Microsoft's Polygamous Windows 8

The next version of Windows knows tablets but hasn't forsaken the desktop

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If you think about it, maintaining a computing platform these days is nearly impossible. It’s all the fault of our phones, and lately, tablets. It’s so hard that Nokia, with Symbian, and HP/Palm, with webOS, have more or less thrown in the towel.

The survivors, Microsoft, Apple, and the motley crew maintaining Android, have a herculean task at best. Microsoft and Apple are maintaining two different but similar code bases, one for desktop and one for mobile, that have to work together.

For Google, herding the Android cats is even worse. Any phone or tablet manufacturer can take an Android code base and fork it off for a new device. Amazon just did this for its new tablet.

Somehow, Apple has managed to crank out a major new release for both OS X and iOS, roughly once a year, for several years now. And the challenge gets harder, because as people use phones and tablets more and more, they expect mobile features to show up and work on the desktop, and vice versa. The two code bases have to diverge and converge in a strange and elegant dance, like strands of DNA in a twisting lattice.

In fact, some say Apple, once the upstart but now the largest high-tech company on Earth, has Microsoft on the ropes, in large part because of its operating system prowess.

Last month, Microsoft struck back. At a conference called Build, it showed off a preliminary version of its upcoming Windows 8 operating system that took today’s guest’s breath away.

James Ashley is a Presentation Layer Architect at Razorfish, a cutting-edge digital design shop headquartered in New York City. Recently he’s been working on massive multitouch applications, Windows Phone 7–related software, and the Kinect. He’s coauthor of the upcoming book Beginning Kinect Programming, due out this January from Apress. He joins us by phone from Atlanta.

Steven Cherry: James welcome to the podcast.

James Ashely: Thank you very much, Steven.

Steven Cherry: Now in a blog post after the Build conference you wrote that the challenge facing Microsoft, quote, “at first blush seemed insurmountable.” What was the insurmountable challenge?

James Ashely: Well, what Microsoft was hinting at was preserving everything that was old but at the same time give us something that was revolutionary and a leapfrog technology. And it was really difficult to see how they could do both, but at the same time it was pretty clear that they needed to do something like that. They can’t abandon all their old Windows customers as they move forward, and we’re talking about major corporations as well as our grandmothers. And at the same time Windows was really on the ropes as you mentioned in your introduction because Apple had transformed the computer market with the tablet.

Steven Cherry: So tell us what Microsoft showed and why it seemed impressive to you.

James Ashely: What Microsoft showed was basically a different kind of platform, something I hadn’t seen before. First of all, they have what looks like two different operating systems side by side. One of them is the traditional Windows Explorer–type operating system running a desktop that looks a lot like what we currently have with Windows 7, but what they added was this sort of Metro look with tiles, which is a design that’s come off first the Zune, then the Xbox, and then finally the Windows phone. And they’re using that as a secondary operating system, and then the really interesting part that took everybody by surprise was that you’re basically switching back and forth between these two different looks pretty much casually by just swiping on the screen.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, so they showed a tablet in a docking station, and the docking station was attached to a regular screen as well, so you had the tablet screen and you had the regular screen. And you wrote in your blog that the docking station was by far the most impressive piece of hardware there. What intrigued you?

James Ashely: What I found fascinating is, there’s a sense in which it makes perfect sense. Over the past year we talked to various corporations and what we see a lot is strange where companies would really love to have tablets in the workplace. That’s mainly at the upper levels, at the middle levels, but basically everyone just wants a tablet instead of having to port around their laptop or even worse being stuck with a desktop. And I know Apple sort of improved that story, but for a long time, consulting companies would just have to come back and just gently explain: You can’t do that with a tablet. Your sort of network security is sort of compromised if you introduce that system. So what Microsoft is offering is all the security of their current Windows system on a tablet platform. Additionally, what I’ve always enjoyed and what we’ve all gotten used to is being able to dock our laptops—so that we have something that we’re thinking of as portable, so we could come to work, treat our laptops as if it were a desktop machine, and then also pick it up and take it to meetings and so on. And what Microsoft has done is just push that story a little bit further: We can use a laptop with a docking station so that when we’re docked in we have that traditional desktop experience, but at the same time we can just pull our tablets out of the docking station and now we’ve got something that’s very light and portable that we can not only take around the office, but take home and use with us in a completely different scene. So it becomes both the workplace sort of operating system and also an at-home operating system that we could have in front of the TV, that we could have in front of the bedroom basically anywhere. It’s just a remarkable story and one I’d never seen before.

Steven Cherry: Now, so far, especially in the Apple world, we have applications running on a desktop and they can be really big-deal things like Adobe Photoshop, for example, and then we have apps running on tablets and on our iPhones and they’re generally much lighter, you know. We think of things like Angry Birds and things like that. Does this break down that barrier?

James Ashely: I think it does. There are still going to be challenges. What we haven’t seen yet is whether we can really build heavy-duty apps that run within the sort of Metro theme. And that’s going to be the big challenge, and we’re going to wait for Microsoft to come out with something with their Microsoft Office system to see if they can make that for the Metro and to make it touch enabled. But if they can pull that off, then I think the door’s wide open for what we’re going to be able to do with this platform.

Steven Cherry: Now, Metro is something that Microsoft introduced with Windows 7. Tell us a little more about it and how it seems to be fitting into Windows 8.

James Ashely: Right. So let me start off with the critical story on that. What everybody saw Microsoft doing when Windows Phone 7 came out was that they tried to come up with a new design story that was just way too different from what Apple was doing, so at first blush people were saying that Microsoft was trying too hard. But after a year of working with it—after being able to show other people—it seems like the Metro style really does have legs. And sort of the emphasis of the Metro style is to get rid of icons which are predominant in both the Android and Apple design and to work with tiles instead. And what tiles are is basically colored squares or photos and things like that. And those are going to be our touch points rather than having icons and symbols. What that does is it takes away a lot of chrome that we’re used to seeing on all of our smartphone devices and tablets and so on, and sort of emphasizes text and things like that, so it’s an interesting story when Microsoft talks about it. When you actually start using it for a while, it turns out to be rather clever, it works well, it’s easy to design for. I know after Build, one of the things I did is—my brother lives out in Los Angeles and I went over to his house, and he’s got Apple and Android devices all over the place, and he took a look at the tablet and he found it to be pleasant. And that’s generally how people describe the Metro style. It’s pleasant and it’s sort of refreshing if you’re used to working with Apple devices and Android devices.

Steven Cherry: You mentioned the tablet that you showed your brother. This was an actual tablet that Microsoft handed out—it was a Samsung tablet. Do you have any thoughts about the tablet itself?

James Ashely: It’s nice. It’s a little bit heavier than an iPad of course. It also has that internal fan that a lot of people have been talking about, and it gets very hot. So the one thing we know about it is that this is just the first generation sort of tablet hardware that we’re anticipating Windows 8 to run on, and we can expect things to get a little bit better as the year progresses. But really it’s an amazing device. The hardware is impressive, it’s got dual cores, it’s got four gigs of RAM. I still have computers at home that don’t have four gigs of RAM. It has a fairly decent graphics chip, and then it’s got two cameras on it. It’s got an accelerometer on it, it’s got geo-location on it, and it’s even got near-field communication sensors on it. So that’s a lot of very interesting hardware to have on a very small device.

Steven Cherry: It’s a small device, but it’s much bigger than the iPad. And you know Microsoft sort of started an earlier tablet revolution, but it had about as much lasting effect as the French Revolution. One of the things that seems to have let the iPad take off this time around is that it is so, relatively speaking, small and light. The Samsung is a step in that backward direction, isn’t it?

James Ashely: A little bit. I think Apple really did hit on the right form factor. What I’ve noticed with some of the Android offerings and the Google offerings is that those devices strike me as being a little bit too small. One of the things that Apple had to get over was the notion that all they were doing was taking their iPhone and making the screen larger, right? So getting just the right size is fairly important. So in that sense I don’t really think this hurts Microsoft—going a little bit larger is probably moving in the right direction. It’s more the idea that I can hold this in one hand comfortably that’s really important. And then the other side is, we haven’t seen all the devices yet. The Samsung 7 series, which was introduced at Build is basically an Intel-based system. Microsoft is promising a bunch of Arm-based systems. Those are probably going to be smaller and lighter.

Steven Cherry: Now you wrote that Microsoft needed a multitouch tablet strategy, and I’m quoting again here, “in order to maintain the future viability of the Windows Operating System.” That makes it sound like Microsoft’s very survival is at stake here. Is it?

James Ashely: Uh, yeah, I actually think it is. And I believe Microsoft sees it that way as well. Windows is the bread and butter for Microsoft, and at least the two systems that they live on are going to be Windows and Microsoft Office. If they lose traction on those, they lose a lot of money and they lose their position. So I think they saw the iPad tablet as being a challenge to the Windows system and the whole Windows platform. And if that’s the case then looking out five years looking out ten years, not having an answer to the iPad really does risk making Windows irrelevant.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, I think a billion people could have seen that tablet at Build in the docking station setup without having seen anything beneath the surface, pun intended, so thanks for deconstructing that experience for us.

James Ashely: Thank you very much for talking with me.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with James Ashley, of the digital design firm Razorfish, about the enormous user-experience challenge confronting Microsoft, and how well the company seems to be meeting it.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 12 October 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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