How Microsoft Can Succeed with Windows 8 on a Tablet

How Microsoft Can Succeed with Windows 8 on a Tablet

What Microsoft can learn from Apple about tablets

Less than two months after releasing the TouchPad, HP stopped production of the new webOS-powered tablet and sold off all existing inventory in a well-publicized fire sale. HP spent billions of dollars buying webOS (part of its acquisition of Palm) and developing the TouchPad, but it was all for naught. So what happened? Will Microsoft fall victim in the same way?

A third question that I should probably answer first is "Why should you care?" Many in the technology industry have labeled tablets as the next generation of computing; therefore, if you're not planning to retire within the next couple of years... well, you should probably read on just in case.

The obvious problem with the future that the so-called experts have laid out is that only Apple has succeeded in creating a tablet device that anyone cares about, and they purposely don't even call it a tablet. There are dozens of Android devices whose combined sales are barely big enough to show up on the tablet sales pie chart. And other than a few specialty tablets that run Windows 7 (and are dreadful to work with), Microsoft has been noticeably absent from the space.

Essentially, Apple has created a table for one. They own the tablet market. And while this sort of ownership was convenient when we had leverage in the Microsoft-dominated world of client PCs, that picture is clearly different in the world of mobile devices and (specifically) tablets.

Back to my earlier questions. As for what happened to TouchPad, HP had a few problems. First, its hardware was underpowered. Apparently, they tested webOS on iPad hardware in their lab, and it ran much faster. HP cut corners to keep the price down, which was a bad idea. It's hard to have a compelling product when performance is sluggish. Second, webOS lacked a critical mass of apps in their marketplace... or (more important) developers to build them. Third, webOS lacked compelling content (or relationships to provide it). Content is king, and webOS wasn't even a peasant in this all-important category.

Microsoft will re-enter the tablet space with Windows 8, so the big question is how successful their offering will be. Nobody can tell the future for certain, but I can make some predictions based on lessons learned so far. To illustrate, I will use another restaurant example. I went to a nice restaurant the other day. The dining room was beautiful, the food was excellent, the wait staff was friendly and helpful, and pleasant music was playing in the background. Back in the kitchen, though, it was probably close to anarchy with chefs shouting orders to their staff and cooking food at a frantic pace to keep up with the demands of the dining room.

The restaurant in the example above is the iPad. The experience for the end user (e.g., the dining room) is wonderful. What Apple has proven is that it doesn't matter how crazy and inconvenient it is for the software and other mechanisms to power the tablet (e.g., the kitchen). The dining room is all that matters. Not just appearances, mind you. The food (e.g., content and apps) has to be first-rate as well.

I think that Microsoft is coming to that same conclusion. They have great content (Office, Skype, Xbox, Zune, and so on). If Microsoft creates a good-looking, intuitive, and consistent tablet interface that is installed on quality hardware, I think that their offering will succeed. But If Microsoft falls into the trap that Android did and tries to support inferior hardware and dozens of screen sizes, and present an interface that is marginally intuitive at best, I think that their offering will fail.

Apple also proved that if you attract a lot of users to your platform, it doesn't matter how hard it is to develop software for it. Developers will learn how to do it. So, while Microsoft has had a tremendous record of building fantastic tools and experiences for developers, I think that this should be considered a secondary priority. I, for one, would rather Microsoft focus on all things consumer-facing to ensure the future of the Windows platform on tablets. Things may get a bit rough for us in the short term if Microsoft is forced to change a few directions, but it will pay dividends over the long term if Windows can launch a successful tablet to compete with iPad.

Microsoft recently offered Windows Phones and assistance to migrate disenfranchised webOS software developers to the Microsoft fold. These developers will hopefully stick around to help build the Windows tablet app store offerings. We can also hope that Microsoft will see the value of Windows Phone app compatibility with their tablet offering, as this type of migration helped get iPad started while developers were filling up the queue. Only time will tell whether or not webOS developers were truly rescued, or merely transferred from one lifeboat to another. Bon appétit.

Jonathan Goodyear is president of ASPSOFT, an Internet consulting firm in Orlando. He is Microsoft regional director for Florida, an ASP.NET MVP, a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer, and a contributing editor for DevProConnections.

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