Backward and forward

The brand discussion will continue, but first a short diversion into the future of technology.

Something strange has happened. I pulled my lovely Nexus 7 tablet out of my bag and found the screen cracked, the touch sensitivity more or less destroyed. I don’t know how, have no recollection of any impact, and it was in a protective case.

But that’s not the strange bit. I then found myself thinking that when I replace it, it will be with a Windows 8.1 tablet, perhaps Lenovo’s new Thinkpad 8.

I like Android. I also have a Nexus 4 phone and I’m very happy with it. I don’t understand what commentators mean when they say Android is less intuitive than iOS. Yes, it’s not as inflexible as iOS, but everything works pretty much out of the box. You can then go on to set it up as you want, and it’s not difficult, and that seems a good thing.

So why am I now thinking that Win 8.1 is the way to go for my next tablet? It’s because I use it on my desktop machine.

Let me be clear. I adopted Win 8 on the desktop because I was curious and because I wanted the under-the-hood improvements, and because it was available pretty cheaply. But on my desktop, its shortcomings were very plain. The relationship between the “legacy” desktop and the full screen “modern UI” (MUI for the rest of this piece) was and is incoherent. I use a 23 inch screen as my main monitor and the MUI stuff made no sense on that screen size, so I stayed almost entirely within the old desktop mode, though I have to say I didn’t have any real problem with the Start Screen and the absence of the old Start menu, especially once I’d realised the power of the right click in the bottom left corner. But this highlights how botched the launch really was, with the conspicuous absence of any serious attempt to help you find your way around the changed features of the OS.

Version 8.1 improved a few things, though some steps were retrograde, but I won’t go on about that now.

Actually I don’t have a simple desktop. Like many these days I have a laptop, plugged into a bigger screen, with a separate keyboard and mouse, and over time I’ve been finding that the MUI apps work quite usefully on the second, smaller screen, so typically I might have the MUI version of OneNote running on the smaller laptop screen, while I work with my usual desktop programs on the big screen.

MUI is pointless on the big screen, but it makes some sense on the 15.4 inch laptop even with a mouse (albeit a mouse offering some touch functions). And that’s why I’m thinking it probably works even better on a tablet: I can see it’s far more sophisticated than Android, let alone iOS. While the selection of apps in the Windows store might be more limited than the Apple or Android stores, if you want to do serious work there’s most of what you need, and arguably more of what you’ll need for serious work than you’ll find in the competition. But then the real clincher is something that was always critical to Windows, and which we seem to have lost sight of it: namely backwards compatibility.

Apple has always ignored this concern, and for the niche it appealed to, this was liberating, enabling Apple to develop simpler more efficient code and apparently simpler modes of working. But Windows has always been about the ability to run the applications you were using before you upgraded, and still need to run. So when it comes to productivity, to the ability to do serious work, any shortcomings in the Windows store are far outweighed by the continuing presence of the Windows desktop world. Certainly, these programs will not have been optimised for touch, but if you have a stylus that’s not too much of an issue. (I also have a very good Microsoft Wedge keyboard, which I’ve been happily using with my Nexus 7.)

Windows 8.1 is still a bit of a mess, but it is beginning to look like a mess with a purpose and I’m sure that over the next few years the mess will be tidied up. I imagine that if I do buy a Windows tablet my current usage pattern will be reversed, that I’ll spend most of my time in the MUI world, clicking back into the desktop when I want. What’s compelling is the idea that I can take a computer out with me with good battery life, access to all my current files (because I keep them in various cloud storage services) and use my preferred productivity programs, with seamless font and layout compatibility, for not much more money than a netbook. Android and iOS are nowhere near being able to offer this.

The only fly in the ointment is that rumours about the next edition of Windows suggest it may split more distinctly into desktop and tablet editions. The rumoured thinking about the desktop seems fine (that you’ll be able to run MUI apps in a window, as you can already with third party utilities); I only hope they don’t disable the tablet edition’s ability to handle legacy programs, because that was never the problem.

With hindsight it seems clear that Windows 8 was produced in a panic, and was not really ready, but in many ways it was a justified panic. We are clearly moving towards tablets, hybrid notebooks and touch interfaces, though I believe a fully windowed environment will continue to be compelling for serious work. Microsoft is fortunate in that its installed base (particularly in the enterprise) gives it not only a sales cushion, but also a strong reason for users to stay within the Microsoft system. It doesn’t then matter too much if sales of Windows and Office no longer constitute the company’s basic cash cow; as the concept of cloud services matures there are more promising and sustainable revenue streams available within the eco system, even without the hardware or advertising revenues that Apple and Google respectively can count on. Good grief – at this rate I might even end up with a Windows phone.


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