Windows 8 tablets: How Microsoft can win this time

Today, Microsoft promises to reveal its Windows 8 strategy and its path back to innovation. Here's what to look for

[Now that Microsoft has revealed Many details of Wndows 8, see my take on whether it has addressed the issues raised in this blog post in my follow-up analysis.]

Today, Microsoft plans to reveal how it will bring Windows into the world of tablets that today is so thoroughly dominated by Apple's iPad, despite a strong challenge from Google's Android and weak challenges from Hewlett-Packard's now-dead TouchPad and Research in Motion's PlayBook. Microsoft has flailed in the mobile arena for years now, with its Windows Mobile platform of a decade ago going nowhere after its promising debut, then with its successor Windows Phone 7 lacking many basic capabilities in its first incarnation.

A new Windows Phone 7 version (aka "Mango") that may fix these smartphone gaps is due any day now, but Microsoft has been clear that tablets won't run the Windows Phone OS. Instead, they'll run Windows 8, the code name for the forthcoming new verson of Windows that will maybe -- just maybe -- break past the legacy shackles that have sunk a succession of Windows XP, Vista, and 7 tablets, presenting Apple's iPad with its first competitor backed by a big ecosystem.

[ Read InfoWorld's coverage of Microsoft's Windows 8 grand reveal today. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

Microsoft's strategy could really give Apple a run for its money, if Microsoft's bite this time is as big as its bark.

Apple's strategy is to have a common OS and, thus, 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, with developers using the same Xcode tools and many common libraries to develop apps, and with Apple integrating common capabilities across the two OSes, as the recent Mac OS X Lion and forthcoming iCloud both demonstrate.

In a sense, Microsoft has suggested it will follow a similar strategy, except that where Apple has all mobile devices using the same OS (iOS) and PCs a separate one (Mac OS X), Microsoft has PCs and tablets running a common OS (Windows 8), and smartphones will have their own (Windows Phone). As Xcode is a common demoninator for iOS and Mac OS developers, Visual Studio is a common denominator for 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 as something that can extend to tablets, making it a no-brainer for Windows users to get a "compatible" tablet. (I would do the same for smartphones, but Microsoft apparently believes that smartphones are for entertainment and tablets for computing, so it wants a heavier OS for tablets, one more akin to a PC OS.)

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