Fraught by competition from Apple’s iPad, RIM’s PlayBook, and the Android contingent, Microsoft is working furiously on a new edition of Windows. Yet some partners not willing to identify themselves are now going on record that Microsoft is not about to rush Windows 8 tablets out the door.
Intimations by Microsoft at CES 2011 about the next iteration of Windows have set off an ever lengthening chain of rumors over what Windows 8 tablets will look like and when the new tablets will really be ready to roll.
Based largely on slides and other tips from anonymous Microsoft partners, published predictions around shipment dates range all the way from the first to the third quarter of next year.
Meanwhile, the competitive pressures on Microsoft only continue to mount, analysts point out. “I do think that if Microsoft wants to put a dog in the race, this dog ought to be born, weaned, and ready for action very soon,’ noted Charles King, chief analyst at Pund-IT, in an interview.
Some Microsoft partners, though, now suggest that Microsoft isn’t going to put the cart before the horse. “At 318, we are Microsoft and Apple partners. We fully anticipate that Microsoft will release a tailored version of Windows for tablets, meant to compete with Apple, Research in Motion and Google,” said Charles Edge, director of technology at 318 Inc., an IT consulting and development firm specializing in integrating tablets in the enterprise.
“We are more than willing to wait for as long as it takes to make sure the product is perfect. Microsoft isn’t going to rush to the market with a product that isn’t ready for prime time,” Edge contended, in an e-mail to TabletPCReview.
Meanwhile, Mike Halsey, a UK-based Microsoft MVP, acknowledged that Microsoft’s timetable for the next iteration of Windows will be “driven by accountants.” Halsey told me during another interview that tablets based on Windows 8 – or whatever name Microsoft ends up using for the new OS – look likely to ship in autumn of 2012, just in time for the back-to-school season.
What We Know
In delivering some quick sneak peeks at its next OS during a CES keynote, Microsoft didn’t give any indication about an intended release date.
“What we know [from the keynote] is that Microsoft is planning new versions of the OS for both Intel [platforms] and ARM SOCs [systems-on-a-chip],” observed Rob Enderle, chief analyst at the Enderle Group, in another interview.
Microsoft ran demos during the keynote using an early build of the new OS — build 6.2.7867 – but with a Windows 7 user interface (UI) layered on top. Rumors soon started floating about what to expect in a Windows 8 UI.
Mosh, Metro, and/or an Avatar?
During CES, Windows specialist Paul Thurrott blogged about tips from an unnamed source concerning a tile-based UI codenamed Mosh, purportedly aimed at low-end Windows 8 touch tablets.”
Then, Matt Rosoff reported a rumor in Business Insider that Windows 8 would use elements of the Metro interface from Windows Phone 7, with demos of the new tablet UI slated to start in June.
Screenhots leaked earlier this week through Asian Web sites show a screen with a profile picture on the bottom right, supposedly designed for logging into Windows 8 either locally or through a cloud-enabled Windows Live ID account.
Reports are now just emerging about a main UI for Windows 8, codenamed “Wind” and targeted at high-end desktop and notebook PCs as opposed to tablets.
Microsoft Needs the Touch
“Windows 8 needs user interfaces that work on non-pixel-perfect devices such as smartphones and tablets. Microsoft could leverage the Windows Phone 7 UI for this and build on it to have it drive other parts of the full (desktop) shell,” advised Rob Sanfillipo, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, in another e-mail.
“The UI needs to be fast, intuitive, slick, and attractive to consumers [in order] to compete with [Apple’s] iOS and Android. It is also expected that the next [Microsoft] Office release should take these qualities into account so that Office applications can be used more naturally on tablets and smartphones.”
Microsoft MVP Halsey said that Microsoft needs to include new APIs that will let developers create buttons that are bigger and more user friendly.
“The Windows Phone 7 interface is great, but I’m not sure yet how well it will translate to the larger screen of a tablet,” he noted.
Ironically, even if not intentionally, Microsoft actually started paving the way to better touch a few years back by introducing the ribbon interface to its Office software, according to Halsey, a Windows support specialist and author.
iPad 2 Pushes on Microsoft
Apple’s announcement last week of the iPad 2 heightens the pressures on both Microsoft and other iPad wannabes, observers agreed.
King said Apple’s continuing “stickiness” with the iPad is just about unprecedented anywhere in the computer industry. “If Microsoft or someone else doesn’t come up with something soon that’s more compelling, Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, CA will turn into a big, black hole that swallows all competitors in this space,” he remarked.
“One thing that’s very interesting about iPad is its consumeristic nature,” according to Edge. ‘The things that excite our enterprise customers are pretty much the same things that [excite] our small business and consumer clientele.”
All sorts of customers are interested in the iPad’s dual cameras for videoconferencing, although consumers come more from the standpoint of videoconferencing through FaceBook. On the other hand, “our enterprise customers are most intrigued about leveraging existing telephony to integrate videoconferencing,” Edge said. “There is going to be a race for a company that can really do this right!”
When Will Windows 8 Tablet Arrive?
A different kind of race is already underway at Microsoft, although it’s still unclear exactly when Windows 8 tablets will cross the finish line.
In mid-February, a leaked Dell roadmap spurred conjecture about the possible release of two purported Windows 8 tablets — codenamed “Peju” and “Rosemount” – in January and the second quarter of 2012, respectively.
Soon afterward, Mary Jo Foley, a columnist for ZDNet, analyzed a leaked Microsoft roadmap to predict that, by passing through an internal marker named Milestone 2 on time, Windows 8 is likely to be ready for beta testing by September and for final release by mid-2012.
Apparently, however, MVP Halsey is hardly alone among Microsoft partners in anticipating new tablets a bit later in that year.
Analysts are divided. “There are those of us who believe that Windows 8 will enter the beta cycle by the end of this year, and that Windows 8 tablets will be available early next year,” Enderle contended.
“Microsoft is well aware that it doesn’t have unlimited time at its disposal.”
Yet Michael Cherry, another senior analyst at Directions on Microsoft, suggested that Windows 8 devices might get pushed back due to extra challenges around adapting existing apps to ARM-based hardware and a new touch interface.
“If I were a developer, would I just want to do a minimal thing, or would I want to change my app for the tablet?” he asked. “So far, Windows apps have been written to work with a fine selection instrument, such as a mouse or stylus. But the finger is a blunt instrument.”
Microsoft partner Halsey, on the other hand, maintained that a lot of business app developers will just stick with Intel platforms — not bothering with either ARM or touch — and that enterprises with fleets of Windows 7 tablets are likely to avoid additional costs by keeping their existing stylus UIs.
An SDK Clue
Cherry believes that the release of an SDK (software developers kit) will be a good indication that Microsoft considers Windows 8 stable enough for legions of developers to start in on creating and modifying apps.
According to Sanfilippo, although some close inside Microsoft partners might already be working with early SDK builds, a public SDK release will most likely take place at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference this year, an event that will probably happen in the third quarter.
“I think the Windows 8 tools will allow developers to implement applications and build them for all key platforms – ARM, Intel SoC, x86, and x64,” Sanfilippo told me.
“It’s unlikely Microsoft will burden developers with different SDKs and tools, since Microsoft wants Windows to be the OS standard across all hardware. One of Microsoft’s strengths is building thorough SDKs and powerful development tools, so the Windows 8 release should be no different.”
Still, Sanfilippo said he projects an arrival date for Windows 8 tablets of “mid-2012, at the earliest.”
Will Microsoft Ever Give Up?
If Windows 8 tablets do miss the mark, Microsoft might as well throw in the towel to the iPad, according to Halsey. “I have no doubt that Windows 8 will be a competent release for business use, but I’m not certain that Microsoft can ever crack the tablet market,” the Microsoft partner added.
Sanfillipo differed on that score, though. “I don’t think Microsoft will concede the device market to either Apple or Google,” the analyst elaborated.
“Despite current and projected market shares, Microsoft will continue to use its resources to compete in this space similarly to the way it has struggled to compete with Google for the search market for many years. Microsoft ultimately wants Windows to drive all computing devices, so it will not concede any such markets.”