A tablet is not a PC, or why Microsoft's Windows 8 strategy is puzzling the pundits

Microsoft mobile chief Andy Lees says Windows 8 tablets should do everything PCs do

Microsoft's mobile chief Andy Lees turned a few heads this week by declaring that "we view a tablet as a sort of PC." Lees went on to say that a tablet should do "all of the things you would expect from a PC." 

Pundits from TechCrunch's John Biggs to ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley and former Canonical executive Matt Asay are already questioning Microsoft's logic, and with good reason.

The problem with Windows 7 tablets: They still run Windows

The only tablets on the market today that are full PCs are Windows 7 tablets, and they are failures. Microsoft is adding a new tablet-optimized interface to Windows 8 that will run in addition to the traditional Windows interface, but it doesn't make sense to jam a full PC operating system into a device that is more ideal for consumption, rather than creation of content. HP already realized this when it shifted from Windows tablets to the TouchPad, based on WebOS.

Applications like QuickOffice, and BlueTooth keyboards let tablet owners do a bit of work in a pinch, when they're not near a full computer. But the appeal of the devices is an easy-to-use operating system combined with apps that let you watch movies, play games, and read articles in fancy news aggregators like Pulse and Flipboard. Work on a tablet, or a phone, is usually a quick edit to a document, not creating a complicated spreadsheet. 

Lees doesn't agree. 

"Now, a lot of people have asked me, are we going to produce a phone that is a tablet?," Lees said. "You know, are we going to use Windows Phone 7 to produce tablets? Well, that is in conflict with this strategy. We view a tablet as a sort of PC. We want people to be able to do the sorts of things that they expect on a PC on a tablet, things like networking to be able to connect to networks, and utilize networking tools, to get USB drives and plot them into the tablet. To be able to do things like printing, all of the things using Office, using all of the things you would expect from a PC and provide a hybrid about how you can do that with the tablet, as well."

I wouldn't mind having a USB port on an iPad. But Microsoft is so focused on ensuring that tablets don't replace PCs that it's trying to turn tablets into full-fledged Windows computers. While Windows 8 will no doubt be more touch-friendly, this approach hasn't worked with Windows 7 tablets. 

Lees' statements occurred at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in Los Angeles. While there, I stopped by the Fujitsu booth to examine a few Windows 7 tablets. Compared to my iPad 2, they are clunky and have touch screens that are less responsive, a problem because the Windows 7 start menu isn't touch-friendly to begin with. You really need a stylus to use them properly.

A Fujitsu guy came over to me to see what I thought. Trying to be polite, I told him I like my iPad better but am looking forward to what Windows 8 will bring. He spent a few minutes trying to talk me into the benefits of a Windows tablet, asking me "Can your iPad print? Does its battery last all day?"

On printing, sure it's easier to print from a Windows tablet. But Apple has teamed up with HP to provide printing capabilities across a couple of dozen printers, and Google Cloud Print can print to just about any printer. While I can imagine some people taking advantage of these options, I've never needed to. 

The Fujitsu guy's second question surprised me because I had never heard that Windows tablets have better battery life than the iPad. Later on, I looked up battery life for a couple Windows 7 "slates" on Fujitsu's site, and found that it is listed as "up to" four hours for one and eight hours for another. That's less than the 10 hours claimed for the iPad. Having used the iPad 2 for entire five- and six-hour flights without draining the battery below 60%, I'd have to say Apple is ahead of the pack on this very important front.

Finally, I asked the Fujitsu guy how long the Windows 7 tablets take to start up. After some hemming and hawing, he said it's about two minutes, and that the specifications given to tablet makers by Microsoft is that devices should start up in three and a half minutes or less. 

My iPad, meanwhile, starts up in 30 seconds. Granted, any tablet should start up immediately from sleep mode, but one of the problems in non-iPad tablets I've tested, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab, is battery life draining in sleep mode. 

While at WPC I also had a conversation with Frank Shaw, Microsoft's lead corporate communications executive, who mentioned that there have been challenges in bringing Windows 7 to the current generation of tablet hardware.

Let's assume that all of these problems are solved by the time of Windows 8, which will support the low-power ARM chips popular in today's smartphones and tablets. (Although, Microsoft says any PC running Windows 7 will be upgradable to Windows 8, so be careful what you buy.) Will Windows 8 tablets be a success?

I am intrigued by the Windows 8 tablet interface, which provides a start screen full of tiles, with each tile representing an application and its current state, sort of like Android widgets with weather updates and email appearing on your home screen.

This interface is similar to the one on Windows Phone 7, and in my opinion looks like an excellent way to navigate tablet apps. But Windows 8 tablets will also run the full Windows desktop operating system underneath, or so Microsoft is indicating today.

While multi-tasking on Windows tablets could be superior to the iPad, Apple has purposely limited multi-tasking on the iPad due to concerns about battery life and overall system performance. If Windows 8 tablets crash and force a restart as often as Windows desktops do, sign me up for an iPad 3. 

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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