Windows 8 on Tablets: Impressive Now, but Ask Me Again in 2012
Microsoft has some genuinely great ideas in the way it's bridging PCs and tablets with its upcoming Windows 8. It's easy to see some of the many benefits that could come out of having a tablet device that acts and functions a little less like an iPad and a little more like a PC. But keep in mind, Windows 8 tablets won't be on the market for a long time, and meanwhile, Apple no doubt has plans of its own.
As a diehard Apple fan, it will take an absolutely astounding device to dislodge me from my Mac, iPad, and iPhone. And yet, the Windows 8 operating system for both tablets and PCs that Microsoft has been showing off this week has caught my attention.
Windows 8 on a tablet has some features I would like to see available on my iPad -- seriously -- even though the Samsung Windows 8 prototype device that Microsoft has been handing out is a long way from being an option, much less a mobile competitor.
So, am I drooling over Windows 8 on a tablet? Not hardly, but I've got to admit, Microsoft has a compelling "organizing principle" on its hands, along with a few features that bridge the gap between a tablet and a laptop. And for me, personally, I want that gap either narrowed or bridged entirely.
iPad as a Hobbled Workhorse
Look, I've pretty much given up on the idea that I'm ever really going to be able to touch-type with even 30 percent efficiency compared to using a real keyboard. I want to be able to type on my iPad 2 screen, believe me, but I'm reduced to hunting and pecking. This is great for email because it encourages brevity, and people spend too much time spouting in email rather than working. It's not great for writing much of anything of length, and yet Apple has a solution for this -- a Bluetooth keyboard.
This is cool because you can prop the iPad up on anything or use any number of stands or cases to hold it. The downside is, you need a firm stand to handle all the touching, tapping, and swiping you need to do to work with apps. And even then, anything text-heavy isn't particularly great -- if I want to put my cursor in the middle of a word, the best I can get with a quick tap is close ... I have to hold, get the zoom magnifying glass, and move accordingly. It's not bad, just not great. I want insanely great.
It sounds like I want a MacBook Air, right? I get extreme mobility, great battery life, a keyboard, and an excellent, large multi-touch pad. And yet, a MacBook Air doesn't run iOS, and as we all know, there are some insanely great iPad and iPhone apps available that not only entertain, but also let you do some serious work on the go.
Every time I leave my desk, I'm left with a choice -- pack the MacBook and leave my iPad behind, or vice-versa, or pack both. If I think I'll be limited to light work, the iPad choice is easy. If difficult work, the MacBook choice is easy. Often enough, things come up unexpectedly, and I want one or the other.
The deep, dark secret is I could probably velcro an iPad 2 to the lid of a MacBook Air and get the best of both worlds.
Windows 8 on a Tablet Bridges the Gap
The thing about Windows 8 is that it is both an old-school operating system designed for PCs -- with an understandable file system -- and a touch-focused interface for apps, all at the same time. Plus, you can use a mouse with it. For work purposes, this is cool. If you're a nerdy spreadsheet guy, a mouse means you can easily select a lot of functions from tiny little buttons or drop-down menus. It's not pretty, but it's efficient.
How can Apple compete? Well, Apple often enough competes by totally ignoring what other companies are doing, even when they are sometimes doing good work. But Apple could easily enough enable mouse support -- or at least enable mouse support that developers could build into their applications.
There's more, though.
Microsoft seems to recognize that humans only have two hands; consequently, they've created a split-screen keyboard. I don't know if they are first to use this idea on a tablet or not, but I like it. With the iPad right now, if I'm going to type, I often have to hold the device with one hand and tap type with the other. With Windows 8 on a tablet, you can split the keyboard so it's small and located at the bottom left and bottom right corners of the screen, which enables you to hold the tablet and use both thumbs to type. It promises to increase typing efficiency, and I like that.
Apple's iOS file system sucks. I don't even hate to say it. Take e-books, for example. I should be able to take any sort of e-book file, which can be read by all sorts of readers, and slap it on my iPad without having to mess with a bunch of Byzantine syncing to get it into an individual app. I should be able to have a library or some sort of space when I just throw any file and then let any app access those files.
This is an easy to understand organizing principle, and while not everyone needs it, people who like to work on their devices do. Microsoft seems to understand this, so it's not hiding the underlying OS and file system -- though you can work with apps in a full-screen sort of view and never bother seeing the underpinnings if you don't want to. Sure, Apple will eventually offer easy app-accessible file storage services as it eventually cloudifies everything with iCloud, but I ought to be able to use local storage without relying on service accessibility to work with files.
There are other features that have promise too, like the ability to split your screen between two running apps. With iOS, I'm either in an app (on my screen) or I'm not. Sure, it can run in the background, but I can't work with two apps on the screen at the same time. Windows 8 lets you do this. Part of what makes this possible is the widescreen format of the Samsung tablet, which is quite a bit wider and narrower than today's iPads. More horizontal screen real estate. It looks cool, but more importantly, it's handy.
Metro: It's Not Terrible
Microsoft's Metro interface of live tiles isn't all that bad. I sort of like it. More importantly, I like the organizing principle behind how it works -- the square tiles let you see what the apps are doing. So if an app is running, it can provide some information about what's going on. In some ways, it sure beats having a bunch of icons littering your home screen.
The overall execution of it, as near as I can tell by all the video demos and reviews, is pretty good. I can only imagine how cool it would be if Apple took a crack at executing the idea, giving it a better polish. Apple won't, but I've got to say, it's far better than Launchpad on Mac OS X Lion. If a developer is out there listening, build us an application for Mac OS X that offers us screens of live tiles that we can swipe. I can totally see using the killer touch gestures of Lion with such an app. I can sort of do it manually by using additional "desktops," but a customizable cockpit app? I could get on board with that.
Powerful Processors -- and Fans, Too
The Samsung tablet used by Microsoft for the Windows 8 developer and demo units boasts an Intel Core i5 processor -- with a fan. That's right, how quaint. A bunch of holes in the case and a fan to keep the innards cool. But that's the tradeoff you get when you try to marry a PC with a tablet. And would I mind so much if I could have one device to bridge my app-using tablet needs with my on-the-go PC needs? Maybe not.
Either way, Microsoft has a long, long way to go in order to get the new operating system in order so that consumers could actually buy a tablet/PC with it -- at least a year. Sometime in 2012, at least, maybe.
Within a few weeks, Apple will rollout iOS 5, and in all likelihood, we'll see iOS 6 in 2012. Catching Apple with a real shipping product is like chasing a cheetah.
In 2012, I wouldn't be surprised if the boundary between Mac OS X and iOS wasn't blurred even further. When Microsoft finally releases Windows 8 with cool new tablets, odds are I will no longer care.