Windows 8 Needs Apps To Challenge Apple’s iPad

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Microsoft’s ‘Windows 8’ will find itself head-to-head against the iPad. It’ll need apps and a media hub to succeed, says Nicholas Kolakowski

Can “Windows 8” on a tablet undermine the Apple iPad’s dominance?

That’s perhaps the wrong question to ask. Over the past few months, several manufacturers have issued “iPad Killers” designed to dent Apple’s share of the consumer tablet market. Their effect has been less than spectacular, and recently a J.P. Morgan research note suggested those manufacturers are ratcheting back their tablet production in the face of weak sales.

“Non-Apple tablet hopefuls have adjusted to the weak showing so far,” J.P. Morgan analyst Mark Moskowitz wrote, according to the International Business Times. “In our view, the technical and form-factor improvements of the iPad 2 stand to make it tougher for the first generation of competitive offerings to play catch-up, meaning actual shipments could fall well short of plan.”

Carving a place in the tablet market

Most of those iPad competitors have run Google’s Android operating system. Research In Motion is trying to carve its own niche with the PlayBook tablet, which runs a proprietary QNX-based operating system, and Hewlett-Packard will enter the market this summer with a tablet running webOS.

Last week, Microsoft unveiled the next-generation Windows, which the company internally refers to as “Windows 8.” This version of Windows will offer users a set of colourful tiles that open applications — a design that draws many of its visual cues from Windows Phone, Microsoft’s latest smartphone operating system. It will also appear on form factors ranging from desktops and laptops down to tablets.

Despite that early glimpse, Microsoft remains tight-lipped on Windows 8’s actual release date, although rumours suggest sometime in 2012. If that proves accurate, it’ll most likely place Windows-on-tablets head-to-head against the successor to the iPad 2, provided Apple sticks to its schedule of updating its tablet every year. While it’s unlikely that Windows 8 would immediately swallow a substantial portion of the tablet market from a popular and well-entrenched competitor, there are certainly steps Microsoft can take to ensure it manages to carve some significant market share in the first few quarters of release.

Add Windows Phone apps

When Apple released the original iPad in 2010, it made a point of emphasising that applications developed for the iPhone would be compatible with their new, larger-screened cousin. Granted, it wasn’t quite the same as having high-definition applications expressly designed for that added screen real estate, but the massive App Store was more than enough to tide users over until third-party developers could flood the market with iPad-specific applications.

In other words, if you’re launching a mobile device such as a tablet, best do so with a hefty collection of applications that will actually run. For the past several months, Microsoft has been diligently encouraging third-party developers to create for Windows Phone — and while its applications marketplace doesn’t rival Apple’s App Store or the Android Marketplace for size, there is certainly a respectable number of applications and games available for download.

If Microsoft were to take steps to ensure those Windows Phone applications worked on Windows 8 tablets, it would go a long way toward convincing a broad array of users that the tablets have a viable place in their lives — and buy Microsoft time to churn out more Windows 8-tablet-specific applications.

The technical challenges in porting Windows Phone applications onto Windows 8 might make even the most stalwart engineering team’s heads collectively explode like something out of a David Cronenberg film. But it might be worth the effort for the aforementioned reasons.

Cloud and legacy programs

For the past several months, Microsoft has embraced an “all-in” cloud strategy. The next big piece of that strategy is Office 365, the company’s cloud-based productivity platform and Google Apps competitor. And when it comes time to start pushing Windows 8 on tablets, Microsoft needs to ensure that all those cloud components interoperate smoothly with their new interface — in fact, given the strides that Apple is making with its iCloud, which will facilitate the storage and syncing of documents and media between multiple devices, Microsoft really has no choice.

In the same vein, Microsoft needs to ensure that legacy Windows programs like Office not only interoperate smoothly with the new operating system, but also that they appear and act within the user interface in ways that don’t alienate longtime Windows users. When it comes to tablets, Microsoft will also need to ensure these programs work well with touch control.

Emphasise the entertainment

Despite attempts by other manufacturers to offer a viable alternative to iTunes and App Store, Apple remains dominant in that area. If Amazon goes through with its rumoured plans to produce a tablet, then it could leverage its Cloud Drive and Cloud Player to port music and movies onto the device — and become a major new player in the market, as a result.

Microsoft should consider doing something similar with its own tablet efforts — either via its Zune service, or an all-new Hub that integrates Netflix and other assets. The alternative is losing out to companies that have made an art out of streamlined delivery of music and movies to users’ mobile devices.

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