It was only 18 months ago that Steve Ballmer used his keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show 2010 to talk up the HP Slate, a device he said would be the first in a long line of Windows 7-backed tablets. A fortnight later, Steve Jobs revealed the first iPad and ever since, the Big M’s attempts to put down a marker in the ever-growing tablet space have faltered.
Until now, that is. Because the Redmond company has just shown off its new Windows 8 operating system, built specifically with tablets in mind. The new OS is designed to work on PCs too, but it’s the platform’s slate credentials that are already grabbing headlines.
The new Start screen, revealed as an official screen grab, is heavily indebted to Windows Phone 7. There are Live Tiles as well, with users able to open up any program by simply prodding the tile they want. Messages appear pinned to the Start screen too, emulating one of WP7’s best features.
Apps are also at Windows 8’s heart, with traditional programs and HTML5 and Java versions that are meant to resemble mobile add-ons. With this, Microsoft is clearly hoping to bridge the gap between full-on PC and tablet. But the question is, will it really succeed?
Because while there’s no denying that Windows 8 looks great and will have been thought through from every angle, the worry is that it’s all coming far too late. Although it’s been trailed now, devices using the OS are not due to be released until well into 2012. By that point, the iPad 3 will be on shelves and Android Ice Cream Sandwich will be unifying Google-backed smartphones and tablets.
That’s bad enough for Microsoft. Throw in the hard evidence of Windows Phone 7’s struggle to take the initiative in the smartphone space, despite it being a remarkable piece of software, and it’s difficult to imagine Windows 8 tablets troubling Google and Apple too much.
Essentially, Microsoft is paying the price for some criminally poor versions of its old Windows Mobile OS. While Apple surged ahead with the iPhone and Google built up Android from scratch, it remained convinced it could challenge with this creaking operating system. Now it’s offering truly excellent alternatives, it seems the ship has already sailed.
It’s unlikely that Windows 8 tablets will be anything other than well thought-out, well-designed machines. But it’s going to take a lot more than sharp design and good looks to give Microsoft a foothold in the tablet arena. It’d be great for the market it did, but it’s already looking highly unlikely.