Yesterday Microsoft revealed details about Windows 8 for the first time. Watch this:
I was very impressed by what I saw. Microsoft has been behind the curve for so long that I’ve nearly forgotten that they can be great. The tiles UI is an improvement over icons, and the touch-based interface looks fast and attractive.
Combining Tablet and Desktop UI’s
Windows 8 differs from the offerings from Apple and Google by combining a full desktop OS with a tablet UI. This decision is being ridiculed by some. For example, super-blogger and Apple enthusiast John Gruber of Daring Fireball says:
[...] it’s a fundamentally flawed idea for Microsoft to build their next-generation OS and interface on top of the existing Windows. The idea is that you get the new stuff right alongside Windows as we know it. Microsoft is obviously trying to learn from Apple, but they clearly don’t understand why the iPad runs iOS, and not Mac OS X.
Gruber goes on to explain the different strengths of the iPad/iOS vs. Mac OS X, and why combining them is a bad idea. However, I think Windows 8 is actually a very smart idea, and the reason is convergence. Imagine having a Windows 8 tablet, thin and light, which you can dock at home or in the office and get a full-strength PC that runs Microsoft Office and plays high-end games. That would be my dream machine, for the following reasons:
- Simplify my life! The fewer devices, the better. This hybrid machine would eliminate the need to have both a full-strength PC and a tablet.
- All my data in one place. No need to copy documents around, or rely on the cloud. (I love the cloud, but like a deadbeat father, it hasn’t always been there for me.)
If Microsoft had copied Apple and Google and created a tablet-only OS then this super-duper-machine wouldn’t be possible. There are already some tablets that can be docked, but so far each of them has had to choose whether to use a tablet OS (in which case it can’t replace your main machine), or Windows 7 (which makes it poorly suited to be a tablet). Using Windows 8, a dockable tablet can provide a simple touch interface when in tablet mode, and a full-strength desktop UI when a mouse and keyboard are available. The critics are correct that desktop programs such as Excel aren’t suited for tablets, but once the tablet has been docked it makes a lot of sense to be able to run such sophisticated programs.
The Ultimate PC
There is one fly in the ointment: in order for a tablet to be thin, light and have a long battery life, it must have a weak CPU and a limited amount of RAM and disk space. This means that even when it’s docked, it can only compete with netbooks: it can’t become your main machine if you run demanding programs. I would love to see this problem solved, and here’s how it could be done:
The ultimate Tablet/PC combo would use two sets of hardware. The tablet would contain a highly efficient CPU that is suitable for a mobile device, and relatively small amounts of RAM and storage. The docking station would contain a full-strength CPU and gigabyte after gigabyte of RAM, ranging as far as the eye can see. When the tablet is docked it would use the high-end hardware, but the operating system would still be run from the tablet’s flash memory. This is the key point: the operating system is the same whether you’re using the tablet or desktop configuration. That means your working environment remains exactly the same wherever you are: all the programs remain installed, all registry keys are the same, the files are in the same locations, etc.
As a bonus, the docking station, since it has its own CPU, could function as a file server while you’re away. So your most-used files would be stored locally on the tablet, but you would still have remote access to the files stored in the docking station.
Unfortunately, this hybrid dream machine would not be cheap. Since it contains two sets of hardware, it will cost about as much as a PC + tablet cost today. But the convenience of having just one machine would still make this a slam dunk for me.
Start Your Photocopiers, Redux
One final note: why did Microsoft announce Windows 8 so early (it won’t be available until 2012 or 2013), and why at the D9 conference and not at one of their own events? I suspect it’s to preempt Apple. Apple will be announcing the next versions of their mobile and desktop operating systems in a few days at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, and Microsoft probably wants to make sure its innovations are seen as original, and not knockoffs. In WWDC 2004, Apple tweaked Microsoft by claiming that the upcoming Windows Vista would just be copying features that Apple invented:
Not this time.