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Windows 8 tablet strategy still risky

Reference design Windows 8 tablets from Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Intel
Reference design Windows 8 tablets from Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and IntelMicrosoft

Windows 8 is impressive, an opportunity for Microsoft to regain its footing in the shifting, post-PC world. But how will it fare against the iPad? If Microsoft's OS can't run on a wafer-thin piece of glass and metal, for 10 hours or more, it's not going to get very far.

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Hardware/software love
Microsoft doesn't build hardware, and as such, is at a crucial disadvantage to Apple, whose ability to design software and hardware in conjunction allows it to produce slimmer designs, unparalleled interface response and better battery life.

Yes, better battery life. On a laptop, anything over four hours will do, but a tablet needs to be a cool, skinny thing that runs for 10 hours at a stretch. And battery life isn't just about run-time. You put down an iPad on Tuesday, and pick it up again on Friday, and it's battery meter will show roughly the same level. It's what the system is doing when you're not using it that's more important, and unfortunately that depends even more on how the hardware is designed, from the battery to the radios.

Related: Windows 8 does what Apple doesn't

Microsoft went out of its way to show how much more efficient Windows 8 is than its predecessor, but that may be like saying a station wagon is more fuel-efficient than an SUV. How does the station wagon perform against the Prius? That's the question.

The Windows team is building a platform to run on third-party hardware. That is firmly embedded in Microsoft's constitution. So don't expect a Microsoft tablet, even if it makes more competitive sense. For business reasons, the Windows approach limits Microsoft's control over the end product. So the real question becomes, do you believe Dell, HP or even the more impressive Samsung has what it takes to beat Apple at the tablet game?

PCs vs. tablets?
Microsoft made a decision to migrate Windows to the tablet, rather than using their phone OS. They argue that people want a full PC, but they also knew that traditional Windows would be permanently damaged if the company put their secondary phone OS on tablets. But that's what Apple did, growing its iPhone OS to run on the iPad. The result is this funny dichotomy: Do you want a slimmed-down but fully functioning PC in tablet form? Or do you want a grown-up, blown-up phone in tablet form?

It will be very beneficial for Microsoft to leverage its desktop-PC developer base for the creation of tablet apps — that's exactly what they are doing — but unless the entire experience can be tablet friendly, bringing full Windows to thin touchscreen devices is a risk.

Beyond the more intense hardware requirements I briefly mentioned above, there's a potential for interface confusion. On a real PC running Windows 8, if you wander out of the cool touchscreen Metro interface, and get into the classic Windows interface — a very likely scenario — you can just use a trackpad or mouse and keyboard to work.

But if you're tooling around on your 10-inch touch tablet and you're suddenly face to face with traditional Windows, you're gonna get mad. At least, I'm gonna get mad. And what functionality will that provide? There are lots of things I do on a computer that I don't want to do on a tablet. You may say you want it all, but even if you do want full PC functionality, are you ready for the interface compromises that the current build of Windows 8 appears to present?

Microsoft has a better shot at gaining significant tablet share than HP's failed webOS, or RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, or really at this point any of those Android tablets vying for second place. And Microsoft has the chance to gain share in tablet even if the Windows Phone OS doesn't take off. But they also have the chance to blow it, if they can't walk this fine line between full PC functionality and slim tablet experience.

More on Windows 8 from's Technolog:

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