The entire tablet ecosphere is waiting for Windows 8 to release, both in preview form at the end of February and in commercial form sometime this summer. In some ways, it's the last piece of the puzzle, and that goes for businesses and consumers, as well as tablet manufacturers like Lenovo, Toshiba, and HP.
Windows 8 is certainly unlike any other operating system Microsoft has ever released. For starters, the software will straddle the gap between desktop, laptop, and tablet form-factors.
Most core functions, including interface, networking, apps, and software will run on both x86 desktops and laptops as well as ARM-based tablets. In and of itself, support for tablet-focused ARM processors is a big deal and is indicative of the content creation and productivity-oriented goals Microsoft has in mind here.
Add into the mix the unique and efficient-looking Metro UI and it begins to seem like Microsoft might still be able to disrupt and penetrate the tablet market share currently dominated by Apple and Google.
Let's take a look at the key defining features for tablet business users.
Windows 8's slick tablet-oriented interface
Windows 8's Metro user interface represents a fairly unique paradigm for touch interfaces. It is derived from Microsoft's Windows Phone interface, which has received mostly favorable reviews from both consumers and critics.
Ultimately, this should make the user experience for Windows tablet users more efficient and more enjoyable. Metro, which has been rumored to have been inspired by public transport signage, features:
- ‘Live’ and resizable app tiles that are each capable of providing their own notifications and data updates. This includes calendar reminders, weather forecasts, and even abridged email notices.
- A fully customizable home screen
- App menu space that will also allow users to multi-task apps side-by-side at the same time. This is a productivity boast that neither Apple nor Google can currently claim with their respective tablet operating systems.
- Simple and complex gesture support. From standard swipes to multi-tasking to closing apps, and even to logging in, Windows 8 will support a wide variety of gestures. Many will be familiar, but some will be unique and new.
If none of these new interface elements intrigue you, know this: At the very least, Win8 for tablets will be a lot less cumbersome and a lot more functional than Windows 7, which was not truly optimized for touch control.
Windows 8 will be compatible with 500 million Windows 7 systems—and networks
Microsoft has already said that Windows 8 will be able to work with Windows 7 software and hardware, which is huge news insofar as these tablets will be able to instantly and directly communicate with the current installed base of 500 million PCs.
What this means specifically is that, if it works out, all Windows 8 tablets should be able to seamlessly connect to Windows-based networks, servers, and printers in offices and homes across the world right out of the box. For businesses and enterprise environments, this is a significant advantage over Android and iPad.
There’s no news yet whether this compatibility will extend to Windows XP PCs. Given that Microsoft intends to stop supporting the OS in two years' time, we're betting compatibility will only extend as far as Windows 7's compatibility with XP.
Immediate robust Mobile Device Management for Windows 8 tablets
Mobile device management is critical for many organizations. With Windows 8 tablets, IT administrators will be able to use existing Windows protocols to manage a fleet of tablets or other Win8 devices. On the surface, this seems like a huge advantage, but the truth is that most IT shops already have iOS-oriented MDM in place.
Rapid, familiar file finding
Ask Windows users (or Mac users for that matter) to find files on their system, and most of them will enter the operating system's Explorer. Ask an iPad or Android user to find their files, and you'll get a series of different responses. From third-party apps to in-app file discovery, there's no familiar or efficient method of tracking down specific documents or files.
While it's not 100% clear what form Windows 8's file manager will take (Microsoft has indicated it will "ribbonize" Explorer), it's certain that, for most users, finding files will be easy and familiar.
Sensors will enhance Windows 8 interface and battery life
It appears that Windows 8 tablets will feature a number of integrated sensors, one of which will give users the chance to log in using gesture control. An example of one of these gestures is the ability for a user to touch a section of a photo to log-in securely.
There will also be sensors that measure ambient light, human proximity and location. What are the benefits? The ambient light ‘adaptive brightness’ feature will be able to dynamically control the screen brightness depending on the lighting conditions.
Proximity sensors will be able to dim the display when the user is away from the screen. Both sensors are now widely in use in the latest flat-screen TVs and professional LCD monitors, and will give a healthy boost to tablet battery life.
Universal apps via Windows Store, but can Microsoft attract developers?
As TabTimes reported in early December, Microsoft has detailed plans for its app store. Known as the Windows Store, it leverages the same Metro user interface tailored to Windows 8 tablets. The software giant is making an aggressive play for developers with the store, offering 80% of revenue to developers after $25,000 in sales, a decent deal considering Apple's rather stingy 70%.
Instead of locking developers into using Microsoft's billing system, the Windows Store will also offer flexible terms for developers interested in pursuing other revenue models.
Nonetheless, the store will have the usual app store features; featured products, ratings, comments, search, category browsing, one-click installation, updating, as well the ability to install on up to five machines. There will also be a nifty capability for developer teams to trial apps via the Windows Store.
Given the current huge installed base for Windows, it would be surprising if Windows 8 launched with the paucity of apps that RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook released with.
We also expect to see some interesting options in the enterprise sectors. In fact, it's entirely conceivable that some businesses may find extra revenue from re-selling their own proprietary solutions.
Fast start-up and shut-down times
Windows 8 has seen Microsoft make great strides with start-up and shut-down times, with internal testers putting the time saving between 30-70% better over Windows 7, even if most of these tests were reportedly conducted on desktop and laptop PCs.
Microsoft has doubtlessly seen that the rising adoption of tablets and Ultrabooks is pushing consumers to demand faster boot times, and so is following suit with Windows 8.
Ultimately, most tablets will function in standby/sleep mode, which offers instant-on capability. Ironically, sleep mode has been the bane of stability for Windows systems for years. By most accounts, it appears that Microsoft is getting this right. That's good–the one thing Windows tablet business users won't be able to stomach is graphics glitches and hiccups when coming out of standby.
MS Office on Windows 8: the key to winning hearts in enterprise?
As detailed by Windows 8 chief Steve Sinofsky, Windows 8 tablets will offer full-functioning, native Microsoft Office applications for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
This is a boon for businesses, although the big question is: How much will MS Office cost on tablet devices? Office comes free with all Windows Phones, and ArsTechnica reports that this will be repeated with Windows 8 on ARM devices. If true, this would be a major surprise and would save businesses piles of cash each year. It would provide ample incentive to purchase Win8 tablets, however.
One thing is clear. Given that Office-compatible suites like QuickOffice HD cost $20 on both iOS and Android tablets, Microsoft's decision will have a profound impact on third-party Office products apps.
Forget Dropbox, Windows 8 will offer its own cloud storage
SkyDrive, Microsoft’s oft-forgotten free cloud storage solution, looks likely to be pre-installed on Windows 8 tablets, offering up to 25GB of free space, although no official announcement has been made to confirm this.
An excellent aspect of this link-up is that users will be able to use the Metro UI to browse photos, or click or them to see the image on SkyDrive without having to start a browser.
An array of tools for device-to-device communication
Microsoft is apparently working on “beaming” content between Windows devices for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, using Bluetooth, NFC or Wi-Fi Direct, another great (and new) technology for sharing content with nearby devices.
The latter relies on the standard 802.11n WiFi signal to transmit data over short distances in what is essentially a peer-to-peer mode.
Say goodbye to USB 2.0
Windows 8 appears almost certain to come with built-in support for USB 3.0, also known as SuperSpeed USB, which is close to ten times faster than USB 2.0 for data connectivity (5Gbps compared with 480Mbps). USB 3.0 is also less of a burden on battery, because it shuts down when not in use.
With very few tablets on the market with USB 3.0 at present, and with Apple not offering any sort of USB support, USB 3.0 could give Windows 8 tablets a leg up on the competition.
The sticking point; a high price
Windows 7 tablets were hardly known for their respectable price points. Sadly, this appears unlikely to change with the new operating system.
Taiwanese news source Digitimes says that Windows 8 tablets are most likely to sit between $599 and $899. The bad news is that, according to a ZDNet study, most consumers (38% of respondents) are only willing to spend from $200 to $399.
HP, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung and even Nokia have all been tapped to build the first Windows 8 slates.