Can Windows 8 challenge the iPad's dominance of the tablet market?
Microsoft certainly hopes so. As the market for mobile devices expands at a rapid clip, amid anemic sales for traditional PCs, the need for Windows to carve new franchise territory is greater than ever. The question is whether Microsoft can leverage Windows' two decades of marketplace presence to make that happen.
Windows 8 offers two user environments: the desktop mode, instantly familiar to anyone who's used Windows, alongside a tablet-ready interface featuring colorful tiles that link to applications. At least in the early developer preview, the transition between the two environments is quick and seamless. Windows 8 will run on traditional PCs and tablets, and support both x86 and ARM architecture.
Microsoft executives have spent considerable time over the past few weeks trumpeting Windows 8's "no compromises" ability to provide both a lightweight mobile experience and the sort of features desired by power users.
For businesses, that might prove enough of an impetus to upgrade to Windows 8 once it releases sometime in 2012. Microsoft is arguing that the tech world's seismic changes have already made a new operating system a necessity, despite having released Windows 7 a mere two years ago.
Businesses that already exist as "Microsoft shops" could gravitate to Windows 8 on both tablets and PCs when the time comes for their next big refresh. However, as with Windows 7, a rough economy could drain IT budgets and thus slow the adoption rate for Windows 8 products. Any legacy x86 applications won't work with ARM-based hardware running Windows 8, though, which could complicate developers' lives in some ways-a situation Microsoft likely hopes they'll accept if they want access to the millions of customers who will find their way onto the platform.
Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group, also pointed out in a Sept. 20 email to eWEEK: "It is users who are driving the influx of tablets into businesses and if the users don't get excited, IT in many cases won't get to vote." In other words, Microsoft could need consumer adoption to help drive business adoption.
Microsoft will need third-party developers to create for its application store. Last week's BUILD conference in California was the first step in what will surely become a loud, steady drumbeat of encouragement for Windows application development. Windows and Windows Live division President Steven Sinofsky devoted a significant portion of his BUILD keynote to the application store. As part of BUILD, the company gifted attendees with tablets running the Windows 8 developer build.
Windows 8 is also entering a difficult market for any tablet not labeled "iPad." None of the swarm of Android tablets has managed to threaten Apple's market share, Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad went down in flames, and sales of Research In Motion's BlackBerry-branded PlayBook have proven weak in comparison to those of the iPad.
The cause of those tablets' failure to undermine Apple is debatable. With Windows 8, Microsoft hopes that the Windows legacy will allow it to succeed where those rivals crashed and burned.
Those who want a tablet running the developer preview of Windows 8 can head over to eBay, where apparently a few are on sale.