For over 20 years, I worked with Microsoft as a customer or a technology partner. Microsoft has a huge job in guiding their enormous Windows ecosystem down certain paths, and over those two decades I have seen many flavors of communication styles. For Windows 8, Microsoft has adopted a significantly different way of communicating with the ecosystem versus prior OS releases. For the broad ecosystem, Microsoft is communicating with their main “Building Windows 8” Blog, which appears as a direct link to the engineering team. Their latest blog on Windows RT truly is an interesting one. While not that significant on the surface, if you dig deep with context, it is actually saying a lot, providing deep insights to Windows RT. It also highlights the amount of pacification Microsoft is doing to the financial community and the OEMs.
It is helpful to put some context around Windows 8 and Windows RT. As I’ve written about previously, Windows 8 truly is the biggest risk Microsoft has ever taken. Microsoft is risking over 50% of their operating profits by deprioritizing the Windows desktop and leading with the “UI formerly known as Metro”. If Metro is a hit, it greatly increases Microsoft’s probability of success in tablets and phones. If not, they’ve risked a huge part of their company profits and reputation. Along the path, Microsoft has to keep multiple constituents aligned, many who are at odds, particularly when it comes to Windows RT where it’s truly X86 versus ARM. And this is where the latest blog gets interesting in what it says and doesn’t say.
“Surface Didn’t Kill Other Consumer Windows RT Tablets, Really”
With Surface, Microsoft is competing head-to-head with their customers. Whether we want to sugar coat it with phrases like “priming the pumps” the end result is still the same in that OEMs will be competing for mindshare and market share with companies like Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer and Samsung. Microsoft has not once said that if a certain threshold was achieved, then they would stand down or pull back. I don’t want to open the debate yet on whether Microsoft needed to do this or not as I will save that for a future column. One of the biggest things Microsoft is trying to say here is that even post-Surface, OEMs are still very interested in Windows RT tablets. So in the blog, Microsoft pointed out with exuberance that in addition to its own Surface, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, Acer, and Asus will launch ARM-based Windows RT devices. Why did Microsoft do this? It was primarily to pacify investors who were concerned with the potential beginning of a crumbling of Windows as a platform.
“Acer May Be Upset, But Not That Upset” (UPDATED)
Acer’s CEO JT Wang has really been coming after Microsoft lately over by making some very caustic comments about Surface. They are veiled threats in a way, almost as if it’s a negotiation in the public forum. Wang is basically saying that Microsoft has no business doing hardware and they should leave it to the OEMs or risk mass defection and big hardware headaches they aren’t ready to take on. He may be right long-term, but OEMs really don’t have a viable option short term other than Android. Android for 4-7” devices may be doing well, but there are still less than 500 Android tablets apps available after a year and a half. Microsoft’s statement in their blog about OEMs leads with ASUS and it’s not just about alphabetical order, either, as ASUS gets their own, special hyperlink to their product, unlike the other OEMs. The blog says, “If you are following Windows RT, perhaps you have taken note of the Asus Tablet 600 (Windows RT) announcement or Microsoft’s own Surface RT™ news.” I love this part. It literally binds ASUS and Surface together as if to say, “Everything’s OK with Acer, really.” ASUS isn’t Acer but they compete heavily in Asia and Europe.
“Dell Doing a Work Tablet, Like Lenovo, But with ARM-based Design”
Only one OEM got a quote in Microsoft’s latest Windows RT blog, and that was Dell. The rumor mill had been swirling for weeks on whether “Microsoft would allow Dell” to make to make a Windows RT tablet. This was a bizarre rumor in that it really wasn’t Microsoft’s decision on who does the first tablets; it was primarily Dell’s and the silicon provider’s choice which then needs to be approved by Microsoft because they are investing resources, too. Sam Burd, Dell’s VP of the PC Product Group says in the blog, “Dell’s tablet for Windows RT is going to take advantage of the capabilities the new ecosystem offers to help customers do more at work and home. We’re excited to be Microsoft’s strategic partner, and look forward to sharing more soon.” Note he leads with “work” and follows with “home”. This is in direct response to Lenovo’s Intel-based business tablet entry last week, which, interestingly enough, was cited in a Windows RT blog. Microsoft also intends this to counter Lenovo’s slides that show Windows RT as a lousy corporate client.
“Where Are the Web Browsing Battery Life Figures?”
Like others, I was glad to see the Windows RT battery life figures. The HD playback numbers make sense as video playback is limited to a very small part of the SOC and in some cases can do it without even lighting up the CPU or GPU. The connected standby is also a very impressive number, but I am curious about the variables around it like the type and persistence of the connection. One figure though that was glaringly absent was the lack of a web browsing battery life figure. This one is real important as it is also an indication of how well Metro apps will do as many are based on web technologies. Their absence probably means that the numbers aren’t great or inconsistent and they are still tweaking drivers.
“Windows RT Does Deliver a Differentiated Experience, Really”
Microsoft starts their Windows RT blog with a tip of the hat to both Intel and AMD. The industry was surprised when Intel provided OEMs low power silicon with acceptable performance and I think how well AMD’s Trinity does, too. Intel downplayed their achievements on Medfield, too, which makes sense as they lost mobile credibility on Menlow and Moorestown. Microsoft’s tone in their blog is as if they are saying, “OK, Intel does have competitive silicon that works with the full-featured Windows 8, but there is value in Windows RT, too.”
And what is Microsoft saying about the incremental value? Essentially, they are parroting exactly what NVIDIA’s CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said months ago, and that it’s about consistency of experience. Microsoft talks about consistency in battery life, graphics, gestures, and even physical characteristics.
Microsoft may have a point here in that the focus and options are much more dialed in on Windows RT than on Windows 8. For example, because Windows RT cannot install Windows 7 apps, there’s no way that a consumer will install BattleField 3 and have a lousy experience. Also, the touchpad experience on Windows 8 is crucial, and according to the blog, all Windows RT tablets will support the side-swipes and swipe-up/down. Does this mean that you cannot find these features on X86-based Windows 8 tablets? No, but it doesn’t mean all of them will have it either.
Where is Toshiba?
One of the biggest missing OEMs from the blog was Toshiba. Toshiba and Texas Instruments both were showing off Windows RT tablets at Computex, but they were nowhere to be found in the Microsoft blog. Shara Tibken at the Wall Street Journal cleared up any ambiguity with her article. Toshiba will not do a Windows RT-based tablet now and place focus on Intel and AMD-based tablets. This does not bode well for TI, who has significantly lagged NVIDIA and Qualcomm on drivers for the Windows RT platform. While I have personally used NVIDIA and Qualcomm-based RT tablets, I haven’t been able to actually try out on based on TI silicon yet, so all I can comment on what I have heard from developers. With TI’s focus primarily on Android, it makes sense they would prioritize that development over Windows, even with the direct help they are receiving from Microsoft. I believe the future of TI-based Window RT devices is in question now, at least for launch.
Microsoft felt the need to pacify their OEM customers and investors and used this latest blog to do it. They came under attack of late for launching Surface with Windows RT that cast doubt on the future of any other RT tablets being successful. Ironically, with Intel-based Windows 8 tablets being announced as well by Lenovo that look very compelling, Microsoft needed to reiterate why Windows RT is incrementally valuable and different. Will the blog be enough to sway what people think in the ecosystem? I don’t think so, as what people really want to know is how many well-known, high quality Metro-based applications will be available at launch, as this will be the true decider of how well Windows RT will fair, at least in the short term. We should know more tomorrow, August 15, as the doors to the paid Windows 8 store opens up. As we learned from the Blackberry PlayBook and the webOS-based Touchpad, first impressions do matter and I hope Microsoft has heeded that history.