Back in July 2012 in A William Tell Moment? I got a little carried away about the potential convergence between tablets and personal computers. Nearly a year later – and with the Surface Pro only becoming available in my native UK last month – I probably know better. The following is therefore a more balanced piece.
It’s been a while since I put finger-tip to keyboard on this web-site. The occurrence which motivated me to do so was the arrival of my first new home computer since 2008 (yes unfortunately dear reader, the author is that much of a Luddite). The time since 2008 has seen a lot of changes in the technology sphere, notably the rise of the tablet (at probably the third time of asking) and the near ubiquity of end user computing. Certainly in response to the former (and maybe with some influence from the latter) my new laptop (if you can so describe a 17.3” desktop replacement) came with Windows 8 pre-installed.
I am obviously several months too late for my review of Microsoft’s latest OS to have much resonance and my brief comments here have no doubt been offered up by other pundits already. What I want to do instead is perhaps try to tie Windows 8 together with some broader trends and explore just how weird and polarised the technology market has become recently. However, some brief initial commentary on Windows 8 is perhaps pertinent.
The main thrust of Windows 8 is for Microsoft to remain relevant, perhaps not so much in its traditional arena of PC computing, but in the newer world of tablet and mobile computing. I’m sure some tablet fans may take issue with my observation, but my opinion is that Windows 8 is trying to do two, potentially incompatible, things: to be relevant to content creators and to content consumers. I am sure there are all sorts of examples of people creating amazing content on their iPads or Android tablets, however perhaps the surprise here is that it is done at all, rather than done well.
Regardless of some content creation doubtless occurring on tablets, I stand by my assertion that they are essentially platforms for the consumption of content; be that web-pages (sometimes masquerading as apps), games, videos, music, or increasingly feedback from the ever increasing range of sensors providing information about everything from the device’s location to its owner’s current heart rate. The content that is consumed on tablets is – in most cases – created on other types of devices; often the quotidian ones which have physical keyboards and pointing devices which allow for precision work.
In the past, the dichotomy between content creators and content consumers has been somewhat masked by them employing similar tools. Of course every content creator is also a content consumer, but it has always (“always” of course being an interesting word when what I probably mean is “since the Internet became mainstream”), been the case that there were significantly more of the latter than the former. What was different historically was that both creators and consumers used the same kit; PCs of some flavour (though maybe the former had better processors and more memory on their machines). The split in roles was evident (if it was evident at all) in computers that were only ever used to surf, do e-mail and write the occasional letter; there were probably an awful lot of these. We had a general purpose computing platform (the PC) which was being under-utilised by the majority of people who owned one.
The eventual adoption of tablets has changed this dynamic. Although of course many tablets have processors that previous generations of PCs could only have dreamed of, their focus is firmly on delivering only those elements of a PCs capabilities which most people use and eschewing those which the majority ignore. As always, specialisation and focus leads to superior execution. The author (no fan of Apple products in general) can confirm that an iPad is much more fit for purpose than a laptop when the purpose is watching a film or TV show on a train or plane. Laptops can of course do this, but they are over-engineered for the task and also pretty bulky if all you want is to watch something. Having played Angry Birds on each of Android, iOS and web-versions on a laptop, the experience is best on the smaller, lighter, touch-based devices.
The reason that the sales of PCs have plummeted while those of tablets soar is not that tablets are better than PCs, nor is it even that they demystify computing in a way that their elder brethren fail to do (more on this later), but simply that tablets are more aligned with what the majority of people want from their computers; as above to be media platforms that allow basic surfing and e-mail. To borrow the phrase from the last paragraph, tablets are more fit for purpose if the purpose is consumption of content.
The flip side of this is what I am currently doing: namely writing this article, sourcing / editing / creating images to illustrate it and cutting some entry-level HTML in the process. I could of course do this on an iPad or Android tablet. However this is much like saying that you can (in extremis) use a foot-pump to re-inflate a car tyre, but why would you if you can make it to a garage / service station and get access to a machine that is dedicated to inflating tyres with greater efficiency. If there was no machine with a keypad to hand, then I might decide to write on an iPad, but it would be a frustrating and sub-optimal experience. PCs are more fit for purpose where the purpose is content creation.
However, we now reach a problem in economics. If we apply the Wikipedia percentages to content creators versus content consumers, then the split is (depending on which side of the fence you place editors) either 1 : 10 or 1 : 100. In either case, someone pitching hardware and software to a content creator is addressing a much smaller part of the marketplace than someone pitching hardware and software to content consumers; aka the mass market. This observation inexorably leads to the types of features and capabilities which will dominate any platforms aimed at general computer users; basically content consumers are king and content creators paupers.
Which returns me to Windows 8. The metro interface is avowedly designed for mobile devices with a touch-based interface. My new machine doesn’t have a touch screen. Why would I need one on a device that supports the much more efficient and precise input provided by a physical keyboard and mouse? Indeed, one of the nice things about my new laptop is its 1920×1080 screen, why would I want to cover this with as many annoying finger smudges as my iPad has when there are much better ways of interacting with the OS which also leave the monitor clean? In fact, on reflection, I guess that the majority of people and not just content creators would prefer a non-smeared screen most of the time.
There seem to be obvious usability snafus in Windows 8 as well. To highlight just one, if you move your mouse (aka finger) to the top right-hand side, one of the “charms” menus appears (I’d really like to know why Microsoft thought “charms” was a great name for this). But what is also at the top right-hand side of any maximised window? The close button of course. I have lost count of how many times I have wanted to close a programme and instead had the charming blue panel appear instead. I spent the first eight years of my career in commercial software development and fully appreciate that there is no such thing as bug-free code, however this type of glitch seems so avoidable that one has to question both Microsoft’s design and testing process.
Anyway, enough on the faults of Windows 8. In time I’ll get used to it just as I did with Windows 95, 97, XP and 7. Just as I have got used to each version of Excel being harder to use than the last for anyone that has a track record with the application. Of course I’ll get used to Excel 2013, what choice do I have? But this leads us into another economic dichotomy. Microsoft don’t need to win me over to Excel, I’m going to put up with whatever silly thing they do to it in the latest version because that’s a lower hurdle than learning another spreadsheet; even assuming that something like Google Docs offers the same functionality. The renewal rates for products like Excel must be 95% plus, this means that a vendor like Microsoft focusses instead on getting new business from people who don’t use their applications. If this means making the application “easier” for new users, then who cares if existing users are inconvenienced, it’s not like they are going to stop using the application.
As I alluded to above, a general claim made for tablets (and for the iPad in particular) is that they demystify computing, making it accessible to “regular people” (as an aside here we have the entire cool dude versus nerd advertising encapsulated in “I’m a Mac, he’s a PC”, something which I think Microsoft are to be lauded for lampooning in their later campaign). Instead I would argue that tablets offer a limited slice of what computers can do (the genius being that it is the slice that 90% or 99% of content consumers seem to want). They don’t make computing easier or more accessible, they make it more limited and sell this as a benefit using words like “elegant”, “stripped-down” or “minimalist”.
Tablets clearly fill a large market need, I use them myself. However, my Window-centred gripe is when I have to buy a product (a PC) whose basic operation is dictated by a function (content consumption) for which the machine is over-engineered, whereas the function for which a PC is perfect (content creation) is symmetrically and even systematically compromised.
As things stand, maybe Microsoft should not be so concerned about losing the mobile and tablet market (perhaps for them it is already too late). Instead it could be argued that they should be more worried about, though a lack of attention to the needs of their core users, forfeiting the PC market which they have dominated for so long and in which their products (pre-Windows 8 at least) were the ones best suited to the job at hand.
The recent launch of the Xbox One (whatever happened to sequential numbering by the way?) was roundly condemned by gamers as focussing too much on the new console being a media hub (again attracting new users) rather than a gaming platform (again ignoring the needs of existing users). At least one cannot accuse Microsoft of being inconsistent, but alienating existing customers is seldom a great long-term strategy for a business.
||Let’s glide seamlessly over Samuel Johnson’s original application of this image to comment on women preachers; the 18th Century is certainly a foreign country and I’m rather glad that we now [mostly] do things differently here.
||By way of illustration, Wikipedia tends to assume the 90-9-1 rule. 1% of users create content, 9% edit or otherwise modify content, the rest consume.
||Although maybe the term PC has become synonymous with Wintel based machines, I include here personal computers running flavours of UNIX such as Mac OS and Linux.