What might “Windows 8” (or “Windows Next”) bring for tablets/slates?

Once upon a time, Microsoft used to share information about developments in new versions of Windows with customers and partners. Then came Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn), a project fraught with difficulties, and there was much consternation about cancelled functionality.  So, for the next release (codenamed, and later released as, Windows 7, even though it’s only 6.1), Microsoft kept quiet, before shipping a very public beta and asking people for feedback, long after all the key decisions had been made!

“Windows 8” looks to continue in the same vein – except that Microsoft won’t even tell us a codename – only making vague references to “the next version of Windows” or “Windows Next”. So, it’s hardly surprising that the tech media is trying to glean information about what the next release of Windows may have in store.  And, as an MVP and an employee of a major global systems integrator (but speaking for myself of course – my views are personal and should not be interpreted as a statement on behalf of my employer), I can tell you it’s not just technology journalists and bloggers that want to know – I want to be able to talk to customers about roadmaps but Microsoft is keeping schtum.

So, when journalist, author, ZDNet blogger and long-time Microsoft commentator, Mary Jo Foley ran a webcast this afternoon looking at Microsoft’s strategy for tablets/slates “Windows 8”, I tuned in.  Of course, it was nothing that Mary Jo hadn’t already written about – and it was purely speculative (albeit based on some good sources) but it’s the best we have to go on right now about what might be coming – and a good summary of the current situation.

The following are my notes from the webcast.  I may well look back in a year or so and laugh at how wrong we were (as I did with my tweets about the iPad from late-January 2010!) but I have a feeling that most, if not all, of this will come true.

It was interesting to see what people think about the market for slates/tablets.  Based on a poll taken during the call: 13% think that Apple owns the market [as of now, they do – but that could still change]; 8% think it’s overrated and will slip away like netbooks [unlikely – have you seen the sales figures for the iPad?]; 22% think the market is in its infancy and will hurt PC sales [definitely nascent; but I generally see slates as additive, rather than alternatives to PCs]; and the vast majority (57%) think the market is in its infancy but that there is room for Android and Windows “pads”.  Based on those figures (which are far from scientific, and likely to be skewed in Microsoft’s favour given Mary Jo’s readership) Microsoft has not completely lost its chance to ship a decent tablet but it’s clear there is still a lot of work to do – and a lot of unknowns.

So what about Windows 7 slates? It’s difficult for me to comment on this, for professional reasons (although I have previously written about how Steve Ballmer told me what to do with my iPad) but Mary Jo Foley is not a fan. She sees some interesting designs, but considers them to be generally pricey, not portable enough, with poor battery life and not true iPad competitors. [For what it’s worth, I can’t argue with any of that.]

And what’s the difference between a slate and tablet? Not a lot.  Microsoft likes to talk about tablets – they see a stylus as a differentiator but the two terms are used interchangably by analysts and media – like notebooks and laptops (or twenty-eleven and two-thousand-and-eleven).

On Windows 8, Microsoft has said nothing – although they have spoken of “the next version of Windows”.  That could be Windows 8, or it could be something else (Windows Compact Embedded?) but is really likely to be a successor to Windows 7.

Microsoft has accidentally leaked information about “Windows Next” in job advertisements, blog posts, leaked slides from confidential presentations to OEMs. Some of the information gleaned includes references to identifying modern form factors to target and optimise for:

  • Lap PC
  • Workhorse PC
  • Family Hub PC

The second and third categories are familiar – and the first sounds/looks like a slate [albeit with a terrible lable].

There is a view that “Lap PCs” are about consumption (I think there is scope for some content creation – I certainly write on my iPad) but some differentiators might include more built in sensors (facial recognition to log in; ambient sensor to detect that the user is not there and hibernate/shutdown) as well as apps to integrate with home automation – but remember we’re likely to see at least one [maybe two] iteration(s) of the iPad before any of this comes to market.

Whilst we don’t know what “Windows Next” is, assuming it is a replacement for Windows 7, we can expect to see it within 24-36 months after Windows 7 shipped (so 2012) and it will run on x86, ARM and Intel/AMD system-on-a-chip (SoC) architectures.

Microsoft has said nothing official about RTM dates/betas, etc. but Mary Jo Foley believes milestone build 1 (M1) was released within Microsoft in September 2010 with M2 due this month and M3 around July/August.  After that, we might see A public test build in September (at PDC?) with a beta in 2012, and release in summer 2012?  There are some question marks around which architecture(s) may ship first, as well as whether it will be all 64-bit [I think it should be, but expect a 32-bit version to be available, at least for some SKUs].

It looks like there might be some interesting features for tablets/slates too:

  • Jupiter looks to be an application development model/framework that provides a XAML layer on top of Windows, maybe with its roots in version 5 of the Microsoft.NET Framework, for seamless creation of apps that are optimised for the tablet/slate experience.
  • MoSH may be a Modern SHell – an alternative user interface for Windows on slates/tablets – maybe using the Metro style we’ve seen in the Zune and Windows Phone software [let’s hope so].

Microsoft would like there to be “one Windows” but there isn’t and it’s only natural to ask if “Windows Next” will be the only slate operating system? We can expect to see version 7 of Windows Embedded Compact (definitely for data consumption only) released around April/May 2011, but there is also a chance of Windows Phone on tablets, despite Microsoft statements to the contrary [I think it could be be a great solution – although Mary Jo Foley notes that Windows is more mature and more stable than Windows Phone 7].

Can Microsoft win back iPad users? Well, maybe some of them – many of us are iPad users because there is simply nothing better in the market. Perhaps a Windows tablet could be good – but I for one would take some convincing – and it wouldn’t be running Windows 7 (and, from what I’ve seen of Google Android “Honeycomb”, it’s not really a step forward from current Apple iOS functionality either).  The real questions are around applications and access to data – and only time will tell what Microsoft has in store (excuse the pun) or what effect the revamped Android Marketplace will have.

For now, Mary Jo’s big unknowns are:

  • What will Windows slates do to address the issues of weight/cost/battery life? A tablet needs to be lightweight with a 10 hour battery life (as a minimum) [and to compete on value with the existing market leader].
  • Will Microsoft lock down the slate chassis specifications (as they did for Windows Phone 7), providing a common ground for applications?
  • Will the Metro user interface appear on a “WinPad”?
  • What about the Windows Application store? What apps will it have? Where from? Written by whom?
  • Will any of the Courier concepts re-emerge?

[Update 3 February 2011: Paul Thurrott also looks at Windows 8 rumours, among other things, prompting Jamie Thomson to ask another good question: Will Microsoft allow enterprises to run their own internal application stores?]

For now, we don’t really know the answers – I’m hopefully that things will fall into place towards the end of 2011 but the longer Microsoft has nothing, whilst Apple ships significant quantities of iPads (and “iPad 2″s), the larger the gap becomes, and the further Apple encroaches into Microsoft’s enterprise heartland.

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