It’s been a couple of weeks since Microsoft released its consumer preview of Windows 8, and the general consensus from desktop users is, so far – “where is the Start button?” Microsoft has intentionally forced a single, new user interface, known as Metro, on desktop and tablet users alike. The reason for this is that Microsoft is starting to panic about how it can compete with Android and iOS. It (wrongly) thinks this: if everyone has to use Metro on the desktop then they will use it on a tablet too, as it provides a uniform, interconnected, compatible experience from the desktop to the tablet. And with hundreds of millions of Windows desktop users in the world, Microsoft is trying to push its way into the tablet market by brute force. Of course, it will fail, for two very simple reasons.
First, nobody else thinks having a uniform UI across desktops and tablets is a good idea. Apple hasn’t done it with OS X and Google is still pushing the browser as the platform. Sure, Apple has made changes to OS X to incorporate different aspects of the tablet experience into the Mac (with mouse gestures and the upcoming notification center), but OS X remains firmly a desktop OS. Not having an amalgamated desktop / mobile OS hasn’t hurt the sales of the iPad. This is because a tablet isn’t a desktop. Microsoft should repeat this mantra, in their halls and meeting rooms. A tablet isn’t a desktop! A tablet isn’t a desktop! In fact, the tablet is a new device for a new era, the post PC era, and you just can’t drag the PC kicking and screaming into this new age.
Android devices work with any desktop operating system (Windows, OS X, and Linux) when there is a need to connect the tablet to a computer, but most Android connectivity happens in the cloud. The cloud or the Internet is where it all happens. No tablet exists without some form of wireless connectivity and the big selling point of the iPad 3 (other than its new display) is the incorporation of 4G. Tablets are all about syncing wirelessly with the cloud, for email, web browsing, photos, calendars, contacts, and backups. I rarely connect my phone or my tablet to my PC. It all happens over the air including downloading new apps, books, music, and movies. Which, of course, is the second reason Windows 8 will fail in its current form – content.
Content is king. Amazon knows this. Think about it, a company that started by selling physical books over the Internet has quietly turned itself into a major player in the mobile device market (which includes the Kindle eBook readers, as well as the Kindle Fire tablet). How did it do this? By focusing on content. Once I have a tablet from Amazon, from Samsung, or from Apple, I need content for it. I need apps, I need music, I need books. Apple understand this, which is why the iTunes store has now delivered over 25 billion downloads. That is a huge number. Google sees this too, that is the real reasoning behind the recent rebranding of the Android Market to Google Play. It is a single place to get everything your tablet can consume. But where is Microsoft in this? Does it have a content centered eco-system? No.
So, what does this mean for the future of mobile device operating systems? First, unless Microsoft addresses the two issues above, it will fail to make a significant impact in the tablet market place, just as it has failed to make a significant impact on the mobile phone market (even with Nokia’s help).
Second, we will see a continuing push to enhance the cloud related features of Android and iOS. This means better connectivity like 4G, better cloud integration at the OS and app level, and new (yet unknown) uses for the cloud. Thirdly, it will mean more features that enhance content consumption – better displays, better linking with external displays. and better sound. It will also mean new and more innovative ways to sell and market content to the user (watch Amazon for this).
In the long term (10 to 15 years), the battle won’t be about which OS you are running on your device, how much memory it has, how many Mhz are packed in the processor. It will be about what content you can get and where you can store it. The winner in this battle isn’t yet clear. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple have everything to win, and, most importantly, everything to lose.