Can a PC be a Tablet??

This was the question Apple CEO Tim Cook was addressing in his comments recently in that needs to be taken CNet.  It is a fair question and given he is targeting his comments at Microsoft and their pending release of Windows 8, one which should be taken seriously and one that also needs to be taken with a grain of salt.   The next year will determine a lot about the forthcoming landscape of the tech industry.  Apple seemingly is on a current path of they can do no wrong.  Users are like lemmings running to sea every time Apple releases a new product.  Yet all great runs come to an end sometime.  Microsoft is still the 800lb gorilla in the room and can simply release a new OS every couple of years and make over $10 billion in revenue at the drop of the hat.  Recent times have seen Microsoft always late to market, seemingly staring into the sun with extremely squinted eyes trying to make out what will be the future.  sandwiched in between is Google with an army of Android based devices.  These devices are not there to make Google money on software but to be in the indirect path to more ad-based revenues.  Different companies with different ideas about the future of technology and each with billions in cash sitting in the bank.

Tin Cook’s comments strike at the heart of the debate which is can you merge the OS to meet the needs of both the tablet user and the PC user.  Fundamentally my observation is how they are used and the form factors are fundamentally different.  To me the Tablet is not really about business productivity as it is about collecting information.  The PC is great for people like me who write a blog and need a fully functional keyboard.  A Tablet is useful to view my blog but not so great for writing and editing my blog.  If I want to create a brochure I would want a PC, but a tablet is better suited to consume the brochure.  I know when I watch movies with my wife she is on the tablet getting a complete history of the movie and its actors via the tablet (and then to my annoyance telling me the ending).  If  I want to track stocks there are a lot of great apps for the Tablet to help me do this.   However if I want to do some financial calculations and create pivot tables, give me Microsoft Excel. Do I want the basic user experience to be the same between a PC and a Tablet?  In the world of the Mac they are not.  Microsoft is betting that consumers will be better served by a similar user experience between the PC and the Tablet.   Not to mention the Windows Phone..

A second notion is the idea of one OS to unify all the different form factors (PC, tablet, phone etc..).  This is one of those technical holy grail’s.   I can make one set of core code and it can support all the different devices I want to support.  I don’t know if this fosters innovation or stifles it.  The different devices all have their own set of unique experiences and unique requirements.  If you have a core set of code (or kernel) that you give developers no access to, it limits what they can do as all that is available is what you the owner make available.  It’s an argument that has been going on for as long as I remember.  Apple is the most restrictive in this sense, but at the same time they own the hardware piece of things.  So any modifications, features etc..they need to add they can do as they own the hardware specifications and can access the Mac OS kernel to make modifications.    Microsoft is a bit hindered here as they rely on partners to create the cool hardware experience.  Yes they provide strict guidance, but in the end they do not own the final product.  They hope partners will compete and come up with an Apple killer.  Android is the most flexible as they provide the source code to device manufactures who can tweak as they wish down into et kernel level.  It creates a whole set of other issues for application developers, but that is another story (maybe another blog post?).

If there is a silver lining here it is that if you make a smartphone to be competitive in the long run you must have a tablet.  Apple has a  smartphone and a tablet.  Google does as well (or should I say Samsung?).  Microsoft just differs a bit as it is really trying to extend its crown jewel the PC into the phone and tablet space.  It would be one thing if Microsoft was trying to be creative in doing this, but in reality it’s a defensive measure.  With all the talk of a post PC world, Microsoft would rather view it as a PC world with a lot of cool Microsoft devices surrounding the PC.  Having been part of the PC revolution I get it.  It’s not easy to let tens of billions of dollars just slip away.  There will be challenges in going with the old approach.  Taking the metro interface (introduced with Windows Phone 7) and putting on the desktop was bold and so far most people I talk with have disabled the metro UI.  It’s designed as a touch screen and a PC so far has had little need for touch screen capabilities.  Given the start button has been around since 1995 it was time for a change, but is Metro the interface for all people in the future,only the consumer can tell us.

There are many other challenges in the “one size fits all” OS.  On the tablet side there will be the ARM based tablets.  One of the beautiful things about the iPad is the instant on capabilities.  Not doable with Intel based chip sets.  Therefore ARM will be important, but will there be any applications?  And Microsoft marketing, for the love of god please do not lead with Microsoft Office as your killer ARM or for that matter tablet application.  You are trying to woo the younger generation so do not, and I repeat, do not, lead with an application associated with school homework.  Google is pushing their Chrome browser only devices . It makes sense as most of us use technology to access the internet, not play around with a file system.  Initial reviews said the first releases had lots of problems however most acknowledged that this was the future of computing.  Windows Phone is still irrelevant despite the launch of Windows 7 and Nokia is spiraling towards bankruptcy.  Windows 8 needs to succeed on three fronts, and maybe most importantly in cementing a relationship between the PC and the tablet .  Not just for Microsoft but the slew of hardware vendors who stuck with Microsoft and now look like they are missing the boat, aka Dell.  The industry is always moving and always keeps us guessing and betting.  That’s what keeps us going.  And by the way a PC is not a tablet.

Good Night and Good Luck

Han sHenrik Hoffmann May 7, 2012

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