Microsoft CIO Steve Balmer's recent speech hyping a new crop of Windows 7 “slate” computers at the Microsoft Partners Conference in mid-July sent a message both to the industry and to users that the office computing giant is serious about getting into the emerging mobile computing market. It also should send a message to software developers, SaaS providers, and especially company CIOs, that iPad-like thin tablet computing will expand quickly into the office.
Microsoft, of course, is no stranger to tablet computing. But so far its tablets have been relegated to small niche markets, while the vast majority of office users carry laptops. Most of these tablets have been heavy and clunky, often with full keyboards and built-in touchpads, plus hard drives and large amounts of expensive memory – and the heavy batteries needed to power all this hardware. And they are expensive – in the $3,000 range each. They more closely resemble laptop computers than the thin, light, elegant design of the iPad.
The basic problem is that Microsoft is trying to translate a system designed for desktop use and essentially unlimited hardware resources to a format with very different needs and severe resource limitations. The Windows UI, the complexity and size of the operating system, and the huge code based of the applications, make the package hard to fit onto a light, $500 tablet without a dual-core processor, 100 GB hard drive, etc. Windows applications, including those from third parties, have become equally complex by the logic of “feature creep”. Even screen size can become an issue. Windows applications designed for large laptop screens do not always translate well the small screens of handheld devices. Vital pieces of displays such as “save” buttons on the bottom of editing screens may be totally inaccessible, requiring users to shift between landscape and portrait views just to do something as simple as creating a new entry into a database application. I have this experience regularly when using my Sony Vaio UX, a Windows Vista tablet the size of a large PDA, in handheld mode.
Advances in chip technology, providing more resources in smaller packages at lower power consumption, and the drop in price of solid-state storage in particular, should improve the situation, allowing manufacturers to produce lighter, easier to carry, Windows systems at a reasonable price. And presumably the office computer manufacturers will have the good sense to add USB drives to their slates and provide docking stations that either include built-in keyboards or provide USB connections to support external keyboards, disk drives, and other peripherals, something that apparently did not occur to Apple's designers. They also should include a memory card slot to support an internal, removable D drive, which can be very useful.
Microsoft, however, has other issues it has to contend with in competing with Apple in the mobile computing market. One, of course, is the “wow” factor. That Apple interface is much sexier than boring, old Windows. And, equally important, it was designed from ground up for touchscreen use. Yes you can probably do everything on a Windows tablet that you can on the iPad, but it is not as easy or natural. Microsoft badly needs to update the Windows UI to compete, and that will take time, particularly since it means that all the third-party Windows software companies will also have to update their applications to take advantage of those updates.
Another is the basic complexity of the Windows system. The iPad – and the Android OS, and the Palm WebOS now owned by Hewlett-Packard, that have their own very different but equally sexy touchscreen UIs – are basically simple, unbreakable systems. They work more like your TV than your computer: Turn the device on and it runs instantly, with no long boot cycle, it allows users to do what they want without demanding complex skills (starting with touch typing, which many executives consider a secretarial skill), shut it off and it is off instantly. And it seldom has an error message, crash, or other problems common with Windows. What this means for CIOs is that senior management will become increasingly impatient with Windows problems. Having a great help desk is no longer enough – companies essentially need an idle one.
Of course Windows slates are in many ways good news for corporate IT. A new generation of lighter Windows tablets designed to be used handheld or on a desk will provide a mobile platform that runs all the corporate standard desktop software and uses a familiar technology rather than requiring support for unfamiliar technologies such as the iPad, Android, and WebOS. That also means IT can deal with their established vendors and service providers for this new platform rather than having to create and manage new relationships. It also will run corporate standard security software, making security less complex. However, Windows slates will be just as vulnerable physically to loss and theft as iPads out of the office, which dictates a policy of preventing users from storing sensitive corporate data on these systems.
And Microsoft is good at learning from past mistakes. So these new Windows 7 slates will be better than the old XP tablets. And in some ways they will play well into Apple's weaknesses – particularly its control freak mentality. Companies will be able to distribute corporate standard software, including internally developed apps, directly to users on Windows 7 slates. On the iPad, they will have to work through Apple's iStore and get Apple approval for any custom apps they want on their internal corporate users' iPads. That may prove an advantage that IT can use to convince senior management that Windows rather than Apple should remain the company standard in the new era of mobile computing.
Action Item: User Action: Prepare for this new era of mobile end-user computing by upgrading the internal WiFi network to handle the large increase in traffic and redesigning internal IT services on the SaaS model, with all data and background computing resources secured in the data center. Test all application action screens for resizing to small screens – Balmer specifically promised slates in several different physical configurations, and some users may prefer smaller devices rather than large, harder-to-carry tablets. Also train users to use the internal Windows “disk cleanup” utility, plus a third-party utility such as Ccleaner, regularly, to remove Windows error messages and other storage hogs that otherwise build up quickly on Windows systems and can rob these resource-constrained systems of important Gbytes. I also strongly recommend TweakRAM, which allows users to recover memory quickly, and, for text entry in handheld mode, the Fitaly virtual keyboard, which is designed for “typing” using a stylus or single finger. It is surprisingly easy to learn and faster than handwriting on a screen. Disclaimer: I have absolutely no business or financial association with any of these vendors, I make these recommendations based on years of experience using their products on my own handhelds, including the Sony Vaio UX Vista tablet I have carried and used daily for the past three years.