When it comes to mobile, Microsoft has been caught with its pants down twice in the last four years.
The first time was when the original iPhone completely turned the smartphone industry upside down overnight back in 2007. Microsoft was so slow to respond that by the time they released their first true touch-based operating system, Windows Phone 7, in November of last year, they had gone from a dominant player in the smartphone market to losing almost all of their market share.
Before Microsoft could even get Windows Phone 7 out the door, though, it happened again. Apple released the iPad in 2010, and this time, iOS didn’t just revolutionize smartphones… it attacked the very foundations of Microsoft’s Windows empire itself, cannibalizing laptop sales and utterly destroying the netbook market.
The iPad is a huge threat to Microsoft, and they know it. They need to get something out the door as soon as possible that will convince people used to cheap notebooks and netbooks that they can have all the benefits of a tablet without switching away from Windows.
That solution? Windows 8, which will have different interfaces designed for both tablets and PCs. Microsoft has just shown off Windows 8’s tablet functionality for the first time in a new video, and it looks good… so good that a couple of its features are enough to make an iPad user envious.
As you can see in the video embedded above, Microsoft has taken Windows Phone 7’s Metro UI and applied it to Windows 8 for tablet use. The major distinction between Metro and iOS is the way it handles apps on the home screen: while iOS deploys simple icons that can only be updated with the use of a numeric badge, Metro tiles are widgets that operate as icons. For example, a weather app under Windows 8 could display the day’s weather forecast on the homescreen: tap the tile and it would drill down to a more fully-functioning app.
It’s a great system, one in which Windows Phone 7 (and Windows 8) clearly have the advantage over iOS. Apple’s operating system simply has nothing like this… but the operative word is “yet.” Numerous rumors have popped up over the last few weeks suggesting that a big change coming to iOS 5 is widget support. If these rumors pan out, the advantage of the Metro UI over iOS might be obviated as soon as next week.
Another fantastic feature shown off by the Windows 8 design team is the ability to run two Windows 8 apps side-by-side using the Metro UI. The way Microsoft has gone about accomplishing this is really elegant. Normally when you use Windows 8’s touch interface, you can quickly switch between fullscreen apps by swiping left or right with your thumb. If you only half swipe, then hold, though, you can show two apps side-by-side on one display.
At first blush, Windows 8’s ability to snap apps next to each other seems just brilliant. After all, as nice as multitasking under iOS is, it’s only half the picture without being able to display two separate apps side by side. This isn’t an issue on the iPhone, but it’s an ability writers sorely miss when working on the iPad.
There are battery life concerns with running two apps side-by-side, of course, but ultimately, these would probably be minimal if Apple chose to adopt the system. Most iOS apps are not particularly battery intensive, and the apps that are — video apps, or advanced games like Infinity Blade — aren’t exactly the sort of programs people would tend to run side-by-side. Surfing the web while also watching a video on your iPad isn’t going to be that much more power intensive than just watching a video. Even if that is an issue, Apple could even provide a developer flag that tells the operating system whether or not an iOS app can run half-screen, eliminating the problem.
We’ve heard no rumors that iOS 5 will feature the ability to run side-by-side apps, but it’s possible Apple could introduce such a feature in iOS 6. It’s a good idea. The problem with Windows 8’s side-by-side approach, though, isn’t the functionality… it’s the philosophy behind it.
Microsoft wants Windows 8 to be all things to all people. They want it to run on tablets. They want it to run on PCs. They want it to run on Intel processors. They want it to run on ARM. They want you to be able to use the tablet interface on a PC. They want you to be able to run PC software on a tablet. They want apps to run fullscreen. They want them to run in windows. They want Windows 8 to be an ecosystem for the cutting-edge in mobile apps. They want Windows 8 to be backwards compatible back to Windows 95.
It’s just too much, and all it’s going to result in is user confusion. Want to buy a tablet with long battery life? Make sure to buy a Windows 8 tablet with an ARM chip… unless you want to run software made for Intel chips, in which case you’ll have to buy a tablet with an X86 core. With Windows 8, Microsoft is going to fragment their own operating system in a way that won’t be intuitive or understandable to 90% of tablet buyers.
Apple understood the perils of this from the start. That’s why the iPhone and iPad don’t run OS X. They instead have a rich operating system built from the ground up to expertly leverage the distinct advantages of a touchscreen form factor. It’s a strategy that has paid off for Apple to the tune of replacing Microsoft as the biggest and most valuable company in tech.
Microsoft’s stuck in the past. They’re still thinking in terms of being all things to all men, but the jack of all trades is the master of none. Our first glimpse at Windows 8 is impressive, but at the end of the day, it’s just a desktop operating system running on a tablet, and it’s small advantages in UI are flourishes that Apple might easily counter as soon as next week’s WWDC, making iOS just as capable as Windows 8… without 16 years of legacy gunk gumming up the works.