Why Windows 8 fails to learn the iPad's lessons

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Wednesday at the Wall Street Journal’s D9 conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., the big news was about Microsoft. The company’s Windows Division President, Steven Sinofsky, appeared on stage with the Journal’s Walt Mossberg, and he unveiled Microsoft’s official response to the iPad’s massive success. And there was a lot to be impressed by in the demo, but in the end it seems like an approach that is utterly poisoned by Microsoft’s old ways of thinking.

Now, I work for Macworld, and so it’ll be easy for people to write this article off as the ravings of a demented Apple cultist. But I’ve also covered Apple since before it was doomed, and have seen it execute a series of product decisions that have made it the top tech company around. I’d like to think I’ve learned some things about how Apple has done what it’s done, and perhaps I can apply those lessons to other companies that are trying to record similar successes.

What Sinofsky showed Wednesday was a sneak peek at Windows 8 (code-name: Windows 8), a forthcoming version of Windows that will work on traditional desktop and laptop PCs as well as touchscreen tablets. Rather than creating a new operating system for tablets, or use the existing (and intriguing) Windows Phone 7 as the basis for a Microsoft-powered tablet, the company will instead use an update to the traditional Windows PC operating system.

In the past, Microsoft has pushed Windows-based tablets and they’ve been an utter failure in the market. What makes Windows 8 potentially different is that it’s got a new skin running on top of traditional Windows, one that’s based on the same “Metro” design ethic as Windows Phone 7 and is intended to be run on touch-based interfaces. There’s also a new app-development environment based on HTML 5 and JavaScript.

The new touchscreen-based skin looks really good. One of the things I like about Windows Phone 7 is that it doesn’t attempt to ape the iOS interface like, say, Android does. It’s got a bunch of cool ideas, like its Live Tiles and the ability to snap items together. Microsoft’s UI designers tried to innovate, and looking at Windows Phone 7 is a bit like peering into a parallel universe where the iPhone never existed.

The problem with the announcement is that Microsoft has failed to commit to the tablet as a unique type of device. The company that spent a decade trying to push Windows tablets on a market that just didn’t want them is still convinced that it’s a selling point that Windows 8 tablets will run Microsoft Excel for Windows and if you hook up a keyboard and mouse to them, you can get an arrow cursor and click to your heart’s content.

Imagine if Apple had done that with the iPad. When Apple announced the iPad, the company showed off early versions of the iWork apps: Numbers, Pages, and Keynote. Those apps are utterly unlike their Mac equivalents, optimized for the tablet form factor and the size of your fingertips. Imagine if the iPad was, instead, just a tiny Mac that ran the regular version of Keynote. Oh, sure, there might also have been a bunch of touch-focused Dashboard widgets that took greater advantage of the touchscreen, but in the end if you wanted to run a Mac app, you could just do it.

If Apple had done that, I think the iPad would’ve been a failure. The iPad, like the iPhone, was a success because it did not attempt in any way to replicate the desktop PC experience in the way that Windows tablets (and Windows Mobile) did. Apple used the underpinnings of OS X to form the basis of iOS, but at no point in iOS do you see anything that could be remotely mistaken for a Mac. On Windows 8, in contrast, Sinofsky says that there’s no way to kill the Windows desktop: “It’s always there.”

Beyond the basic device experience, imagine if Mac developers didn’t need to do any work to get their apps to run on the iPad. Many of them wouldn’t have bothered. The rest certainly wouldn’t have rushed.

With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft made a bold choice: to break free of its past and build a new platform that was specifically designed to run on a phone. One look at the touch layer in the Windows 8 demo and you can tell that something similarly bold is going on. But I can’t help but feel that Microsoft just can’t commit to that level of boldness; maybe it’s pride that stock Windows really should be the basis for a strong tablet operating system?

(There's an odd footnote here: Microsoft said that old Windows apps won't run on tablets that are built with ARM processors, rather than Intel x86-compatible processors. It's unclear if Windows app developers can recompile for the new processors or not. So it's possible that there will be two kinds of Windows 8 tablets: Intel ones that run all the old Windows apps, and ARM ones that don't. If so, that's kind of a mess—but it also opens up a scenario where, for all intents and purposes, ARM-based Windows tablets won't run most of the old stuff. Still, the Start Menu and old Windows APIs will presumably still be there, and who's to say that Microsoft won't compile new ARM versions of Office for Windows just for those devices?)

If Microsoft had been bold Wednesday, I would have been impressed—if Sinofsky had stood up and said that for the tablet experience, developers will need to write new apps, or if he announced that Microsoft was going to write touch versions of Microsoft Office. Then I’d be writing about Microsoft’s big new threat to Apple’s dominance in tablets. Instead, it’s just too easy to insult Windows 8 as being a snazzy touchscreen skin on top of the same old Windows.

Now, there’s a flip side to this story: Windows 8 also runs on PCs! This means that PC users will also be able to have access to the friendly, Windows Phone-inspired touchscreen stuff. There are touchscreen desktop PCs out there, as well as touchscreen PC laptops, and presumably they’ll all take advantage of this new interface. (You can also navigate around using a traditional keyboard and mouse, apparently.)

I’m skeptical if this will work. Apple certainly is betting that users don’t want to reach out and touch their monitors, a concept Steve Jobs has bashed repeatedly. Instead, the company is integrating multitouch into pointing devices that sit on the same plane as your hands and the keyboard. But hey, different strokes for different folks: I guess we’ll see if people want to navigate by reaching over their keyboards and touching their computer screens.

It’s also interesting to note that between Lion and Windows 8, both Apple and Microsoft are integrating features from their mobile operating systems back into their traditional computer interfaces. Some of the approaches are similar (Lion’s Mission Control tries to address some of the same issues as the Windows 8 touch interface), but the underlying philosophies seem almost diametrically opposed.

It’s been easy to bash Microsoft lately. The company blew it in smartphones and Apple’s success with the iPad after all those years Redmond spent evangelizing Tablet PCs must really sting. But while it would be so easy to just write Microsoft off as a completely clueless company that’s just living off its former glory, the fact is that there’s some very interesting work going on at Microsoft. It just seems to be stuck inside a company that can’t let go of the past in order to embrace its own promising future.

A change of attitude

One final D9 note for now: In addition to Sinofsky, we heard from Nokia’s Stephen Elop and HP’s Léo Apotheker on Wednesday. Elop talked about how Nokia was caught flat-footed when the iPhone changed the entire phone industry in 2007. Apotheker discussed HP’s new approach as a company that owns its own operating system and can integrate it with the hardware it designs. All of them cited Apple’s influence, directly or indirectly, in what their companies are doing today.

There was a time when most technology companies simply wrote off Apple. Not just when Apple was going badly, but even when Apple was successful. The argument was, Apple was one of a kind. Its tactics couldn’t be replicated, really, so there was no point in trying. What’s interesting about where Apple is now is, everybody’s trying. Apotheker really seems committed to remaking HP, and it seems to me like he’s taking whole chapters from Apple’s playbook. I don’t know how it will play out, but it’s kind of amazing to see the swing in attitude. Nobody from Apple is speaking at the D conference this year, but you can’t go a single session without Apple coming up. It’s the elephant in the room.

[Jason Snell is Macworld’s Editorial Director. While he was writing this piece, John Gruber posted a complementary item.]

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