As we barrel toward the holiday season, questions continue to swirl around two mysterious Microsoft platforms that the software giant hopes will compete with emerging market leaders in the smartphone and media tablet markets. Yep, I’m talking about Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT, respectively. Although Microsoft remains mum on these topics, I’m ready to talk. Thankfully, I’ve actually had some hands-on time with each.
 

 

Windows Phone 8

My Windows Phone 8 experience, alas, has been virtual, courtesy of a leaked version of the Windows Phone 8 SDK that Microsoft, oddly, is keeping hidden from run-of-the-mill developers. The plan, apparently, is to seed the SDK early on to trusted or known developers only, to ensure that the quality of new apps is high on launch day. That day, incidentally, is October 29, 2012, another item of interest about which Microsoft, again, is being too quiet.

So what do we see in Windows Phone 8? As you probably know, this release is a huge architectural change. Microsoft is moving from the Windows CE core used in previous Windows Phone versions and is adopting the same core technologies (kernel and much more) used in Windows 8. This won’t result in app compatibility—indeed, Windows Phone’s WinPRT (the current name used for the phone-specific version of the Windows 8 Runtime) APIs diverge in some important ways from what developers will see in Windows 8’s WinRT APIs—but it will have important ramifications for the scalability, capability, and performance of Microsoft’s smartphone platform. (The dark side to this change is that Windows Phone 8 won’t be offered as an update to existing devices. It requires, among other things, the multi-core processors found only in new hardware.)

What’s most interesting to you, perhaps, is that while Windows Phone 8 is a sea change technically, it’s really just an evolutionary update from a user-experience perspective. So if you’re comfortable with Windows Phone 7.x, there’s no jarring change moving up to Windows Phone 8, as there is, say, when you move from Windows 7 to Windows 8. Instead, you’ll find several useful new features, none of which could be called earth shattering.

Since Microsoft is so keen to keep some of the new end-user features secret, I won’t reveal everything I’ve seen. But some highlights include a new metered broadband connection feature called Data Aware that helps you track your data usage, a parental controls feature called Kid's Corner, a personal recommendation service for Local Scout, apps, games, music, Internet Explorer 10, a Wallet hub, a Nokia-infused Maps app, and of course a new Office 2013–based hub.

Only three hardware makers will be selling Windows Phone 8 handsets outside of China this fall, but they’re all heavyweights: Nokia, HTC, and Samsung. Nokia and Samsung have already announced the devices they’ll be selling, and HTC will probably have made its own announcement by the time you read this.

So far, I’m not sure what to think of these devices. Nokia will replace its flagship Lumia 900 with a 920 model that features an even bigger screen (with a correspondingly larger and heavier body), but the big change there could be the camera, which promises a PureView camera experience for superior picture taking. Its midlevel Lumia 820 model essentially combines the best aspects of today’s Lumia 800 and 710 products, with a mid-sized screen, expandable storage, and replaceable back covers for a customized look.

Samsung’s single Windows Phone 8 entry, the ATIV S, is a follow-up to last year’s excellent Focus S, and if you’re familiar with the firm’s Android-based Galaxy S III, you get the idea: It will feature a huge 4.8” HD screen, a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, an 8 megapixel rear camera, and expandable storage. It doesn’t look like much, but given Samsung’s track record, this could be one to watch.

HTC hasn’t announced its Windows Phone entry. However, all the rumors point to a Windows Phone version of its excellent Android-based One X handset, so that’s probably going to be a decent device as well.

An embarrassment of riches? Perhaps. But Windows Phone 8 is entering a crowded market, one that just became a lot more crowded thanks to the entry of Apple’s new iPhone 5. Nothing about the new iPhone is earth shattering; indeed, its two best features—large screen and LTE networking support—have been available on Windows Phone and Android handsets since last year.

But Apple’s spend-happy fans have proven open to buying up even the most lackluster of upgrades in the past—cough, iPhone 4S, cough—so this should be no different. It’s fair to think that Apple will sell millions of these things immediately.

On the Android side, Motorola Mobility’s recent RAZR announcement didn’t impress all that much, but the current bestsellers, the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X, are already strong enough to take on the iPhone 5—and of course the coming Windows Phone 8 handsets—head to head. But what makes Android so successful is the same thing that worked for Microsoft and its Windows PC ecosystem: There’s such a wide diversity of devices out there, available on all mobile carriers, that Android has simply become the obvious choice in every market segment. It’s a tough opponent to overcome, and all the pieces are in place for Android to continue its dominance of the smartphone market.
 

 

Windows 8 and Windows RT

Things are quite different on the tablet side. There, the dominance is reversed, with Apple and its iPad controlling 65 percent of the market and various Android makers sopping up most of the rest. In this important emerging market, Microsoft is offering a two-pronged attack featuring Windows 8 and Windows RT.

Windows 8 is pretty well understood by this point. It runs on PCs, and for this generation of hardware, we’re going to see a ton of new device types, not just traditional laptops, ultrabooks, and desktops, but also a lot of multi-touch–enabled screens, and hybrid mobile devices such as slate PCs, tablet PCs, convertible PCs, and more.

Windows RT is a different animal entirely. Although Microsoft has been careful to keep the wraps on its ARM-based variant of Windows 8, I was able to spend a few days with a Qualcomm Liquid reference design tablet with dock, and I think it’s fair to say I know what’s going on here now. It’s simple: Windows RT is nothing less than a complete rethinking of what Windows can and will be in the future. It’s the future, in the same way that Windows NT was the future in the mid-1990s.

Put another way, Windows RT is the devices-based version of Windows 8. (Or, Windows 8 is the PC-based version of Windows RT.) There are differences, few of which are subtle. Windows RT lacks some Windows 8 desktop features—Windows Media Player and Storage Spaces—and can’t run any non-bundled Windows desktop applications, such as Adobe Photoshop and Visual Studio. But in return, you get a clean new version of Windows that lacks legacy deadwood and the attendant security and reliability issues, has killer battery life, and ships on devices that are silent, thin, and light.

If you choose to allow Windows RT into your environment, however, you don’t need to give up backward compatibility. It’s no coincidence that Microsoft has spent the past several years honing its centralized app deployment (RemoteApp) and data-center-based Windows environment (VDI) solutions. Both work just great with Windows RT. In fact, I mentioned Photoshop for a reason: My Windows RT test included a RemoteApp version of Photoshop, as well as a full VDI-based Windows desktop that could run a 3D CAD-CAM application and play full-screen HD video simultaneously.

Various hardware makers will be selling Windows RT devices and Windows 8 PCs of all kinds come late 2012. But none, perhaps, are as eagerly awaited as the Microsoft Surface devices. Microsoft will sell two models, one based on Windows RT (which will go on sale October 26, 2012) and one based on Windows 8 (which won’t see the light of day for another 90 days, or roughly until February 1, 2013).

To date, no one outside of Microsoft has had any hands-on time with actual working Surface devices—despite some rather sad and quickly debunked claims to the contrary—but this has only heightened the aura and excitement around these devices. That’s quite a trick, given Microsoft’s normally lackluster marketing efforts. But as good as these efforts look, there are just too many questions, not the least of which is price: How much will Microsoft sell these things for? We just don’t know. Not yet.

Here, Microsoft is also entering a crowded market. Although Surface RT and other Windows RT devices won’t compete with most of these products head-to-head, it’s fair to say that Windows RT’s biggest competitors are the iPad and various Android-based tablets.

Consider this: While Apple’s iPad doesn’t compete with a traditional PC in any feature-by-feature comparison, it does compete with a PC in the sense that some people can get real work done with the iPad and don’t need the complexity or full functionality of a PC. In the same way, even simpler media tablets, such as the Google Nexus 7 or the 7” Amazon Kindle Fire/Fire HD, might not line up toe-to-toe with the iPad. But they do compete with the iPad because every Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire sale is a non-sale for Apple. The fate of all these devices is in some way interconnected.

So where does Windows RT fit into this comparison? Devices based on Windows RT occupy a previously unknown middle ground between PC and iPad, and these devices will thus compete both with true Windows 8 PCs (and slates and other form factors) and with the iPad and full-sized Android tablets. But devices based on Windows RT don’t compete directly with smaller, simpler media tablets such as the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire, because those devices are purely for media and content consumption.

So, looking at competitors for the same market as the Surface and other Windows RT devices, we see … the iPad 3. That’s pretty much it. Yes, there are 10"-ish Android tablets out there too, but they either don’t sell well enough to worry about or, in the case of the new 8.9” Amazon Kindle Fire HD, they’re just too purely media focused, lacking any productivity accoutrements at all, to be included in this comparison.

The iPad 3 is strong competition. It has an established and superior ecosystem of content, apps, games, and accessories. Consumers love it and the Apple brand. And yet, the iPad has lost share every year since its launch, even though its sales have only improved. Those Android tablets—especially Amazon’s devices—have already had their effect. Perhaps Windows RT can make some serious inroads here.
 

 

Looking Forward

I’d like to leave you with two final thoughts. First, Apple is expected to unveil a so-called iPad Mini that will compete with the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire, providing a true media tablet alternative. This is important for Apple, which needs to fend off its voracious competitors. It’s not so hugely important to you.

Second, the dark horse for Microsoft—go figure—is device management. Whereas all of the devices and platforms that I mentioned can be managed through Exchange ActiveSync (EAS), Microsoft’s platforms will offer better management capabilities. Windows 8, of course, can be managed through Active Directory (AD) and Group Policy. Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT will provide additional management functionality, surfaced through System Center 2012 SP1 and the next version of Windows Intune. If you’ve grudgingly accepted BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) in your own environment, these capabilities could put Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT over the top. It’s something you need to look into.