Yesterday our own Asa Thompson published an article describing the decline of Microsoft in the consumer market and as a desktop leader. This article created a healthy debate over the state of Microsoft and the old argument of the “PC” vs. the Tablet/Smartphone. It is an argument that has been going on for a long time, but now has entered a new stage. You see, with Surface, Microsoft has created a device that actually goes against everything they have been saying for a long time. Remember it was Microsoft that claimed that Apple’s controlled ecosystem of the iPad and OSX was bad for the consumer. Now they have created the same thing with Windows RT and the Surface RT tablet. How exactly does this factor into Microsoft’s vision and the marketing they have been pushing for many years? Hold on, we are getting ahead of ourselves here.
As you have probably heard over the course of the past year, Microsoft is pushing for a “touch first” OS and that is what you are getting with Windows 8. Even if you do not get the Surface RT, the “PC” version of Windows 8 is very much touch centric. You are presented with tiles instead of a desktop with icons and the familiar start button. Microsoft claims that the new UI is better for productivity and that it is what people want from their desktop. We are not sure about that at all, considering that the UI is based on a phone OS that has about 2% of the market. Still, for both ARM and x86 Tablets and laptops you get that touch centric UI. Because of this, many manufacturers are working to find ways to make their hardware work with Windows 8. They have incorporated multi-touch clickpads from Synaptics and touch screens to allow users to take advantage of the gestures that Windows 8 offers.
Where does this leave legacy systems though? As we were told recently: if you have a device that is not optimized for Windows 8, you are not going to like it. This was from someone that has been directly involved with the development of Windows 8 and getting it to work on a new class of device. Does this mean that devices that are not part of the “new” hardware class will not work well with Windows 8? Not really, but it does mean that the UI will be a tad awkward on them. As we have shown in multiple videos, the UI can be snappy and quick when on a touch enabled device, however on a traditional desktop it becomes clunky and awkward. To get around this there are multiple “start button” replacement apps that can allow you to sort of return to normal. Some of them require running in a shell environment which might have a performance impact (although very minimal).
Of course the question remains: why get Windows 8 if all you are doing is making it look like Windows 7? What in Windows 8 would make the upgrade and effort worth it? Windows 8 does have some improvements in it that might attract users, and some of them are pretty nice. The improvements to task manager, explorer, SSD support, multi-core support, boot time and even memory performance and allocation, are part of a much larger list to bring in new users. The problem is that even with all of these the performance improvement is minimal. Although our testing is not complete we are not seeing large improvements in the way the OS performs. It does boot faster, but application load times are the same and even gaming performance is nearly identical to Windows 7 (with Win 7 being a little faster). We will start testing new hardware with both Windows 7 and Windows 8 for the near term to show the performance in both operating systems so you will see first-hand what we are talking about.
Getting back to our original point, Microsoft has waded into the tablet market, both ARM and x86 with an OS that might not grab consumer interest; there are several reasons for this that we have watched develop over the last few months. One of the biggest ones is a conflicting message that is being pushed out. Microsoft wants people to leave Apple because they have a closed ecosystem, but the ecosystem they are offering as an alternative is quickly closing (if you get Windows RT). With Windows RT, you can only install applications that you buy or download from the Microsoft App Store. You have no option for side loading anything on this device. There also is no support for Legacy software at all. Microsoft further confuses the message by saying you can keep your desktop and use the Remote Desktop App to access those applications using your Windows RT tablet. This would seem to mean that a Windows RT device is a companion product and not a primary device. What about the full Windows 8 tablets? These are not restricted in the same way that the ARM based Windows RT is, but they will get lumped into the same category by many consumers as they cannot differentiate products properly.
To illustrate what I mean, when I first bought an Asus EEE Slate EP-121 I was asked about it multiple times. In all cases people thought it would be as functional as an iPad (no support for Windows applications) even now people still lump it with the iPad and other ARM based products. I have to show them that it runs Windows 7 before they get it. Consumers will do this with Windows 8 on x86 as well. They will assume (and sales people are not good about clearing this up) that it will work like the restricted Windows RT. In fact there are many blogs already claiming this. This will also extend into the desktop and laptop segment as well. People will begin to think that you cannot install anything in Windows 8 that does not come from the Microsoft App store. This could put Windows 8 devices running x86 CPUs at a disadvantage in the market even though they are superior to their ARM counterparts in almost every way.
Windows 8 and Windows RT have a very uncertain future thanks to the way Microsoft and others are marketing these products to the world. On top of this you have game and software developers saying that Windows 8 is bad, which is sure to resonate with many gamers out there. Meanwhile, nVidia is talking up Windows RT thanks to their dominance in that market while Intel and AMD are reminding all of us that x86 CPUs are more powerful and flexible. What exactly is the consumer supposed to think with so many different messages coming from so many “trusted” sources? What do you think about the conflicting and confusing messages that all of these companies are pushing out to the consumer? Tell us in our Forum.