Where we stand — and are going — with Windows 8

Woody Leonhard

Work on Windows 8 is in the home stretch, but predicting its success is still pure speculation — probably more so than with any previous Windows release.

Microsoft’s announcement that it will build and sell its own Windows 8 computers just adds more drama to an already opaque roll-out schedule.

What we’re going to see in the next few months

I’ve been working with Windows 8 for four months now — 16 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m putting together the thickest book I’ve ever written, as befits the thickest operating system I’ve ever used. My perspective is that of a regular, everyday Windows 8 home and business user running salt-of-the-earth applications. Nothing fancy.

What I’ve seen to date isn’t comforting for experienced Windows users. In the March 8 Top Story, I talked about the problems at length: no Start menu, the new tiles on the main screen, finger-friendly features, and a lot of glamour and glitz (none of which has changed significantly in the past three months).

What has changed — potentially turning the Windows world on its ear, actually — is Microsoft’s announcement that it’s entering the tablet business with two “Microsoft Surface” devices. That’s a kick in the face for HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, Acer, and all the other hardware manufacturers who seem to be sailing along in a me-too, minor-upgrade mode. The new tablets — one for Windows RT (the ARM-device version), the other for Windows 8 Pro — are complete departures from Windows machines currently on the market.

Pause for a primer on Windows 8 versions

Windows RT doesn’t have a Windows 7–style desktop, and it doesn’t run the kinds of programs you’re running right now. You can run only Metro-style programs on a Windows RT computer, and they must come from the Microsoft store. Most of what we know about Windows RT has come from Microsoft and from demos on tablets (such as the recently announced Surface with a detachable keyboard) or on devices that look like Ultrabooks with docking keyboards.

Windows RT runs on ARM chips, not on the Intel/AMD chips found in traditional PCs. Supposedly, ARM chips aren’t as powerful, power-hungry, or hot as Intel/AMD chips, which is why they’re used in mobile devices. That said, computer manufacturers are coming up with ARM-based machines that look every bit as powerful as today’s Ultrabooks but will use Metro-style applications.

Microsoft stated that the Windows RT tablet will ship with “Office 2013 Home & Student Preview,” but nobody seems to know what “Preview” means. There’s very little info about the new Office 2013 apps. It’s rumored the new suite will enter public beta sometime in July, but final product isn’t expected until next year. Whether the “Preview” of Office 2013 will work better than a beta test copy remains to be seen.

Reportedly, Windows RT will be available only preinstalled on new tablets: you won’t be able to buy it separately.

Windows 8 Pro, simply put, is the business version of Win8 that runs on standard Intel-based machines. It runs current Windows apps and has a Win7-like desktop, though it has no Start screen. I talked about Windows 8 Pro in my April 26 Top Story.

No more than surface knowledge of Surface

As noted in a recent InfoWorld story, little is known about the two Microsoft tablets beyond Microsoft’s published specifications. We know they’ll be running fairly powerful processors, they’ll have 10.6-inch screens with a 16:9 HD aspect ratio (screen resolution was not given), and they’ll use solid-state drives.

Powered by an ARM processor, the Windows RT tablet will be thin and light, much like the iPad. The Windows 8 Pro version will be sleeker than any other Windows tablet — past or present — but won’t be exactly svelte. Both tablets come with detachable keyboards; they look great, but as far as I know, nobody outside of Microsoft has ever actually used them.

If you’re thinking of Surface as an iPad killer, that’s overreaching. The iPad’s icon-based user interface isn’t anything like Windows 8′s Metro tiles — they don’t look the same or act the same. How well Win8 users will take to the new tile interface is one of the great unknowns. More important, the iPad is part of an enormous, integrated, and well-established system connecting iPhones, iPads, Macs, the Cloud, and even TVs. Microsoft is essentially starting from scratch; it has, ah, lots of good plans.

Windows 8 Pro tablets, on the other hand, will run legacy Windows programs — a game-changing difference for some people. And if Microsoft gets the keyboard right, it might have a competitor to the MacBook Air. That’s a big “if.”

Best guess for the Windows 8 rollout schedule

Windows 8 will almost certainly hit RTM (release to manufacturing) in late July or early August — and corporate clients will be able to use it shortly thereafter. Win8 will probably appear in new PCs around the beginning of September and online upgrades and shrink-wrapped boxes by mid-September or October.

Microsoft states it will have Windows RT tablets available more or less concurrently with Win8 General Availability (roughly when shrink-wrapped boxes are on store shelves).

But it’s hard for me to believe that Microsoft will make that date — unless it significantly stretches the definition of “General Availability.” Office 15 (2013) isn’t close to ready, and the Windows RT hardware is buggy — Microsoft Windows President Steve Sinofsky’s brief demonstration of Surface last week froze twice. Microsoft let a few journalists take a brief look at a Surface RT machine, but no one was allowed to touch the new keyboard. That doesn’t sound like a mature product, ready to be on store shelves in three months.

Microsoft plans to release Windows 8 Pro Surface tablets about 90 days after the release of the Windows RT version, according to a Surface press release. At best, that would put the Win8 Pro tablets on store shelves just in time for New Year’s (the worst possible time to introduce a new computer product).

Microsoft faces a long and difficult road

Bravo to Microsoft for going head-to-head with Apple. Really! Until last week, I didn’t think Windows 8 stood a snowball’s chance in Death Valley of reaching beyond a few diehards. But with Microsoft pushing innovative hardware that complements its new software, Surface has a better-than-even chance of success. In fact, I’ll likely buy a Windows RT Surface tablet when they become available.

That said, it’s highly unlikely that a Surface tablet will displace my iPad. In the foreseeable future, the iPad prevails in ease of use and connections with other devices such as my iPhone, Mac, music collection, and TV. The Surface appears clunkier to use, but its high definition–capable screen could make it an excellent choice for playing movies on trips — especially for my toddler. And if the Surface keyboards live up to Microsoft’s claims, Surface tablets might — just might — be easier to use than an iPad with a wireless keyboard.

The quality of basic Windows 8 Metro software is yet to be seen. Apps such as Mail, People, Calendar, Photos, Movies, Xbox Music, and Xbox Video all stink at this point. Microsoft still calls them previews; that’s fine, but I can’t imagine how, for example, Metro Photos will come close to iPhoto or how Xbox Music will compete with iPod (or VLC or Windows Media Player). Microsoft will undoubtedly update Metro apps over time, but it has a long, long way to go to catch up, and the clock’s ticking.

Right now, Microsoft really needs developers to build Metro-style apps. To prime the pumps, it has, uh, “sponsored” the translation of popular games from other platforms to Metro. (See, for example, Lance Ulanoff’s description of Microsoft as matchmaker in “How Cut the Rope made it to Windows 8 Consumer Preview Edition.” The popular game was first ported to IE 9 and then to Metro.) Rumors are flying about major software companies building (or shunning) Metro apps, but we won’t know anything for sure until later this year.

There’s much more we still don’t know. In the demos, Microsoft made the point — repeatedly — that its Surface flip-down stand sounds like a “premium car door” when shut. As if I give a furry rodent’s posterior. How about some meat? For example, will Surface tablets have 3G, 4G, or even Bluetooth? What’s the planned battery life? Will the Surface’s display come close to Apple’s Retina screen? (And so on and so on)

But the most important fact is we don’t know its price. Microsoft hinted that the Windows RT version would be comparable to other ARM tablets, thus referencing the iPad without actually mentioning it. The Windows 8 Pro version is supposed to be competitive with today’s Ultrabooks. I’m guessing that the entry-level Windows RT machine could come in around U.S. $500, with the Windows 8 Pro version costing about $1,000.

The good news is that we should have some real tablet choices this holiday season, and we’re all better off for it. Microsoft should be commended — even by Apple fanatics — for finally bringing something noteworthy to the tablet playing field.

One modest recommendation for Microsoft: Given the bad press Apple has received lately, consider building Surface tablets in the U.S. Even if the price is somewhat higher, the world’s largest market for tablets will appreciate the effort, and many folks who live overseas still believe in “Made in America” quality. Really.



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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.