Microsoft spent more than two years and many millions of dollars coming up with a new interface and application model to make Windows 8 tablets competitive with the iPad. But now, if a report today is correct, Microsoft is about to throw a serious wrench in this plan by coming out with a gaming tablet that doesn't run Windows at all.
Tom Warren at The Verge reports that Microsoft is testing a 7-inch Xbox Surface tablet in its Silicon Valley offices. The tablet will reportedly run a specialized form of Windows – just like the Xbox – but will almost certainly not run regular Windows 8 apps. The report lends credence to rumors that cropped up before Microsoft's Surface Tablet debut in Los Angeles last June.
If true, this would undercut the very clever BYOD strategy for Windows 8, which envisions consumers choosing Windows 8 tablets and bringing them to work.
I've argued before that Windows 8 is not starting out as an enterprise play. Rather, it's the beginning of a years-long attempt to move Windows to where Microsoft thinks the computer market is going – toward mobile always-connected devices with touch screen UIs.
Microsoft actually packed a lot of great enterprise features into Windows 8, including better performance, a new security model that will make Windows much less vulnerable to certain kinds of attacks, and the ability to put a personalized bootable version of Windows 8 on a USB drive, so it can be used from any computer.
But Microsoft forces users to boot into and start applications from the new Windows 8 UI, even if they're on a computer with no touch screen. That UI has no usability benefits for users on non-touchscreen devices, and will require significant user training. The forced march to the new UI means a lot of enterprises will take a "wait and see" approach to the new OS. (I predict Microsoft will actually offer enterprises a boot-to-desktop option in a future version of Windows, but stay tuned.)
Microsoft did this in order to give developers a real incentive to build new-style apps for Windows 8. If it had allowed users to boot into the traditional desktop, that's precisely what a lot of users would have done, and developers might have chosen to ignore the new application model and build for the desktop instead. By ensuring that every single Windows 8 user will be spending significant time in the new UI, Microsoft gives Windows developers a much better reason to build new-style apps.
So the goal with Windows 8 right now is to get consumers to consider it as an alternative to the iPad – a fun tablet with lots of consumer apps that also runs Office and can help you get work done. That's the thinking behind the Windows Surface tablets as well – a single device that works great as a media consumption tablet, and as a work device with a keyboard. If Surface turns out to be a hit, Microsoft's PC partners will have no choice but to put out similar devices.
But the entire idea hinges on tech-savvy consumers choosing a Windows 8 tablet instead of an iPad, then bringing it to work.
A dedicated gaming tablet will peel off a significant number of these users, who were hoping to use their Windows 8 tablets for playing great games – just like the iPad has. It will also exacerbate the version confusion created by Windows RT – a limited version of Windows 8 that does not run old Windows apps but runs on battery-efficient ARM processors.
But wait – hasn't Microsoft done this before? Wasn't the original Xbox a direct competitor to the high-end PC gaming market?
Yes, but that market had already moved toward game consoles, particularly Sony's PlayStation series. Ironically, the console gaming market is now getting slaughtered by the rise of gaming on smartphones and tablets – particularly the iPhone and iPad.
There's one big threat to Microsoft's dominance on the client side – the iPad. Microsoft should counter that threat with one big response. Not a bunch of slightly different tablets bearing the same name.