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September 14, 2011

∴ Microsoft's Windows 8 Tablets: Something Doesn't Add Up

Zach Epstein, writing for Boy Genius Report:

“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.”

That’s a bold prediction for a product that doesn’t yet exist, and won’t be delivered until next fall at the very earliest. By then, the iPad and iOS will likely be in versions 3 and 6, respectively, and Apple’s iCloud service will bind iOS and Mac OS devices into a seamless computing environment. Pick the right tool for the task at hand, be it a laptop, desktop or handheld; they’ll all work together.

Yet laptops and desktops on one hand, and handhelds on the other, remain very different beasts. RAM, persistent storage and processor power requirements remain higher for the former in order to do the heavy lifting required by their applications. Those same requirements are lower, and less costly for the latter because a mobile platform doesn’t engender the same performance expectations as its older siblings. Yet Microsoft is planning to deliver, and early reviewers are touting (via DF), a one-size-fits-all approach that, presumably, will compete on the same price points as the iPad. That doesn’t make sense. And if it doesn't compete, what chance has it of gaining a foothold in the tablet space?

Consider what happens when Microsoft creates a Windows-based tablet device that combines a mobile UI with legacy application support in a single form factor. Yes, they’ll let the user access a full keyboard and other peripherals via a docking station, but all the computing hardware has to live in the space of a tablet.

What will happen to Windows 8’s sharp-looking Metro UI performance when Microsoft shoehorns it and their legacy Windows code, needed for backward compatibility, into a relatively small RAM store and flash storage device, as they must? 1 GB RAM is standard on Android-based tablets today, while 512 MB is standard on iPad 2, but let’s be charitable and assume that ever-cheaper RAM allows an iPad-priced Windows 8 tablet to carry 2 GB RAM.

Well, Windows on a diet running alone in 2 GB sounds reasonable. Windows plus one non-bloatware application running in 2 GB, maybe. Windows multitasking a half-dozen apps, some of them legacy Windows applications like Outlook, Excel or Photoshop, and a browser with ten open tabs? Good luck with that. It won’t matter that the user can switch between the Metro UI and mobile apps, and something resembling Windows 7 and desktop apps, because it all has to fit in a RAM store that remains cost-competitive with a tablet.

Today’s solid state storage devices start getting expensive above 128 GB, but let’s assume that they, too, become cheaper by next fall. A Windows 8 tablet device will need a large SSD-on-a-stick to store all those legacy Windows applications. iPads and Android devices get away with far less storage because mobile apps (note the difference there: mobile) are coded smaller and require far less storage.

Again, the Windows 8 tablet has to remain cost-competitive with a tablet, something Android-based tablet makers have been sorely challenged to accomplish. And Android tablet makers make no pretense of running legacy PC applications.

And how will the legacy OS code, not to mention the new Metro UI, function on mobile-friendly, low-powered ARM (or ARM-like) processors? Today’s demo runs on the Intel Core i5 processor, a contemporary, full-power CPU. That will not work in a tablet form factor unless the tablet remains plugged into an electrical outlet. There is no reason to believe that, after two decades’ experience with Windows, performance of a new, Metro UI-wrapped Windows OS will function well on scaled-down, power sipping ARM-like processors.

Windows 8, such as it is, looks great in its Metro UI Sunday best. And by marrying the ease of use and simplicity of a touch interface with the power of the underlying Windows OS, Microsoft is clearly charting a different direction than Apple has with their iPad and Google (and their minion OEMs) has with Android.

I hope Windows 8 is a smashing success. Windows users, those who have stuck with it through decades of hair-pulling driver issues, inadequate security and underwhelming performance without bailing for the greener pastures of Mac OS or Linux, deserve nothing less. But Microsoft is going to have to make the numbers add up.