablets will come with a preview version until early 2013.

How anyone’s supposed to buy into Windows RT when one of its key features is in such a state is anyone’s guess. Moreover, because it’s not a proper tablet app, it necessitates having a desktop mode – about as welcome a feature on a pure tablet as the next-door neighbour’s dog fouling your prize winning lawn.

The biggest problem, however, is simply the confusion the different versions of Windows will generate among consumers. People wandering into their local PC World won’t immediately appreciate the difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, aside the large difference in price. And simply having Windows in the name conjures certain expectations, ones Windows RT is unlikely to meet.

And this could result in customers getting frustrated with a product that doesn’t work like they expected it to, and they’ve got plenty of options to jump ship to… Android tablets and iPads.

Argus says:
6 September 2012

Agreed that the free Office program is a poor selling point. To me that’s almost an admission that they had no idea what to add as a USP. Ultimately it’s just a windows iPad and unless it’s half the price of an iPad, why buy it?

Having tried various tablets, I don’t like any of them. I have an iPad (as a gift from the wife’s work last Xmas) and I don’t like that either. They’re too slow to react to screen actions and the objects on the page are often so small that I frequently press the wrong thing with my stubby fingers. My iPad becomes half a second slower once the battery is down to 10%, stupid!

So a windows tablet won’t convince me of the need for tablets as they are too heavy and the touchscreens and pop-up keyboards are rubbish compared to a proper laptop with keyboard and trackpad. For sofa browsing I’ll stick to my now obsolete android smartphone, that way I don’t have to hunch my back or cross my legs or put my legs together or use 2 hands. All the better for smoking my pipe

I am not optimistic. Microsoft really fouled up when they produced Windows Vista and we had to wait for the release of Windows 7 to overcome some fairly serious problems. Like Vista, Windows 8 is a big departure from what has been done before, so I fear the worst.

I have not had the problems Angus describes with my iPad, though I think there is a bit to go before the iPad operating system approaches the refinement of what we have on Mac computers.

If any of the Windows 8 tablets can handle Microsoft Office files properly then they could be of considerable interest to serious users.

I bought an iPad 2 after experimenting with ones belonging to friends who were keen to show off their latest toy. The fact that it would open Microsoft Office files and pdfs without installing apps was really impressive. I knew that I would not be able to modify the files but the thought of being able to use the iPad to look at minutes and spreadsheets in meetings without using a laptop was very encouraging. In practice, the iPad has been a real disappointment for serious use. Whereas it is very easy to flip between documents on a laptop, this is not the case with the iPad and while the iPad displays simple spreadsheets fine, it really messes up highly customised ones to the point of being unusable in some cases. Many PowerPoint files are huge because most people don’t understand what they are doing with images. Most laptops will cope but the iPad does not.

Whatever the deficiencies of Windows 8 tablets, if they can handle Microsoft Office files well they will have a great advantage over the iPad. Who wants to lug around even a lightweight laptop when travelling to a meeting by train? For business use, I don’t think the price matters too much if the product performs all the basic tasks. The fact that many are still happy using Windows XP on their computers does demonstrate that functionality and familiarity is valued by many users.

It’s difficult to predict how this is going to go for Microsoft.
I think a lot of home users with basic computing needs are going down the tablet route now, so laptop/desktop sales for home use are probably on the decrease. The Ipad/Android tablets are the most popular of those and that’s not going to change overnight when Microsoft release theirs.

If home laptop/desktop sales were still dominant, then Microsoft would get a foot in the door, but that might not happen now.

However, Windows 8 will become popular at some point, becuase the corporates will eventually upgrade their clients in the workplace. Perhaps this will breed familiarity with the new OS, and will encourage people to buy other devices running the OS for home use, but that will take time.

Me personally, I have a Windows phone and I really like it. The OS makes perfect sense to me, it behaves in a logical way and I’m quite interested in trying a Windows 8 tablet, it will depend on the pricing though. If that fits my budget then I’ll almost certainly buy a Surface.

The_Engineer says:
7 September 2012

Whereas the Swiss Army Knife is relatively useful gadget, I am not convinced that a tool set of W8 features will work seamlessly across desktops, laptops, phones, tablets. My concern would be the risk of achieving “jack of all trades but master of none”. So features I need on my power desktop are compromised by some must-have feature included for smart phones, and perhaps vice versa.

I can see the potential for a re-run of the Vista scenario and thus the demand for W7 to remain as an OS, available to buyers, being forced upon MS. They finally fixed Vista and got it much better with W7 so why would I want to go to the trouble and cost of yet another way of doing something.

Not a Luddite (well just yet) but then when I was designing computer systems we tried to make them work for people rather than the other way round. [Admittedly we messed it up at times too.] No doubt there are significant differences and probably improvements within W8 (inherent security would be a good thing) but do I need it, or do MS want me to have it?

Steve Morgan says:
7 September 2012

Windows 8 is a bold move by Microsoft, but a necessary one. Windows evolution is always hamstrung by the need to maintain backwards-compatibility and it’s fundamentally why it needs to retain the desktop in this version. But users will only accept the major leap that the OS needs if it’s pushed down their throats. Getting the new UI front-and-centre in this version is the first step in making Windows a much more modern operating system. I’m looking forward to Windows 9!
As a professional software designer, I’m running the final version of Windows 8, now and it’s pretty good, IMHO. It’s nice to use on a touch device and if you’ve got two monitors, it’s good on a desktop, too. It’s interesting to note that the keyboard shortcuts are becoming much more important, as it’s not especially mouse-friendly. That’s going to upset some people. Obviously, it’s early days for native Windows 8 applications, but they’ll come. And native apps will be trivially easy to build for both the Intel and RT versions. Office on a touch-device is never going to be outstanding. Fingers are just too slow and chunky for an application that has to cram so much content into such a small space. At least you’ll have the option, though.
I think Windows 8 is a stepping stone; just like Vista was, but better done! Windows 7 has still got plenty of life left in it for desktops and laptops for those who want to wait. But if you want Windows with the convenience of a tablet form-factor, this is a really good effort.
– And that’s from a pretty dedicated Apple-fan.

As both a I.T. Pro and ‘senior gadget geek’; have dual boot Win7 + Win8 final retail release.
Its solid, innovative and works realy well on my 4GB RAM Laptop, quicker than Win7.
The interface is a change for desktop users, but Win8 means that now I have something similar on phone, web (Cloud) services, tablet and desktop-laptop – at last.
I also have 4 month old ASUS JellyBean Tablet+Keyboard combo Transformer and because of that I now totally get what Win8 is aiming for. I love my JB ASUS and readily use mix of finger swipe and keyboard at same time. Win8 (which ever flavour) on Microsoft Surface ‘transformer-like’ format is on my home shopping list as “must buy”, provided the more expensive keyboard is as good as my ASUS.

Gordon says:
7 September 2012

I disagree with the entire premise of this article. I feel it’s just having a bash at Microsoft because that’s a comforting thing to do. It’s what’s accepted. Microsoft totally failed with vista and this article can’t wait for the same thing to happen with Windows 8 so it can scream ‘told you so!’. There is no mention of the Touch Pad or Type Pad that users will choose between for their new Surface. This gives a fully functioning keyboard in a slim, lightweight design, and combined with the integrated Kickstand makes Surface really stand out from iPads and Abdroid tablets. I reckon this feature is a winner for the Surface. So much so that Apple are copying it to add to their iPad. I also fail to see the confusion between Surface for Windows 8 and Surface for Windows RT. If you just want to have a tablet to rival iPad but with the Touch Pad/Type Pad then you buy RT. If you need something akin to having a laptop – business or study/academia – then wait for Surface for Windows 8. I predict Surface to be a huge success for Microsoft and I can foresee Surface 2 being better still.

You say Microsoft ‘totally failed’ with Vista.

Microsoft sold 128 million copies of Vista in 9 months. You need to review your use of language.

David Hamilton says:
10 September 2012

Having used a convertible tablets for a long period of time and also an iPad user thought I’d add an opinion
The iPad is great the wife who never wanted it and always cursed about laptops uses it to browse , Skype and read email
I enjoy the iPads ease of use too
However it also frustrates me on a number of fronts
Getting content on it
Getting content off
App probably due to a combination of my lack of apple knowledge and mr jobs legendary determination to keep a closed environment
I do a large amount of note taking whilst working
I make presentations and work with others in creating them
Using the windows xp convertible tablets enabled me to effectively use the laptop like a notepad
It allowed me to scribble notes (using mind manager) in meetings very quickly and effectively
When creating presentations the concept could be scribbled out using the “pen” and saved
Editing was just as easy
What was missing was tht when not creating content you could not move around with out having the pen or clicking buttons
I’ve not seen win 8 yet but I hope it builds on its previous pen capability with touch capabilities focused around viewing and editing content

Duttoner says:
24 October 2012

@ 57 and been involved with windows/Mac for…. yes I admit 25 years, I have tested “8” on my desktop (Virtual) for home/office use for 7 (seven) days.

Try the review by “Computeractive” or their Video/Demo

Sorry NO WAY will this ever work on a Desktop!