This week – as the press has been reporting – Microsoft has released an early version of Windows 8.

Samsung Windows 8 Tablet

Much of the focus has been on the new ’tile-based’ interface that appears when you log in, and there is a temptation to see this as irrelevant for ‘proper work’.  But the overall trend (both social and technical) is in Microsoft’s favour – To use the old business/ice-hocky metaphor, they’re ‘skating to where the puck WILL be, not where it is’.

What are those trends?

Technical

1. Processor power is continuing to develop as quickly as ever
2. Battery technology continues to improve
3. Solid state storage (as opposed to hard disks) is getting cheaper, which has its own impact on battery life

Case in point : It’s been calculated that an iPhone 4 is more powerful than the room-filling CRAY-2 supercomputers of the 1980’s.  An iPad 2 would have been the world’s fastest computer right up until the mid 90’s.

Social

1. User expectations have been dramatically raised by the iPhone and iPad – people can see what is possible, and won’t tolerate poorly designed, over complex technology.  Apple has demonstrated that tablets can work.

2. Users are increasingly pressurising employers to allow them to use their own kit (And I see a LOT of partners with iPads now – all asking IT to make it link with the office email system).

With Windows 8, Microsoft are clearly trying to serve two masters – On the one hand: the Consumer, who wants an iPad-style device to read mail, access photos and other media, and as an all-purpose internet-linked organiser/notepad.  On the other hand: Enterprise customers, who need to work with more complex applications and require centralised management, security, and consistency (so they don’t have to spend vast sums on re-training).

There’s a gap there – Tablets are not suitable for running heavy duty content-creation applications, and the traditional PC/Laptop isn’t as convenient and accessible as a tablet.

Apple see that same gap  – Apple’s iOS is a mobile operating system – designed to deliver excellent performance on the mobile hardware of today, but excluding ‘desktop’ features that would compromise the overall product (Case in point – Flash is not supported on iOS because it’s so processor and battery hungry).   iOS exists because it’s not possible to build a full-power Mac into a portable solid-state tablet with fantastic battery life yet.

I suspect that Microsoft are looking towards a time when technology will advance to a point where it CAN deliver desktop performance in tablet-sized packages, and in that situation, why not have a “full-fat” desktop Operating System running an optional ‘mobile’ user-interface with the ability to switch between the two at will?

So…Five years from now (probably sooner)- Imagine a tablet running a touch-friendly iPad-type operating system. You use it to read a book or newspaper on the train, and you use it in meetings for note-taking and looking stuff up.  Back at your desk, you drop the tablet into a dock with a keyboard and mouse, swap to a more ‘traditional’ desktop, and launch Excel (or whatever). All on ONE device.  This machine doesn’t take 10 minutes to boot up, it takes seconds. It lasts two or three days before needing a recharge, it can store vast amounts of data (and integrated internet gives you access to the rest).   The current situation of tablet PLUS laptop is only a stopgap until tablets get faster.

I think THIS is what Microsoft sees – sometimes you’ll be holding Windows 8 in the crook of your arm, using a touch-screen – and sometimes you’ll be sitting at a desk using a mouse and keyboard.  And it’ll be a single device for both.

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