Windows 8: In danger of being shut out from the Internet of Things

The Sphero robotic ball can be controlled with a WIndows 8 app. But all the games advertised on Sphero's web site are for iOS and Android only. Credit: Sphero

If the future of computing is phones and tablets, that ought to be good news for Microsoft. Windows 8.1 is a tablet operating system that just happens to run your desktop software as well, and Windows RT is a tablet operating system that just happens to run Office and to work with the vast majority of printers, scanners, and other peripherals, from webcams to USB microscopes. It should be the best of both worlds, old and new.

But does Microsoft really have a foothold in the new world of things?

If you need desktop software, from Office to Photoshop to Lightroom to Visual Studio, Windows is the natural solution. Outside the consumer world and the people who can manage with iWorks and Office for Mac, many Mac users run Parallels so they have Windows desktop software because they need it. While every year for the last decade has been mooted as the year of the Linux desktop, Windows won the desktop war.

Desktop software isn't going away for many users, and neither is desktop browsing. According to a recent GlobalWebIndex survey, only 5% of US users access the Web only on their phone, with another 4% using only a phone or tablet; the other 91% browse the web on a PC regularly as well.

Maybe that figure will change soon and we'll do everything on tablets, but as of today we're still using PCs for the things they're good at: Connecting peripherals, working with information that needs precise manipulation, and having multiple applications open at once.

But we use phones and tablets for doing new things in new ways, from playing games to connecting to the new devices that form the first wave of the Internet of Things, such as fitness tracking devices, home sensors, and a growing selection of little things that measure and control the world around us.

Technically speaking, you could do that just as well on a Windows tablet as on an iPad or Nexus 7. But the companies making these new things don't seem to be that interested in letting Windows users control their gadgets in the tablet world.

Fitbit has had desktop software for Windows since its pedometers first went on sale, but recent Fitbits have synced to iOS and some Android devices. Windows 8 only got an official app for syncing exercise data from a Fitbit over Bluetooth LE a couple of weeks ago.

Sonos has had a Windows app for controlling its multi-room wireless music players for years as well, but the company stopped making its own remote control hardware and started making phone and tablet controller software for Android and iOS. Despite it being the most requested feature in the Sonos user forums, there are no official apps for Windows 8 or Windows Phone to control Sonos players.

Orbotix showed a Windows 8 app for controlling its fun robotic ball at the Build conference last year, and thanks to comprehensive APIs there are third-party controllers for Windows Phone too. But you wouldn't know that from the Sphero website: The augmented reality games that make the Sphero more than a round remote-controlled car are all for iOS and Android.

And looking at the first new gadgets promised for CES this year, Windows 8 isn't on the radar for the new thing-makers. Want security cameras to stick on your wall or cooking thermometers you can monitor from the lounge, or CO2 sensors to check if you're getting enough fresh air in the bedroom, or a blood pressure monitor, or a posture sensor that buzzes when you slump in your chair? You can set up, control and monitor all of those from your phone or your tablet -- as long as it's not a Windows tablet.

While there are thousands of familiar peripherals that work in Windows, and both Windows 8 and Windows Phone have done a great job catching up on most of the must-have mobile apps, these new gadgets are nearly always for Android and iOS only. That's not for technical reasons; it's because Windows tablets are new, especially ones with the latest low-power Bluetooth radios, and iOS and Android phones and tablets have been selling in large numbers for the last couple of years.

Microsoft envisioned Windows 8 as a transition plan where billions of users would make a seamless move from a desktop PC that runs your desktop apps to a tablet that gives you the desktop apps you still need for as long as you need them, as well as the new mobile apps and devices as you switch to wanting those. But that only works if Windows continues to be the universal platform where everything works. Microsoft needs a lot of the gadgets we'll hear about at CES to work with Windows as well as with iOS and Android, otherwise Windows tablets will struggle to remain relevant as the Internet of Things arrives.

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