Watch out, Apple: Windows 8 could trump the iPad

Microsoft has adopted Apple's usability religion with great fervor, and it looks poised to deliver an impressive result

Earlier this week, I outlined Microsoft's apparent tablet strategy and the issues that could help it succeed or fail. Now that Microsoft has revealed its plans, I can better gauge its chances. My conclusion: Microsoft may win after all. The folks at Redmond seem to have bought the design philosophy on which Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive, and the rest of the Apple team have based their remarkable iPad, iPhone, and Mac OS X resurrection: simplicity, intentionality, delight, and clarity of purpose. And they've taken it to heart in Windows 8 and its "touch first" approach to computing across PCs and tablets.

Demos of course are almost never as good as reality, but even with that in mind, I was blown away by what Microsoft has shown this week at its Build conference. And I have one serious caveat: Although Microsoft is giving developers touch-enabled Samsung Windows 8 tablets for testing, it is not letting the press borrow or use them, except (according to one PR staffer) for a few favored writers -- that's often what a tech company does when it has something to hide. So my enthusiasm may be misplaced. (We'll know only when Windows 8 ships, likely in mid to late 2012.)

[ Read InfoWorld's coverage of Microsoft's Windows 8 grand reveal of its new UI and capabilities. | Learn why IT likely won't like Windows 8. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

But if Windows 8 is nearly as good as the demos look, Microsoft could very well win the mobile wars, despite years of failures in Windows tablets and mediocre smartphone efforts. If Hewlett-Packard CEO Léo Apotheker had seen a preview of Windows 8 tablets, that would explain why he suddenly killed the WebOS-based TouchPad tablet last month. Windows 8 is very likely to squeeze Google Android out of second place in the tablet market -- after all, Android is largely an iOS imitation, and I don't see how Google will stand out if Microsoft joins Apple in offering compelling, differentiated innovation. In fact, for the first time in a long time, Microsoft may challenge Apple on the design and innovation fronts, and it could even relegate the iPad to runner-up status after a couple years unless Apple more fully merges Mac OS X and iOS in the interim, as Mac OS X Lion and iOS 5 have begun to do, to blunt Windows 8's apparent pan-device advantage.

Windows 8 looks to be that good, at least in demos.

Microsoft's strategy is to have a unified OS run across PCs and Intel x86-based tablets, along with the same apps and services. (ARM-based tablets will run only the new Metro-style apps, so they'll have the same iOS/Mac OS X split Apple now has.) Through cloud-based state storage, apps will keep their settings and current work updated across all of a user's devices connected to the same Windows Live account for fluid computing across the hardware. They can also be secured and managed using the same back-end tools.

That strategy could really give Apple a run for its money. Apple's plan rests on a common OS and, accordingly, a single app and services library across its iPhone smartphone, iPod Touch PDA, and iPad tablet; the iCloud service will further unify them. Plus, Apple is drawing Mac OS X and iOS much closer together. Developers are using the same Xcode tools and many common libraries to create apps, and Apple is integrating capabilities across the two OSes, as the recent Mac OS X Lion and forthcoming iCloud both demonstrate.

But Microsoft's use of Live takes what iCloud is doing to a new level: All native (Metro) Windows 8 apps will have space at Microsoft's Live servers to save state and current work products. By contrast, iCloud syncs only those documents whose apps adopt the iCloud storage API. In other words, iCloud is optional and limited to document syncing, whereas Live is assumed and focused on letting an app's state roll across all devices a user has.

Apple's strategy has all mobile devices using the same OS (iOS), while PCs run a separate one (Mac OS X). Microsoft has PCs and tablets -- if they use x86 chips, anyhow -- running a common OS (Windows 8), and smartphones will have their own (Windows Phone). As Xcode is a common denominator for iOS and Mac OS developers, Visual Studio and its enhanced WinRT APIs and related tools are a common denominator for x86-based Windows 8 and -- for Metro apps -- ARM-based Windows 8 and Windows Phone developers.

I believe Apple broke iOS out of Mac OS X so that its mobile devices would not be perceived as portable Macs -- a strategy that proved brilliant, as iOS devices have gained much more market share than Macs ever did, and indeed seem to be pulling Macs out of their decades-long ghettos.

For Microsoft, Windows' near-universal presence is a strength to be leveraged, so it makes sense to reinvent Windows, making it a no-brainer for Windows 8 users to get a "compatible" tablet option. (I would do the same for smartphones, but Microsoft apparently believes that x86 just won't cut it for smartphones, so can't use the heavier, full Windows 8  OS on them.)

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