This Week in Tablets: Microsoft goes back to the Start in Windows 8

April 27, 2013
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It’s beginning to look like Microsoft is going to have to eat some major crow in the very near future.

Rumors early in the week appear to point to Microsoft deciding to re-introduce the Start button in the 8.1 Windows Blue update it will be releasing later this year.

These same rumors point to Microsoft also allowing desktop and laptop PCs to boot directly to the Windows desktop as well instead of the Metro interface.

If true, it’s a bold move by Microsoft, and a winning one at that. From boot times to OS stability to security, Windows 8 is a very solid OS. The only thing that prevents conventional (meaning non-tablet) users from liking it—or even using it in many cases—is the tile interface and the lack of a Start button.

I’m sure it won’t be an easy decision for Microsoft to make. After all, the company would be acknowledging that it made a major mistake. But it’s the right decision because it will make so many Windows users’ lives easier.

(This decision will also inflict some pain on after-market Start button tool makers, like Pokki and Stardock, which makes Start8.)

Start or not, are Windows tablets on the right track?

It would be easy to argue that the impact of reinstating Start on tablets will be minimal, but I have to admit that the more I use the Surface tablet, the more I find myself using it like a conventional PC. That means lots of desktop mode. And that means I need a Start button.

Meanwhile, forecasters and analysts are beginning to paint a rosier picture of Windows 8 tablet sales. First, strong demand is prompting Microsoft to expand the availability of the Surface Pro to 24 more international markets, including much of Europe, Korea, and even Russia.

Even Surface RT distribution will be broadening to include Mexico, Korea, and Thailand.

Finally, at the end of the week, research firm Strategy Analytics released a report stating that while Windows 8 tablets still trail the iPad and Android devices by quite  a bit, the new OS has established a 7.5% market share, and is responsible for moving 3 million units in Q1 2013.

Not bad, right? Combine this solid level of demand with the Windows Blue update, which will better enable smaller form-factors, and Microsoft could be ascendant.

Interestingly, it looks like Microsoft will probably not be the first manufacturer to release or even announce a smaller-size Win8 tablet. Numerous accounts point to Acer holding a launch party in New York City as early as next week, where the Taiwanese manufacturer will announce an 8-inch Iconia W3 Windows tablet.

This will be no sweat off of Microsoft’s back; the more vendors releasing unique Windows tablets, the better.

Why 8 inches?

At the end of 2012, I made the point that we probably weren’t at the end of experimentation around different sizes and shapes for tablets.

For once, I was right—this 8-inch form-factor appears to be catching on, to the point where analysts are predicting the 8-inch tablet will be the hot new device size for the second half of 2013 and 2014.

For many users, this profile is a happy medium of sorts. You still get a pretty big screen, but you also get more portability—particularly if the bezel design is on the lean side. Time will tell, but either way—7-inch or 8-inch—these smaller devices are here to stay.

I do know this: For in-the-field jobs like installation, construction, or even manufacturing, the more portable devices are far more convenient. Way back in January 2012, I was surprised to learn that Dish Network installation service was using 7-inch Android devices in the field because they were more portable.

The other important consideration is price. 8-inch tablets will certainly cost less than their 10-inch counterparts.

Incidentally, value is even becoming a big motivating factor for Apple devices. A recent survey by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners shows that the iPad 2 has increased its market share in Q1 2013. The iPad Mini did the same. Both can be considered to be value products, at least in comparison to the Retina Display versions of the iPad.

This week’s loser: Microsoft

Microsoft expended a lot of energy and goodwill trying to convince technophiles and the public at large that we didn’t need the Start button. And now they’re going to say that yes, we do actually need it?

There’s something to be said for eating crow and then moving on, but they’ve hurt themselves a little bit here, for sure. At the very least, the company will have to spend a lot of time putting the Start button back in, when they already spent a great deal of time removing it.

Close runner-up this week: Samsung. At the end of the week, rumors began to leak that the Korean electronics manufacturer is going to be forced to delay the launch of Knox, its highly-touted security suite for Android, in order to conduct further tests.

This week’s winner

Samsung gets to claim the distinction of being both a loser and winner in the same week. Winning: The Galaxy S4 released to rave reviews for the most part.

And while critics appear to be reserving judgment for its more outlandish features, such as eye-tracking and proximity sensors, and more, it’s clear that these features have real potential and application across all of mobile, including tablets.

Close runner-up here is HP, which is finally back in the tablet game with the Android-based Slate 7 tablet, which at $170, is also a value-priced device. The company’s return to tablets is probably a little bittersweet for the company, which has had to wait almost 18 months to get back into the category. That’s a lot of time lost.


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