As we head into the end of 2011, questions remain about Windows 8 and Windows Phone. And the answers to those questions aren't necessarily what you were expecting.
The Windows 8 Paradox
As I write this, it's been over a month since Microsoft unveiled Windows 8 at its epic BUILD Conference in Anaheim, California. Since then, I've tried to spend as much time as I can in the new OS, not just via the Samsung tablet that Microsoft loaned me at the show, but on as many of my own PCs as possible. It's been a bit difficult, frankly. And the difficulties I'm seeing are echoed in a growing cacophony of online complaints from power users around the world.
They're all very misguided.
Here's why: When Microsoft shipped the Windows 8 Developer Preview in September, it did so to provide developers with a way to start investigating the new Windows runtime, WinRT, and the new Metro-style apps that they could create for this environment. But the Developer Preview isn't complete.
Yes, it ships with a variety of intern-created sample apps, but all of those are fairly basic, leading to unwarranted criticism that this new environment, as denoted by the Windows 8 Start screen and the apps that run within, is a sort of overly-simplistic experience, and that the computing world of the future will be defined by a two-tier user experience: The Fisher-Price world of the Start screen and the more powerful and refined world of the legacy Windows desktop.
Folks, it's not true. As Microsoft has explained-but, admittedly, not ably demonstrated-WinRT is a fully-capable and rich app environment that lends itself equally well to complex applications like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and modern 3D video games, as it does to simple weather and Twitter apps.
The problem is, none of those apps exist today. So people who run the Developer Preview on their own machines are forced to switch back and forth between the future (the Start screen and a handful of simple apps) and the past (the desktop and the huge canon of existing Windows applications).
And naturally, they find the future lacking. That's because there aren't any useful apps there.
Here's what's going to happen: Microsoft very specifically offered the Windows 8 Developer Preview first so that developers could begin hacking away at the system. And the result is going to be a wellspring of new Metro-style apps that beta testers will be able to download from the Windows Store, which will open in the coming months, well before Windows 8 ships publicly.
(Secondarily, it was a way to get feedback from the power users who would install this pre-beta build regardless of the warnings. But that need was absolutely secondary: Microsoft is already well aware of the shortcomings of the new environment as it exists in the Developer Preview and many of the fixes it will implement are already well under way. Many users will incorrectly assume the company was listening to feedback and fixing issues they found. This is not the case for many of these issues.)
One can logically expect that the Windows 8 user experience will improve in leaps and bounds as Microsoft and numerous third parties race to fill in the gaps between now and the release of Windows 8. Beta testers, with early access to the Windows Store, will be able to download (and buy) numerous Metro-style apps during this time, and as developers get more comfortable with WinRT and its unique abilities, the quality and comprehensiveness of those apps will increase as well.
By the time Windows 8 does ship, the store will be well-stocked and developers will be well on their way to mastering the intricacies of this new environment. So users won't be starting with an empty store and a two-tier experience. Many of them will simply use only Metro-style apps and ignore the legacy desktop all together.
I'm also hearing rumors that some of Microsoft's PC maker partners may ship in the first half of 2012 Windows 8-capable tablet computing devices that come with Windows 7. These devices would offer a free Windows 8 upgrade so that users could get the new system as soon as it's released.
This, I think, is a great idea. It lets Microsoft sort-of answer the questions about its delayed response to the iPad, and it provides users with a decent PC tablet experience today with the promise of an excellent, Windows 8-based experience just a few months down the road.
Will it happen? Stay tuned: I think the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2012 is the ideal time and place to announce such a plan.
Either way, the important thing to note is that the Windows 8 experience of mid-to-late 2012 isn't going to resemble today's experience at all. And while so-called power users continue complaining about the Start screen and the Metro-style apps, it's important to remember that this first Developer Preview isn't for them, it's for developers.
And things are going to improve dramatically. Wait for it.
With Lackluster iPhone Upgrade, Hopes for a Mobile Market Reshuffling
Microsoft already makes the best smartphone OS in Windows Phone-it's just that few potential customers realize it.
So heading into the 2011 holiday season, Microsoft and its supporters pinned their hopes on a few things, including the release of Windows Phone 7.5 (excellent, but unlikely to sway the doubters), a new marketing campaign that will provide much-needed incentives to wireless carrier store employees (so they can temporarily stop mindlessly promoting Android to customers), a handful of new devices from existing partners (none of which, frankly, will make much of a difference at all), and of course, everyone's favorite wildcard, Nokia, which promises to unleash a new family of quite-excellent Windows Phone 7.5 handsets by the end of the year. (I'll have more on Nokia's offerings next month.)
But then some unexpected help came from an unlikely source: Apple. And now, it's possible that everything is about to change.
Stepping back for a moment, let's recall that both Gartner and IDC inexplicably claimed earlier this year that Windows Phone would surpass Apple's iPhone as the number-two smartphone platform behind Google Android by 2015. With Windows Phone languishing in the low single digits from a market share perspective, these predictions seemed, at the time, laughable.
And I argued then, as I do now, that all Microsoft really had to do for the OS to be successful was to establish Windows Phone as one of the top three smartphone platforms. After all, the mobile market is growing at such speed that there's plenty of new users to go around.
But what if Windows Phone really did pull ahead of the iPhone? What would have to happen for such a future to become a reality?
Looking at the list of previously mentioned hopes for the remainder of the year, only one, Nokia's entry into the market, could possibly make a measurable difference to Windows Phone's fortunes. But even Nokia isn't a given, considering how far the company has fallen and how quickly its customer base has jumped ship.
In fact, both Gartner and IDC claim that their predictions about Windows Phone are based entirely on Nokia making a huge impact. Which is, of course, why I'm a lot less sanguine about the platform's future than are they.
No, I think Windows Phone needs some outside help, something akin to the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, an unforeseen bit of good news that will hobble one of Microsoft's competitors, and thus provide Windows Phone with the opening it needs.
That good news may be Apple's recently released iPhone 4S.
As I write this, the iPhone 4S has garnered supposedly record-peaking sales of 4 million units in its first weekend of availability. And Apple is publicly predicting that it expects to sell 20 million iPhones in the last quarter of 2011, matching its previous, best-ever quarter.
But I'd remind people that Apple sells three models of iPhone now, not just the iPhone 4S, but also previous generation (and much cheaper) iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 handsets. And those older, less expensive phones will almost certainly make up the majority of total iPhone sales in the quarter.
Here's the thing: The iPhone 4S is a great update for iPhone 3GS users, and informal statistics are already showing that these customers-who hit their two year-contract renewal time just as the 4S shipped-do in fact make up the bulk of iPhone 4S buyers.
But the iPhone 4S is not a great update for iPhone 4 customers-it utilizes exactly the same form factor as its predecessor, which has to be a turnoff for most-and it's not a great phone for those on other smartphone platforms either, thanks to its small screen and lack of high-end features like true 4G support.
There is a great chance that the iPhone 4S will end up being something of a letdown for Apple, a device that maintains the status quo at best, and possibly loses share for the platform over the long run.
This, of course, would be good news for Microsoft and for Windows Phone, and if Nokia's handsets are as high quality as I believe them to be, it's possible that this lackluster Apple upgrade could drive new users to Windows Phone instead of iPhone.
Is this the perfect storm for Windows Phone? Perhaps, but for this future to unfold as imagined, Microsoft and Nokia are really going to have to step it up, and let's face it, there's little precedent for that.
Too, Android, the dominant mobile platform, will likely soak up a lot of potential iPhone customers over the next year, and there's certainly nothing to suggest that Google's aggressive handset partners are going to slow down to accommodate Windows Phone.
Finally, a lackluster upgrade has never stopped Apple from being successful. Apple's ever-broadening fan base has proven that it's always willing and able to open the collective wallet, regardless of the product or the state of the economy.
So even the iPhone 4S could end up a success story in its own right. Stranger things have happened.
RIM Continues Its Nosedive Into Obscurity
Looking at the mobile industry a few years ago, Nokia owned the worldwide market with its Symbian OS and RIM owned the US market and that for business users, with its BlackBerry system. Today, both of these platforms are in free fall, with customers abandoning them for the richer ecosystems provided by Google's Android and Apple's iPhone.
Nokia has moved on and adopted Windows Phone as its smartphone platform, but RIM, well, RIM hasn't had a clear path forward for a while now. It adopted the QNX OS for its Playbook tablet and said that it would use this system for future BlackBerry handsets as well.
But at its developer conference in October, the company backpedaled and said it would merge the best of BlackBerry OS and QNX into a new OS called BBX. This will be used for both phones and tablets, though no further details were provided about devices or timing.
In days past, you could argue that the RIM ecosystem made sense because of its security advances over competing systems. But with those differences eroding and no signs of a roadmap, RIM seems to be floundering.
It doesn't help that many BlackBerry users don't actually choose that phone but are provided with it by their employer. Given the choice, many BlackBerry users would jump ship. I certainly would: There are better smartphone platforms out there, including three-Android, iPhone, and Windows Phone-with a much clearer roadmap.