Could Windows 8 prove the long-elusive iPad killer, at least where business buyers are concerned?
That's the question on the table after Microsoft unveiled still more details of its next-generation operating system on the first day of its BUILD conference.
Windows and Windows Live president Steven Sinofsky used his Sept. 13 keynote to offer a demonstration of Windows 8 in action, arguing that revolutions in consumer and business technology over the past three years make the next-generation operating system a necessary upgrade from Windows 7. Windows 8 is expected to arrive on the market sometime in 2012, although Microsoft remains tight-lipped about an exact release date.
Windows 8 aims to not only continue Microsoft's dominance of the traditional desktop space, but give Redmond an inroad into the tablet market, currently dominated by Apple's iPad. During the two-hour opening keynote, Sinofsky and a host of other Microsoft executives offered a deeper dive into Windows 8's touch-centric, tablet-optimized interface: a customizable set of colorful tiles that link to applications.
Windows 8 will also flip to a desktop mode more reminiscent of previous Windows editions. According to Sinofsky, the next-generation operating system will be "equally at home on ARM and x86."
In another nod to mobility, Windows 8 includes an app store, which will list win32 apps in addition to the "Metro" apps designed for tablet mode. The storefront looks altogether different than the app store for Windows Phone, although it likewise emphasizes games and other categories designed to appeal to consumers.
Sinofsky and company offered BUILD attendees a Samsung-built tablet running a developer preview of Windows 8. The 11.6-inch device features SDK apps, a "recovery environment," a dock to connect with a keyboard or dual monitor, a 64GB SSD hard drive, 4GB of RAM, and one year's worth of AT&T 3G connectivity. It's powered by an Intel chipset, and includes a microSD port.
That's a versatile list of hardware features. Combined with Microsoft's determination to offer a "no compromises" operating system, and interoperability with Windows 7 applications, a tablet with those specs could attract power users who want a lot of flexibility and functionality squeezed onto a tablet form-factor. During the demonstration, Sinofsky claimed that Windows 8 demands less from a system-specifically, a Lenovo laptop-than Windows 7. If true, that also bodes well for Windows 8's ability to play on mobile devices.
But that doesn't automatically make Windows 8 a slam-dunk as an iPad killer. For one thing, both Samsung and Motorola released high-end tablets running Android, loaded with lots of powerful features-and neither managed to dent the iPad's market share in a significant way.
Second, Windows 8 will enter a tablet marketplace crowded with some significant competitors, not only the iPad but also a host of Google Android devices. On the business side of the equation, Research In Motion is still pushing its BlackBerry-branded PlayBook tablet as the ideal solution for knowledge workers on the run. With so many entrenched opponents, Microsoft will need to make the case that a Windows 8 tablet offers a substantial value-add.
Based on the first day of BUILD and the postings from the official "Building Windows 8" blog, Microsoft's argument could focus on Windows 8's ability to be all things to all users. Ability to connect to a keyboard and dual monitor, turning the tablet into an impromptu workstation? Check. Compatibility with existing Windows apps? Check. Connectivity with Windows' cloud? Check. Xbox Live integration? Check.
With the exception of the Xbox Live integration, those features could appeal heavily to business users, already a key demographic for Microsoft products. In turn, that could help Microsoft establish a substantive beachhead in the business tablet market, already an area of interest for Apple and other companies. That seems a far more likely scenario, at this early stage, than Windows 8 coming out of the gate as a consumer iPad killer.
The key question-and the one thing will determine whether business users and consumers gravitate toward these upcoming Microsoft tablets as a sort of all-in-one solution-is whether the company can actually deliver on its promise that Windows 8 will offer a versatile, "no compromises" experience. If that indeed proves the case, then maybe Apple will have something to worry about.