Windows 8 vs. iPad: Advantage Microsoft?

There’s been a lot of buzz in the industry press recently about Windows 8, the new touch-centric Windows from Microsoft.

Much of the press has been understandably skeptical.  Apple definitely hit a home run with the iPad, building it on top of the iOS mobile touch interface.  Microsoft, instead, is building “up” from Windows by layering a new browser and application UI paradigm on top of existing Windows.  It’s easy to see where Microsoft might stumble, and hard to see how Windows 8 could possibly approach the seamless elegance of iOS.

And, the truth is, it probably won’t.

And, the truth is, it probably won’t matter.

Here’s why.

A History Lesson

The year is 1990.  I’m sitting at my workstation in Classroom 2000 on the University of Texas campus in front of two state of the art machines: a 386-powered IBM PS/2 running OS/2 and Windows 3.0 and a Motorola 68030-powered Mac IIci.

I’m teaching a class of IBM Systems Engineers (a glorified term for salespeople) who have come to learn about desktop computers. In this class we’re learning about PostScript, but really, the whole exercise is to throw Macintoshes in their face to scare the hell out of them.  And it works.  More than once, you hear an IBM employee mutter, “we can’t win.”

But they did.

In designing the Mac from the ground up as a windowed operating system, Apple has the clear technical advantage.  The machine is slick as hell: 32 bit architecture, peer-to-peer networking, 24 bit graphics, multitasking, and a beautiful, well-conceived UI.  Conversely, in PC-land, there’s Windows running on top of 16 bit DOS: a veritable Who’s Who of Blue Screens of Death and a nightmare of drivers and legacy text-based apps running around.

And yet, Apple failed to capitalize on their obvious competitive advantages, barely growing their market share over the next 10-15 years.

Why?  Because the largest purchasers of computers are corporations, and corporations purchased IBM / Microsoft as an extension of their current computing platform.  In part this was out of ignorance of what Macintosh could do, in part it was due to specific shortcomings of the Macintosh platform – but those aren’t the reasons corporations failed to embrace Macintosh. The real reason Macintosh never broke through the corporate barrier was because it never made sufficient sense to throw out all the legacy apps and start over again on a new hardware and software platform.

Office applications are not the engine of the productivity boom.  Word processors and spreadsheets don’t offer competitive advantage.  Factory automation, enterprise resource planning, sales force automation, customer and supplier portals – these are the expensive and risky custom-built applications that drive competitive advantage.  For that reason, you sometimes still see applications that remain GUI-less – you don’t screw with stuff that works – and oh by the way, throwing a nifty UI on an app like that can cost a fortune and offer negligible – even negative – payback.

So to synopsize our history lesson: Apple failed to sell to corporations because it never made good financial sense for those corporations to reinvent their line-of-business applications for a different platform.  Apple established itself as a great consumer brand and carved out niches in media production and desktop publishing – markets that were not tied to traditional corporate IT.  But because the corporate world used PCs, most individuals purchased PCs for the home, and Apple was unable to substantially grow its market share in spite of technical advantage and overall coolness.


We are now seeing the same history lesson repeat itself with the iOS-based iPad tablet going head-to-head against the next generation of Windows tablets.  In order to create the ultimate tablet experience, Apple has adopted iOS as the application platform for the iPad.  And while the iPad is a formidably slick and compelling machine, iOS is probably not the operating system of choice on which to develop mission critical corporate IT applications.

Enter Microsoft with Windows 8.  Will it be clunky?  Almost certainly.  Will it fray around the edges?  Yes.  Will there be jarring experiences where the user drops suddenly and unexpectedly into the old mouse-based paradigm?  Definitely.

But Microsoft can offer something that Apple can’t.  There are thousands, maybe millions of line-of-business applications deployed with technologies like C++, .NET, Access, and SQL Server.  Companies cannot and will not jettison them in order to rewrite for iOS.  But they will extend them to a Windows 8 tablet.

Microsoft’s decision to layer a touch interface on top of Windows is the only logical decision.  It’s the same decision they made in the late 1980s when they layered a GUI on top of DOS.  With Windows, Microsoft retained the established customer base while expanding their market reach by extending, rather than reinventing their operating system.  The business advantage outweighed the technical disadvantage. With Windows 8, they can do it again.

I think the decision is brilliant.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Now, we simply have to wait and see if Microsoft can deliver.  That may be a stretch.  Microsoft has a “hit-miss-miss” record with Windows.  With Windows, it was not until Windows 95 that Microsoft pulled within reach of Apple, and only Windows XP was solid enough to truly compete technically.  Microsoft cannot wait 10-15 years like it did with Windows to catch up.

I think that it’s fair to guess that Windows 8 will not be an iPad-killer, no matter how great it is.  Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an iPad-killer.  It just has to establish a baseline of functionality and provide a suitable application development platform. Corporations will develop impressive line-of-business applications for the touch interface – specifically field-worker automation applications – if the platform is robust.

If compelling touch-based business applications can be deployed on Windows 8, it will have done its job: it will have convinced corporations that Windows can meet their needs for a touch-tablet computer, and Apple will be stymied in their attempt to finally break the barrier keeping them out of corporate America.

PS: I am writing this on my brand new, and very sweet, MacBook Pro.

2 thoughts on “Windows 8 vs. iPad: Advantage Microsoft?

  1. David Gaw says:

    Hmm, maybe so…

    On the other hand, Microsoft has had touch-capabilities in Windows Tablet PCs for a decade now, and was never able to get any traction despite backwards compatibility. The iPad, for its part, is already being deployed by or is being piloted by more than 65 percent of the Fortune 500, and the big enterprise vendors like SAP and Oracle are adopting the platform.

    It is true that businesses hate to migrate to new technologies quickly–ongoing use of Windows XP is an excellent example of this. On the other hand, there are forces at work that may be changing this calculus, at least in the short term. Recent years have already seen significant adoption of web-based technologies that loosen Windows hold on the application ecosystem. I can already interface with most of my client’s major application (SAP, Siebel, SharePoint, Web Outlook) as easily from my Mac as I can from my Windows machines (and without resorting to Parallels, which lets me run Windows 7 apps directly).

    In many cases, the migration is driven by the fact that the knowledge set required to support older technologies (COBOL, FORTRAN, MS Access) is dwindling as technical personnel retire or reskill to support newer technologies–companies perceive they have no choice but to retire those Windows-based legacy apps, despite the expense.

    Windows definitely isn’t going anywhere in the short term–but we may be seeing a shift underway that is most analogous to the shift from mainframes to PCs back in the early 1980s. To the extent that applications shift to the HTML 5+ cloud over the long-term, a shift that does appear to be underway, Windows loses its lock on the business world. The hardware platform that will then prevail is the cheapest one that does the job. That may mean Windows continues to win over Macs–but it also mean that other alternatives–Chromebooks, say, and iPads for some applications, will win out over Windows.

  2. Brent H says:

    I will concede your points about Microsoft’s hold for the moment… I would like to throw out a few things for consideration:

    1. Microsoft is not known for being battery friendly, and by layering ON TOP OF the OS, rather than designing an OS specifically for tablets, they are adding a layer of complexity/computing to the very devices that most need consideration given to power consumption. Even Android based tablets have trouble approaching the battery life that iPads offer. If Apple would offer a thicker version with extended battery life, they would have a really decisive lead in that area.

    2. We don’t know yet how many of those legacy apps will be touch enabled out of the box. Will Microsoft be able to enable them via the OS, or will they require rework? If you have to do much rework of your client side application to enable features like touch, why not make a version that will run on many clients, instead of just one? I can offer support for David’s point on HTML 5 from what I’m seeing in my own company.

    3. Even in the fairly non-leading edge company I work for, I’m starting to see iPads being brought into meetings as the device of choice for email access and note taking. And these are people who have to buy it themselves, and who usually have a Windows laptop sitting at their desks. We are even looking at using iPads for several.

    4. Apple is leading the field in the tablet arena not just because of the iOS, but also because no one else is managing to sell a device that comes close to the iPad’s specs and is as well made/durable for the price-point. Reviewers have said of most of the currently competing devices that they feel like toys/feel cheap. Adding the Price of a Windows operating system on top isn’t going to help.

    This isn’t to say that Apple, with their long history of shooting themselves in the foot, will keep the lead, just that we’re not at the same point in this game that Apple was with the IIcx. They are the leader in market share for tablets, with the best hardware, the best supply chain (today), and best (at least 1 of the 2 best from almost any perspective) operating system. They have the market to lose, where in the 80s/90s they and IBM had a market to create, and Apple didn’t know how to make that happen their way.

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