Opinion » Cybernaut

The Microsoft gambit



While the early reviews of the Microsoft Surface tablet are generally positive, I wonder if Microsoft has made a mistake.

The company proved, eventually, that it's capable of making decent hardware. The next generation Xbox 360 is one example; countless keyboards and mice are another; the Kinect — well, let's just say that the Kinect has potential.

But first and foremost, Microsoft is a software company. The reason that Windows still has over 90 per cent market share is the fact that they don't make computers, but supply their software to other hardware companies — HP, Dell, Compaq, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, etc. — that make a wide range of computers and systems pre-installed with Windows that Apple just can't compete with in terms of price or the range of choice.

That's not to say that Surface, as hardware, is bad. In fact, it looks pretty good from a tech-spec perspective, and with a companion keyboard and stylus in the cover, and Office preloaded. This tablet is going to be huge.

But you have to wonder what other hardware companies are thinking about it. Why would the HPs and Dells of this world pay to licence Windows 8 software from a company that is making tablets that are in direct competition with the devices they're trying to sell? It would be like Ford paying Toyota to make their engines.

While a few companies will switch to Windows-based tablets — the 90 per cent market share for PCs is hard to ignore — I expect that most will elect to stick with Android.

Google, by doing what Microsoft used to do best — making and licencing software — has already made Android number one in smart phones. Apple owns the tablet world, but Android is gaining ground as other tablet manufacturers drop their price relative to the iPad, and it was reported last week that they now boast nearly half of the market there are well.

And don't forget that Android is a solid a proven system in its fourth generation with a great user interface and lots of content. Developers love making apps for it. With market share increasing, they also have no trouble finding companies to provide content like movies and music.

By comparison, Windows 8 is a first generation operating system when it comes tablets (the ARM version anyway; the other tablet will use the same version of W8 as PCs). It's also first generation hardware, and could be full of bugs and issues that other companies have already resolved. It will also launch with a fraction as many apps as Apple and Android can offer.

The prices for the four Surface models exhibited last week hasn't been announced, aside from vague assurances that Surface will be competitive with iPad and Android. Who knows what that means? You can buy some Android tablets for pretty cheap these days.

One ace up Microsoft's sleeve is "glass," a new protocol that will allow communication and control between different Microsoft devices — computers, Xbox, phones and tablets — allowing you to easily share files and content between devices and even control one device using another. You can sit on your couch and use your phone to control your Xbox, playing games or picking what movie to watch.

Another ace is the Windows Phone 8 platform, which was previewed just days after the surface was announced.

I don't currently have a smart phone, and Windows 8 is one of the main reasons why. I have an Xbox and a laptop at home running the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, and I want a phone that works seamlessly with my other hardware. Apple iTunes for PCs is so awful that I won't even consider getting an iPhone.

Plus, I really like the idea of subscribing to Windows Music (what Zune will be called when Windows 8 launches) and getting unlimited music for $100 a year on my phone, laptop and Xbox.

Truthfully, I'm also holding out to see what happens with Blackberry 10, which also looks pretty great. Research In Motion is sinking fast these days, but if Blackberry 10 is as good as it looked in a preview a few months ago then it could potentially save the company.

If not, Windows Phone 8 looks pretty great — although Microsoft shot a bunch of early adopters of Windows Phone 7 in the foot by making it impossible to upgrade. The WP8 operating system is designed for next generation hardware only — although Microsoft did through last generation WP7 users a bone by announcing an update that will allow the phones to look like WP8 and gain some of its functions.

There are a few geeky aspects to WP8 that caught my eye.

One is the ability to run "enterprise" software with secure booting full encryption. What this means is that companies and government organizations can run native software on their phones without launching a public app. That's a direct shot at Blackberry, which currently leads the field when it comes to security.

Another geekarific development is the fact that WP8 is built on the same software kernel as W8, the Windows NT platform.