2012 should be a landmark year for Microsoft. It will be the year 2011 should have been.
The reason is simple: the company’s play to take on tablet computing should finally hit the road.
Windows 8 will be delivered with an interface that liberates Microsoft’s operating system from the desktop prison of mouse and keyboard and opens it to touch. Windows 8 also ends Microsoft’s decades-old history of x86 monogamy by going with ARM.
Tablets were promised by Microsoft’s chief executive Steve Ballmer this year, when analysts demanded to know what his answer was to the flay-away iPad.
Closely on the heels of “what” was “when”. Ballmer choked at the 2010 analyst meeting and mumbled something about Intel’s Atom Oak Trail processors. Nothing really happened, though - nor could it, given Microsoft’s only operating system in circulation was Windows 7, which had not been built for touchy tablets.
The signs are emerging, however, that Microsoft will kick off the tablet a year early.
Microsoft has only said so far that a Windows 8 beta will hit in “early” 2012; Winrumours, citing unnamed sources, has put that at January. The Next Web claims February - with a RTM (release to manufacturers) of June - although this would be a long RTM period – RTM being the time between final code completion and that code being shipped to PC-makers and channel sellers. The Windows 7 RTM was three months – three months being something of the standard for Microsoft. Mary-Jo Foley, meanwhile, reckons it will happen "after the Consumer Electronics Show."
Next month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, will be critical in discerning whether it will be January, February or sometime later when we should expect Windows 8. CES is critical because it puts Microsoft, Windows 8 and Windows 8 tablets from PC and device manufacturers in the spotlight - for the consumption of gadget-makers, gadget-lovers and tech reporters. It was at CES in this year, after all, where Microsoft dropped the ARM bomb.
Already, it seems, the pieces are being put in place. Dell and Hewlett-Packard are getting over their mid-life crises: the former ending its brief but exciting affair with Google’s Android - the 7-inch Streak, hailed by the gadget press for its glassy coolness, is the latest Android tablet to be yanked by the Texas PC maker. Michael Dell’s company last month pretty much said that it would deliver a Windows 8 tablet. Competitor Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, is ditching its flirtation with WebOS, and killing the TouchPad, a device it has only been able to shift with hefty price cuts.
DigiTimes reports Samsung Electronics, Sony, Toshiba, Lenovo and Acer have been selected to build ARM-based tablets by the ARM partners that Microsoft is working with.
Shipping the technology is only half the story for Microsoft, however.
Knowing what to ship and then actually having a whole industry of applications for it - and content partners to buy it - is another matter.
If Dell and HP learned anything by blundering into the tablet minefield it was that you can’t just deliver another tablet and think it will sell because Apple proved the market.
The device can’t just look cool, like the Streak, and it can’t just offer the “open internet” by virtue of the fact that it’s capable of playing Flash content.
The iPad succeeded, in part, because it brought a new way of working with apps and with the internet, even if the version of the internet it brought was a walled-garden maintained only by Apple. It offered a compelling way to do existing or new things.
Compelling is relative: it could mean a way to read a book on the go and not lose your page, flipping through the digital-version of the Economist, fragging your best mate in a multi-player war-simulation game, crunching through your operation’s data in its Salesforce application, or watching Harry Potter or re-runs of Buffy.
The iPad is not alone, however, and other unexpected rivals are now branching into the form-factor of field of the tablet established by Apple: for example, Amazon with the Kindle and its Fire browser.
Yes, but is Microsoft committed?
Going hand in hand with the "right device" are the "right applications" – games, books and magazines, CRM, email, streaming films and TV and so on.
And with Windows 8 this is Microsoft’s real challenge.
In the past, when Microsoft introduced a new platform or language, the big challenge was to convert the existing Redmond coding faithful.
Windows 8, however, throws partners a curve ball: the Metro UI itself and WinRT, underneath. The analogy is the introduction of .NET only this time.
WinRT is a simple UI programming model for Windows devs that means they don’t need to learn Win32 - and which exposes the Windows Presentation Framework and Silverlight XAML UI model to developers. WinRT is designed to let you build apps which are self-contained, and can live in and be downloaded from an app store.
Only the analogy breaks down, because it is not just the usual Redmond faithful Microsoft is trying to win over. Redmond is also hoping to poach iPhone and iPad devs, those building for the Blackberry, and Android developers programming for others’ smartphones. And that’s just the app developers, never mind the content shops – creatives who have for years built media for Windows that ran in Windows Media Player, Flash or Silverlight. Now, while WinRT can bridge the gap, there’s also the HTML5 factor, a force Microsoft is backing but not – as far as we can tell – wholeheartedly on Windows 8 tablets. Instead, it has opted for the Silverlight, XAML and WPF mix.
Even the old bet of the Redmond faithful isn’t as reliable as it once was. The door on existing desktop apps - writing for Windows 7 and earlier, and working on Windows 8 ARM tablets - has closed. With the closure of that door, Microsoft has given up on the idea of being able to port your existing apps to Windows 8 on ARM – a concept it floated at this year's CES and scrapped with Intel over when it came to control of the message. All this comes with the usual question of whether Microsoft can be trusted not to pull the rug out from under your feet after you’ve committed. Sure, Microsoft says WinRT now, but just a few years back Microsoft threw everything into Silverlight only to dump its browser-based media plug-in for HTML5.
And while WinRT sounds simple from a technology point of view, the technology is not yet finished. Much will rest on the beta. From a business case point of view, WinRT and Windows 8 are less clear: why would I – a developer or content author – want to do it when the best-selling tablets remain the iPad and Amazon’s Kindle?
Microsoft is late to the party, no question. Analyst Forrester sniffs opportunity, calling the company a fifth mover in the tablet market and claiming interest has "plummeted" during the past nine months. Only Forrester can save Windows 8 tablets is the message.
Others reckon we might not even see Windows 8 or tablets this year, putting the Windows 8 RTM a year from now and pushing Windows 8 tablets to 2013. If this is the case, it would be a criminal act by Microsoft’s management: not just another 12 months behind Apple but coming out after the consumer-tastic window of another Christmas.
If, as others suggest, Windows 8 betas in January or February, Microsoft can save some face.
Delivering Windows 8 is one thing, however, and during the coming year Microsoft must do more to succeed. It must cajole, convince, evangelise, proselytise: not just app devs but also the makers of the all-important games, movies, TV shows, business applications, book publishers and warehouses that the public will follow.
Unfortunately, Microsoft must also work with many of those PC makers who have already blundered. They will need to tip-toe through a minefield of recent experience, not just putting Windows 8 on tablets but also on more niche devices, too. ®