One Platform to Rule Them All

September 15th, 2011

Zach Epstein on what Windows 8 promises:

But the iPad was only the beginning.

Apple paved the way but Microsoft will get there first with Windows 8. A tablet that can be as fluid and user friendly as the iPad but as capable as a Windows laptop. A tablet that can boot in under 10 seconds and fire up a full-scale version of Adobe Dreamweaver a few moments later. A tablet that can be slipped into a dock to instantly become a fully capable touch-enabled laptop computer. This is Microsoft’s vision with Windows 8, and this is what it will deliver.

Epstein, with just a bit of snark, calls this the “post post-PC” era, because he doesn’t think the iPad is a “post-PC” at all. He argues that because the iPad isn’t as good at doing “work”—spreadsheets, word processing, et cetera—that it isn’t what’s going to replace the PC.

Instead, he believes that Windows 8 tablets will. The PC is still the future, he argues, because it will allow us to do work as comfortably as before, while enjoying the benefits of a touch-based tablet for browsing the web, reading, watching video and playing games. He lays out this vision above.

What I think his vision actually points out, though, is Windows 8′s central problem: it takes no position, it has no central theme or integrity. This isn’t a vision so much as a refusal to choose between fundamentally different user interfaces. Rather, Microsoft decided to combine the PC’s mouse and keyboard-based user interface with the iPad’s touch-based interface and have the best of both worlds.

What makes the iPad so compelling is that it is designed to work for touch and for a simpler kind of computing. We don’t need to worry about the file system, whether a runaway process is eating up our device’s resources, or if a certain file happens to be on our device at that time. Apple’s vision for computing is one where the user doesn’t even need to remember they’re using a computer, because the device gets out of their way and allows them to do whatever it is they want to do. This applies both to the hardware (no vents or fans to remind users what’s going on inside), the operating system, and applications themselves. “Designed for touch” doesn’t simply mean that it works with touch, but that the application is fundamentally re-designed to be simpler to understand and use, so it’s not just functional, but a joy to use. I summarized this vision in April like this:

The technology is a means to an end, and it is best hidden away, so the device’s purpose becomes one-and-the-same with the device itself. Apple’s vision for post-PC devices is not to make personal computers mobile. Apple’s vision is to make the technology so seamless, so effortless to use, that people forget they are even using a computer—so invisible that all people see is the web, or their book, or their movie.

Apple is seeking to make the technology irrelevant, so we can use these devices to do—to make, to create, to be inspired from. Don’t worry about what processor or display it has. Just read. Just write. Just draw. Just do.

Because Apple’s built a device that is so compelling and so successful, current application types that don’t map well to it—things like spreadsheets—will be re-conceptualized to work within their vision.

In Microsoft’s vision, none of this is true. Their vision is for a continuation of the PC as we know it, where we deal with task managers, filesystems and interfaces primarily designed for the keyboard and mouse. In their version of the future of computing, we have full compatibility with past applications. We can use our current copies of PowerPoint, Excel, Word, Photoshop and Dreamweaver on our new tablets, while still enjoying the benefits of touch.

Perhaps I’ll be wrong when Windows 8 is released, but I don’t think this will be true. Instead, what we will have are keyboard and pointer-less Windows computers that also happen to have a touch layer for inconsequential things like checking the weather, playing a game, or browsing the web. “Real” work will still be done with traditional PC applications, and they will remain fundamentally the same. Why would software makers completely re-think their applications for touch—for post-PC devices—when they will run just fine on them? Why wouldn’t they simply re-work them a bit by making their UIs “touch-friendly” and call it good?

The problem with Microsoft’s vision isn’t the Metro UI, which is original and beautiful. The problem with their vision is that they don’t have one. Microsoft realized the iPad threatens the PC and thus their business and so now they’re trying to figure out how they can preserve the PC as it is while incorporating touch. This doesn’t come from a grand desire to unify the PC and the post-PC, but rather a desire to preserve their current business. If they had made a bet on the post-PC and based it entirely on Metro, like they did with Windows Phone 7, there would be good reason to laude Microsoft for not only creating an altogether new user interface, but for having the courage to say, yes, this is the future of computing, and of our company.

Instead, Microsoft’s said the past is the future. And that’s disappointing.