When is Microsoft going to have a version of Windows that can power tablets that have a chance at competing with the iPad? Bloomberg’s Ian King and Dina Bass are reporting that the world’s largest software company won’t release anything until 2012′s back-to-school season. They don’t use the words “Windows 8″ in the story, but if they’re right about the timing, it sounds like Microsoft has decided that the best way to respond to the iPad is with a version of full-blown Windows that’s been thoroughly reworked for tablets (rather than the plain ol’ Windows 7 which failed to storm the tablet market back in early 2010).
Then again, it may have other, speedier plans. ZDnet’s Mary Jo Foley wrote about Windows Embedded Compact 7, a version of the operating system based on the same guts as Windows Phone 7. It’s already out, and meant for a variety of devices, including…tablets! But maybe simple ones focused on the consumption of content rather than creation. (With Apple’s demos of versions of iMovie and GarageBand for the iPad, I hope there’s nobody left who insists that the iPad is purely, um, consumptive.)
If Bloomberg’s right and the first serious iPad challengers that run Windows won’t show up until the fall of 2012, Apple will have something like an
1830-month head start on Microsoft. First-generation Windows 8 tablets will compete against third-generation iPads and other devices from RIM, HP, and others which have been through at least a couple of revisions. It’s going to be really, really late to a party that’s in progress right now.
It sounds like a recipe for futility. But I’m not sure whether it’s any more dicey a proposition than the one other Apple rivals are pursuing, which is to get into the race sooner rather than later. It’s now eleven months since the iPad shipped, and the products arriving to compete with it still feel a bit like they’re still pulling on their running shorts as they enter the race. (Motorola’s Xoom, while not without its virtues, shipped without three of the key features which are supposed to make it an iPad-beater: 4G wireless, Flash, and a MicroSD slot. It also came with a copy of Android 3.0 Honeycomb that’s crashed on me more in a couple of weeks than my iPad has in the last eleven months.)
The first round of iPad challengers are dealing with a major gotcha: Apple, too, is running as fast as it can. Now that the company has revealed the iPad 2, we know what it’s been focusing on: making the tablet thinner, lighter, and slicker, so it feels less like a computer and more like the “magical” device it’s been talking about all along. End result: RIM’s PlayBook and HP’s TouchPad, which looked a little less polished than the iPad from an industrial-design standpoint, have fallen further behind before they’ve even shipped.
Microsoft could hastily knock out something that looks like it was hastily knocked out. Or it could bide its time, building a version of Windows for tablets that’s ambitious and impressive from the get go. At this point, the latter strategy seems at least as reasonable as the first one.
After all, the history of technology products is rife with major successes that weren’t the first contenders in their category–or even the second, third, fourth, or fifth arrival. Microsoft’s DOS showed up years after the first personal computers shipped. Google was a latecomer to the search-engine wars. The iPhone entered what seemed to be a mature smartphone market; the iPad jumpstarted the tablet market that had fumbled along for a couple of decades without any success stories. In each case, lollygagging seemed to help rather than hurt.
Mind you, we know very little about Windows 8 other than that it’ll run on the ARM-architecture chips that are well suited to tablets as well as x86 processors. It could still be a big snooze. But in a world of 1.0 tablets, there’s a chance, at least, that abstaining from competition until you have something closer to a 3.0 is a rational move.