Windows 8/RT/Phone: Growing Pains and the Future of Computing

I will start off with the disclaimer that I have not used Windows 8 or RT on a touch-enabled device extensively. My experience is mostly with keyboard and trackpad laptops (a white MacBook running BootCamp, and a cheap Core i3 HP laptop of some kind). These devices are usable but do not let the Metro portion of the OS show its true potential. There are some growing pains in this shift and Microsoft has made some mistakes, but this is very much the future of computing:

Most of my experience with Metro UI stems from Windows Phone 7 and 8. If we’re honest with ourselves we’ll say that these mobile OSs have a bit of a learning curve to them compared to iOS and Android. Windows 8, requires a steeper learning curve, especially if you’re on a non-touch screen device. Thus far I’d be willing to bet that most people buying a Windows 8 machine or upgrading to Windows 8 from an older machine, do not have a touch screen on their computer. Their Windows 8 device is most likely a traditional laptop or desktop with input via mouse/trackpad and keyboard. RT is a major shift from the traditional Windows 7 desktop, and so there are lots of people complaining about this change or are unwilling to change to the new OS. Microsoft has to seriously focus on educating the typical consumer (not you and me here on the Verge though some of us would still find it helpful no doubt) on this new UI. This is where Microsoft would benefit from Microsoft Stores (of which there aren't many) or at least train Best Buy/Staples/whatever employees about the product they're supposed to be selling and have that go on to the customer.

Another issue consumers may have stems from the incompatibility of apps between the versions of Windows. If I bought an app for Windows Phone 7 it will work (well enough) on Windows Phone 8. Those same apps, will not work on RT. Sure it’s easy for developers to port between the 3, but it’s hard for the consumer to have to buy apps for their phone and then for their tablet/laptop. We as readers of tech sites know this is the case. But what about the typical consumer buying into this ecosystem? If you buy a Windows Phone 8 (or 7, remember, you’re the average consumer) you’d like any apps you buy to be as compatible as possible with the Windows 8 tablet/laptop/hybrid. This is how it works with iPhones and iPads, and Android phones and tablets. Yes Microsoft’s Windows 8 is a different beast, but the consumer doesn’t care. They want/need that seamless compatibility.

This is a very fundamental problem. We hear a lot about Android’s fragmentation issues, but Microsoft has fragmented Windows. Ideally Microsoft is asking developers to make apps for Windows Phone 7 (because it’s being pushed as an alternative to budget Android devices in developing markets), Windows Phone 8, Windows RT and the usual Windows desktop apps. It is extremely likely that the developers they’re courting are already developing apps for iOS and Android, which if you believe certain developers, already requires a lot of resources to develop for. So they’ve beat Android at something so far, unfortunately it’s fragmentation.

The worst part is that there is no way around it and it had to be done in order to move Windows forward. But this spells a bad future for Windows Phone. Windows Phone 7 was a shift away from Windows Mobile. Windows Phone 8 is a shift away from 7, and a (half) step toward full on compatibility between Windows Phone and Windows 8/RT. Microsoft seems to be telling the consumer “Yes we’re building an ecosystem!” but in reality it’s not there yet, and won't be in the immediate future. Google made similar promises with regard to Android, but it really seems that they’ve started to deliver since ICS with regard to having a good ecosystem with their web products, a consistent UI and design, and a vibrant developer community. Microsoft will get there eventually. I agree with and long for their vision for their ecosystem. Unfortunately I don’t feel like I can buy into their ecosystem as it is today and prefer to wait for the future they’re hinting at. I feel it’s a sort of Osborne Effect. Microsoft seems to be telling us that their Windows and Windows Phone products will be even more bridged and seamless in the future, so why buy into their ecosystem now?

Miscellaneous thoughts I couldn’t find a way to put into the wall of text above:

-It’s nice that Microsoft is throwing money at hardware companies like Nokia and Dell. Nokia has contributed great hardware and software to Windows Phone, and I think it was a worthwhile investment in that regard. However, I think they should really throw money at developers. I often get asked if my Windows Phone has Instagram, Temple Run etc. Well it doesn’t. There are clones (some are really, really great) of popular iOS and Android apps, but it doesn’t bode well for the Windows Phone brand. They should get those popular apps, officially, on the platform. If they can throw $2 billion at Dell, they can spare a few million for Temple Run. There are also a lot of passionate developers of apps like Rowi, 4th and Mayor, MetroTube, CloudyBox that tap into huge services without a Windows Phone presence. Don’t leave them hanging.

-Speaking of Dell. Microsoft really have to bridge the gaps in their Windows and Windows Phone ecosystems. The companies most receptive to this, (American) PC companies, stand the most to benefit from having an ecosystem they simply buy into. Dell and HP have no mobile products of any significance, and mobile sales are overtaking PC sales. Going to Android leaves them at a significant disadvantage to companies like Asus, Samsung and LG who already have good, inexpensive hardware running Android and have built their brands around it. Dell and HP need Windows more so than either of those companies. Microsoft needs to have a better ecosystem and these hardware companies need to make new innovative hardware to take advantage of it. Their mutual survival depends on it.

-I was a Microsoft Surface Pro critic, still am in some ways, but the more I think about it after having used it briefly, the more I want it and the more I think this is what the future of computing should be. The major hurdle here, I think, is the cost of high capacity SSDs. People want the Surface Pro vision of computing at the Surface RT price. The cost of the components has to go down in order to accommodate this. The desktop OS and desktop apps want HDD amounts of space, while tablets want SSD speeds. In this sense the Surface Pro and Windows 8 are a little too early to the party. But once the prices get there, it will become a no brainer: Microsoft already has their mobile and desktop visions in place, ready for convergence. I think the ideal is getting a netbook like computer with a touchscreen and 256GB SSD for $500, in order for Windows 8 to truly take off.

-Also, I wonder if the existence of the Surface Pro discourages development for Windows RT. If the future is a mix of tablet and desktop OS, why bother developing tablet-centric apps at all? A Windows 8 hybrid laptop can run a full web browser (with Flash!) and have access to all the things that you’d otherwise need apps for. Granted it wouldn’t be as touch friendly but you’d still get the same people using the services without necessarily using resources to develop for another platform. I think this is another hang up that has to be overcome.