Microsoft is putting a lot on the table with the upcoming release of Windows 8. Not only will it be the most significant change to the platform’s UI since Windows 95 first appeared almost twenty years ago, but it also signals the latest in a long history of attempts by Microsoft to get a firm grip on the tablet and mobile markets.
Just about everyone can remember Microsoft’s early attempts at putting Windows on a tablet platform. The interface, which itself has evolved quite a bit since the days of Windows 95, and even XP, was poorly suited for the touch market, making early tablets released by manufacturers such as Dell a hard sell to general consumers. The medical field still uses Windows-based tablets today to some extent, allowing doctors to examine digital x-rays and other important information en route to a patient’s room, and even share the information with the patient in a format that makes sense.
That said, there really hasn’t been a following of Windows tablets in the consumer market, especially since Apple redefined what a tablet computer could be with the release of the iPad. For the first time, an OS that was built from the ground up with touch and mobile in mind became the primary operating environment for a touch-screen portable computer.
Currently, the iPad holds rank at an astounding 96% of all enterprise tablet computer purchases, and Microsoft wants nothing more than to grab some of this very profitable market for itself. Mobile phones are also an area in which Microsoft is losing ground, with the iPhone holding 53% of the enterprise market there, as well.
It stands to reason that Microsoft would latch on to this growing mobile trend by offering a mobile solution that fits the needs of the enterprise market. We’ve stated before that Windows 8 could lose a great deal of its desktop market should the UI strategy with Windows 8 on desktops fail. After all, what are the chances at businesses adopting a UI if it is largely rejected by consumers?
This is a tale that is yet to be told, though for the purpose of this article, we’ll examine what we know about Windows 8 on ARM and compare its potential with the iPad. While there is still quite a bit we don’t know, there are a few key points we do.
So, how would Windows 8 tablets compete with the iPad, given our current knowledge of the situation?
Microsoft has been burned by high-prices in its previous tablet attempts, with some of the lowest-priced tablets running around $700 and others reaching well over $1,000. This is the result of manufacturers working more laptop into tablet designs to cope with a largely ill-optimized UI for touchscreen interfaces. With Windows 8, an ARM edition promises to deliver the more touch friendly experience of Metro to the forefront, putting the aging Aero interface far into the background. It’s rumored at this point that Microsoft will actually put Aero on the sidelines for this particular edition of Windows 8.
That said, the pricing model for Windows 8 will likely follow along the same lines of Windows Phone 7, giving it a more competitive edge in the tablet market than previous editions of Windows. At this point, we don’t have any numbers from third-party manufacturers as to the price of these devices, and whether or not they will be higher or lower than comparable iPad models.
The iPad itself is no budget device. Made from high-quality materials, the iPad stands toe-to-toe with high-end Android devices while being steeply undercut by the budget market including the Kindle Fire. Android tablets can also be quite pricey, hitting price points well above the iPad in some cases.
One thing is for sure, price is an important factor. While Android may be available for less, the sweet spot for consumers is around the $500 mark. If Windows 8 has any chance at competing in the consumer market (and by proxy the enterprise level) it needs to be available at or below this point.
Microsoft isn’t as limiting as Apple when it comes to network availability. Microsoft is simply a software company, making its operating system available to a number of manufacturers that each have their own network agreements. It stands to reason that unlike Windows Phone 7, Windows 8 may be adopted by a wider range of manufacturers looking to cash in on a more powerful mobile operating system.
At the present moment, Dell, HP, Nokia, and Sony are said to be developing Windows 8 tablets. Undoubtedly, these manufacturers will seek to make their products available for a wide range of 3G/4G service providers.
The iPad, by comparison, is only able to connect to specific service providers. You couldn’t buy an iPad and have it connect to T-Mobile’s broadband service without tinkering with the OS through jailbreaking. This is one of the limitations of the device itself, giving the edge to Windows 8 in terms of network options and availability.
Edge: Windows 8
If you buy an iPad, you have a very specific set of hardware options to choose from. You can get the iPad with your choice of a handful of storage capacities and opt for wireless broadband capability. If you want a tablet running iOS, you have to buy an iPad. That’s it.
Windows 8, in the spirit of all Windows operating systems, can be run on any number of potential hardware configurations from virtually any manufacturer willing to pay the licensing fees to put it on their hardware. This is the very reason Microsoft beat Apple in the early days of desktop computing. Windows, like Android, gives the user choice when it comes to hardware.
Edge: Windows 8
Microsoft is working with three key manufacturers at the present moment to create processors for Windows on ARM (WoA) including: Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, and Nvidia. This chipmakers area already working with the ARM standard in the tablet world, with healthy Android tablets currently running impressive processing circles around technology that was cutting edge only two years ago.
The newest iPad is running the A5X chip, an impressive technology which is also based on ARM architecture.
Where Microsoft may be at an advantage is through competition. Three leading chipmakers, all searching for something bigger and better to include in the next Windows 8 (or Android) tablet will undoubtedly be creating new and exciting technologies to plug in to these devices. Furthermore, we’ve already seen that Kal-El quad-core ARM processors do an amazing job with Windows 8.
While we still don’t see any Windows 8 tablets in the wild, it’s hard to overlook the power of competition.
Edge: Windows 8
Windows 8 has very few Metro apps currently available, with more undoubtedly in the works as developers prepare for its eventual release. Microsoft has prided itself on being a great platform for developers, staying somewhat open and less controlling than Apple. However, Windows 8 is somewhat different.
The introduction of an app store to Windows changes things a bit. For the first time, we could very well see Microsoft following Apple’s lead in terms of app management and availability. In order to appear on the Windows Marketplace, you need to pass through the sniff test. This makes it easier for consumers as it takes away the guessing game surrounding potentially malicious software available in the wild, though it does tighten restrictions a bit on developers.
Apple has a pre-existing library of available apps that reach into the hundreds of thousands. In addition, these apps are built with a specific set of hardware specifications in mind, making each app as compatible with one iPad as it is another.
As we’ve seen with the Android platform, a minor difference in hardware can make or break an app’s compatibility. You also can’t discount that the iOS platform has been around for years, with a very active and healthy developer community. It’s hard to give the edge to Windows 8 at this point.
Service and Support
If you have a problem with an iPad, you know exactly who to go to in order to have your problem resolved. Apple provides post-sales support, extended warranties, and more to anyone that purchases an iPad.
Microsoft, on the other hand supports just the software. Manufacturers are generally called upon to provide troubleshooting with the customer, making things a little more confusing.
When I think about service and support, I think about how easy (or difficult) it would be for my parents to get the device fixed when something goes wrong. With an Apple product, you know exactly who to call and where to go. With Windows, this is entirely dependent on the manufacturer’s willingness to provide good and consistent support to its customers.
The iPad has a remarkably powerful technology backing its display. With over a million pixels more than a giant 1080p HD television set, the iPad has the clearest and most detailed display currently available in the consumer market.
Microsoft has promised support for these resolutions, stating that it supports a wide variety of resolutions from a multitude of different devices at a number of different aspect ratios. Windows 8 is built to work on a wide range of devices while the iPad is a single device in itself, with a set resolution and aspect ratio.
Where Windows 8 is more flexible, Apple has the advantage of being the only manufacturer currently producing a tablet with anywhere close to supporting 264 ppi. The edge goes to the iPad, but only until another manufacturer comes out with a Windows 8 tablet that meets or beats this capability.
It’s hard to compare an operating system to a single hardware device, though it is quite possible to speculate based around what a given operating system is capable of running on. HP, Dell, Nokia, and other manufacturers will undoubtedly be competing to produce the biggest and best Windows tablet possible around launch.
Microsoft is throwing everything it has at the mobile market with Windows 8, and just about everyone in the tech world has weighed in on whether or not it’s too late for Windows to make a splash in the tablet world.
Bottom line: We don’t know very much about the upcoming Windows 8 tablet market. Whether or not manufacturers step up, developers hop on board, or even if consumers will want to buy these things is still up in the air. If you asked anyone at Microsoft, they’re likely keeping all fingers crossed that the answer to every one of these questions is yes.
What do you think? Could Windows 8 tablets provide strong competition to the iPad?