The Microsoft developer ecosystem has been alive with buzz about Windows 8 all week at the Build conference. What everyone is talking about is the new Metro user experience and interface and the new WinRT API that supports it.
I was one of the lucky ones who got a ticket to Build before it sold out and received the developer prototype hardware tablet running the early preview of Windows 8 (I’ve never had prototype hardware before!) After playing with it for a few days, I can say that while the app store is not open yet and it is obvious that the software is pre-alpha (there is no Metro mail client for example) running on prototype hardware, I can tell you that the new Metro UI experience is awesome. The iPad will have true competition.
While the iPad ushered in this form factor and paradigm, with Windows 8 Metro, Microsoft has taken it to a new level. Windows 8 Metro uses the same immersive app concept pioneered by the iPad, however, the desktop is alive with data via “live tiles.” Instead of boring icons like the iPad, Metro gives you a truly interactive experience. The live tiles are live updates from the apps, everything from RSS feeds and Twiter to stocks and weather. You have full control over this experience and can customize the notifications or even turn them off (but not sure why you would want to do this.)
As I have played with Windows 8 all week, I never found myself going to “Desktop” mode on the tablet. As I interacted with the Metro tiles, I found myself doing all of the “tablet” things I normally do on my iPad. When I had to “work” (like write long emails and blog posts), I found myself using my laptop.
Windows 8 gives you the ability to have the “best of both worlds” where you can use the Metro style UI and then when you need to, dock your tablet into a station and use it in “desktop” mode using traditional Windows with a mouse and keyboard. This is a great feature that will undoubtedly be used by millions of people.
That said, Microsoft needs to OEM a version of Windows 8 to tablet hardware developers that will only run in Metro mode. While I fully expect that my next laptop will have a touch screen and I will interact with Windows 8 Metro mode often on it, my experience on the laptop will mostly be running in traditional desktop mode with a mouse and keyboard (try writing this blog post on a tablet today). At the same time, I would also want a (cheaper) Windows 8 tablet where I only interact with the Metro UI. Just like how I have a laptop PC and tablet iPad today, I use each in different scenarios. In short, laptop for work, tablet for play.
When people buy a tablet like the iPad, they want the immersive experience and that experience only. I have argued before that people don’t want a tablet that is a laptop replacement, they want both devices. When using a tablet, I don’t need to go out to the desktop mode and use Outlook, I just want to use the touch UI and a lightweight app for my mail. When using my laptop, I don’t want the constraints of a tablet. They are different devices that have different uses.
With a Metro-only SKU of Windows, the tablet vendors can build truly awesome experiences that don’t have any of traditional Windows running. They can build lower power devices that run on ARM and hit the $500 or below price point. It will be clear that this is a “tablet” and not a PC. People love the experience of the iPad, they like how they are constrained and can’t do the things they do on their PCs. These constraints force the consumer to interact with the iPad differently, and that has led to its success. If Windows removes those constraints, allowing the tablet users to shell out to Windows, then it will most likely confuse the customer and ultimately fail. Just like all of the Android tablets trying to add “laptop” features and have failed so far.
I asked a Microsoft executive point blank yesterday if they were going to have a tablet Metro-only SKU of Windows. While he said my question was “insightful”, he said Microsoft has made no SKU decisions at this time. At least he did not say no.