On Wednesday evening, Microsoft showed the first public glimpses of Windows 8, including a touch screen interface that’s unlike any version of Windows we’ve ever seen. And already, Apple enthusiasts are chiming in with disdain.
Microsoft just doesn’t get it, they say. Windows 8 drops the ball by supporting both tablet and legacy Windows applications, instead of throwing everything out and starting a new tablet OS from scratch. The iPad is so perfect because it doesn’t try to be a Mac, they argue. Letting people run Excel on a tablet just isn’t “elegant.” No, it’s a fundamentally flawed understanding of what makes Apple’s tablet so magical and revolutionary, they protest.
Baloney. Microsoft doesn’t have to copy Apple’s strategy for Windows 8 to succeed. In fact, copying Apple would be a fatal mistake. Instead, Microsoft should be charting new territory with Windows 8, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
In supporting the old, familiar Windows interface and the new tablet experience on a single device, Microsoft has laid the groundwork for modular computing — that is, a single device that transforms to suit the user’s needs. Want to lounge around with some e-books or videos? The tablet interface makes it possible. Want to get some work done? Plug in a mouse and keyboard and go crazy with the desktop version of Excel. It’s the best of both worlds in one piece of hardware.
At Macworld, Jason Snell argues that this is a risky approach. If the iPad ran Mac apps, he says, developers probably wouldn’t have bothered creating all-new apps for the touch screen. I’m not convinced that the same will be true for Windows 8, with its huge potential customer base. There will be demand for touch-based apps simply because of how many people are already using Windows. And besides, Microsoft has proven willing to grow its app ecosystem by paying developers.
I also don’t buy the idea that Microsoft needed to show a version of Office built from the ground-up for tablets, as John Gruber argues. While it’d be nice if Microsoft created touch-based versions of its productivity software — and don’t rule it out just yet — there’s only so much work you can do with a touch screen. Trust me, I’ve tried to blog on my iPad countless times, but I can never get farther than tapping out a rough draft and switching to a laptop to finish the job. It’s not just the mouse and keyboard that makes the difference. It’s the little things, like keyboard shortcuts, right clicks and easy access to a file manager.
What Microsoft demonstrated on Wednesday is exactly what I want in a computer — a lightweight tablet UI that’s meant for casual computing and a powerful, classic Windows that allows me to work. I’m tired of carrying around my iPad and laptop together. I want one device that does everything.
That’s not to say Microsoft will pull it off. The company has set some ambitious goals for Windows 8, and a lot can go wrong. But I’m not about to dismiss what Microsoft is doing because it doesn’t follow in Apple’s footsteps. For Microsoft, playing copycat would only solidify Apple’s lead in the post-PC era.
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