Is ‘Windows’ Microsoft’s biggest problem when it comes to being relevant in a world of computing that’s mobile, fun, social and always-on. The laptop, for example, is still viewed by most people as a place where you work. No social, no gaming and a 5-minute wait until the laptop finishes updating and then tells you that you really should go and find the power adaptor. Heavy, noisy, hot, boring, boring, BORING. ‘Windows’ is largely responsible for this having focused on ‘work’ for much of its lifetime. Adding a new touch layer to ‘Windows’ doesn’t instantly make Windows an exciting operating system, despite the work that Microsoft has put into every layer of that ecosystem. By designing tablets that turn into laptops, however, there’s a better opportunity. Roll with the punch, Microsoft.
Windows 8 has over 100 million installs now which makes it interesting for developers looking at the Windows 8 Store but you can guarantee that only a fraction of those 100 million Windows 8 owners aren’t interested in clicking, not touching, through to it again after they’ve seen poor implementations of Twitter clients and no official Instagram or Facebook client. Working that mousepad to get the best out of Windows 8’s modern UI isn’t exactly fun either. The hurdles, including the commonly pre-conceived idea that Windows is not cool, are too great. Offering a lower-cost entry point doesn’t appear to help either. Windows RT has failed so far although there’s an app-issue to be taken into account here before Windows RT can be called a failure.
Maybe Intel’s name doesn’t help either. It’s associated with hot, heavy and work-focused activities. Sure, you can now buy an Ultrabook that you don’t have to turn off but who’s aware of that? Who cares?
The Media aren’t helping because there’s nothing hugely different to report on in the PC or laptop market. Everything looks the same as it was and it’s far easier to get readers eyes and clicks with a ‘fail’ story. If you’re planning on building readership, a falling market is not the one you want to concentrate on. Tablets, Smartphones and the tease of new forms of gadgets, including smart watches, flexible screens, connected cameras and apps are much more interesting from a business perspective.
This leads me to a question that I’ve been thinking about and writing about for 7 years. Intel and Microsoft, I believe, have also been working on it for at least as long. I lost sleep over it more than once in the last week so I’ve decided to tackle the subject again.
What could make the PC interesting again? Trying to change the laptop is not the ideal solution, although it was pretty much the only option available given the hardware and software available. The Ultrabook has done everything it could have done to change the way PCs and components are designed. The next stage is to move away from the laptop design and focus on using momentum and quality in Microsoft’s market. Create the Windows 8 Phone-focused tablet that can be turned into a laptop.
You’ve already seen Intel and partners working on this. It’s called the dockable Ultrabook. You’ve heard Intel talk about it too. “It’s a tablet when you want it, and a laptop when you need it.” There’s nothing new in what I’m saying here apart from a new ‘bridge’ needed by Microsoft.
Hardware is ready
Step one is obviously to catch up with what’s going on in the rest of the computing space in terms of mainstream features. Always-on, stylish design, cool brands, apps, low cost.
Laptops can now be always-on, always connected. [Demo] The apps are coming, slowly, and the improving economics are helping to accelerate the growth of Windows 8 apps. Style is there too although style is fighting against cost in a big way.
Cost – that problem is nearly solved too. Intel have reached a point where the mainboard can be incredibly small. Get the mainboard small and integrated and costs drop considerably. Component count is down, component choices are down in some designs and that means they will eventually be cheaper to produce than traditional mainboards. Smaller mainboards mean smaller Ultrabooks which, don’t forget, use less casing materials, are cheaper to ship and cheaper to store. One more thing – as the platform becomes more efficient, less battery is required. The sealed Ultrabook could eventually be the cheapest type of laptop to produce.
Step one is largely complete.
Step two is all about marketing and here’s where the biggest problem lies. Moving the mindset but keeping those old ‘Windows’ and ‘Intel’ brands is the biggest hurdle of all.
I recently had a comment on an article shared on a social network: “I stopped reading when you mentioned Windows.” I know the commenter well and I was shocked that the word Windows meant this reader was effectively un-approachable because of a brand name.
How do you take ‘Microsoft’ , ‘Intel’, and ‘Windows’ out of the equation? Or how do you make customers take a second look despite those fuddy duddy brands?
Removing ‘Intel’ branding is the easy bit. No-one really needs to know it’s Intel inside but they do need to know it’s that unique platform inside. ‘Ultrabook’ is a good start but even that keyword is not the media’s favorite and is relatively unknown in the mainstream. Maybe a key design change could be the cue for customers to sit up and take notice.
What if every laptop was a dockable tablet first?
I like the idea of dockable tablets because it breaks from the laptop form factor-of-old and connects with the tablet/screen-first idea of the future. If the keyboard is becoming a secondary requirement then bundle it with an additional battery, ports and storage and sell it as an accessory. Even ‘desktop’ could be sold as an upgrade. Keeping entry-level costs down by taking the tablet-first approach will help.
The dockable tablet as the physical ‘cue’ turns the problem of retracting PC sales on its head. It sides with the growing tablet market. Screen first, not keyboard. The dockable, I believe, is the clear way to successfully change the laptop in the eyes of the consumer. Traditional laptop and desktop sales will retract but growth in the still-unique dockable laptop segment, will balance that, especially as Android and Apple tablets trend towards smaller screen sizes.
‘Ultrabook’ may well work as a brand with this detachable/convertible/hybrid/dockable concept. Acer have already used the Ultrabook brand to sell in the way I describe above. The P3 Ultrabook is effectively a tablet with a bundled tailored Bluetooth keyboard and case. “Redefining the Computer” says the advertising.
The problem here is that desktop is horrible on a tablet and Windows 8 apps are trailing expectations.
How do you make Windows cool and solve that app problem? You start by splitting Windows ‘Metro’ from the desktop and moving it into a new product area.
Laptops don’t need this touch user interface, desktops don’t need it. Only tablets need it. Windows 8 Phones already have it.
Moving ‘Tablet’ and ‘Phone’ together makes much more sense than bundling ‘PC’ and ‘Tablet’ together. At the core of this change in the Windows architecture would be a move to a unified app ecosystem. This is the only way that Microsoft can quickly boost the essential economics for developers. They won’t come if they can’t make money.
Combining the two software ecosystems is, I believe, close. 2014 close. Windows ‘RT’, for want of a better name, is an environment that already has the always-on capability, can run multiple apps side-by-side (Windows 8.1 improves this) and is sensor-ready. The Windows NT kernel is already common between the two platforms. Then there’s Windows Blue project which is now rumored to be exactly what I’m talking about above.
The move would lever the good progress Microsoft is making with Phone 8. Compare the media response to Windows Phone 8 to that of Windows 8! Nokia are helping to make Windows phone 8 cool and that momentum can be used to the tablets advantage. Want to go ‘pro’? Buy the dock.
There are some other exciting options too and the hooks are already there for Windows Phone and Windows Tablet (RT/Metro) interworking. SkyDrive is in place, Intel are working on device-aware services too. Although I don’t see the Windows Phone ever physically docking into a tablet, I do see close interworking, sync and sharing of the resources of the two devices.
Roll With the Punch
You can’t instantly make a PC, cool but you can work with the momentum in the industry and build something that pivots around phone/tablet and enables an optional PC mode, for when work needs to be done and characters need to be typed.
In terms of hardware, we’re close to a point where the laptop could primarily be a tablet. The dockable tablets are getting better, quickly [Here’s a live list of dockable tablets I prepared using our databases.] Ignore screen size and weight issues because that problem is already being solved. You can already get a Windows 8 PC, in a tablet, in less than 600gm / 1.3lbs and that figure will close in on the best of the ARM-based tablets in the future. Foldable, flexible, modular and roll-able screens will also play a part. On the OS side of things, the fusion of Windows Phone and Windows RT/Metro/Modern is the best option. Disassociate the touch UI from laptops and desktops but continue to offer the dockable advantage and upsell. Modular solutions do reduce the range of PCs a manufacturer could offer (sell one modular tablet instead of a tablet and a laptop?) but there are advantages with shorter renewal cycle and of course, larger market.
Use the value in the Windows 8 Phone market and the momentum in the tablet markets to create attractive screen-based devices that have upsell value. Don’t try and fix the laptop. Create new tablets.
As for the name of this new PC, I don’t think Ultrabook fits that well. Surface is pretty good though and there’s no reason why that can’t be used in the future, by all manufacturers. I’m no marketer though so I’ll leave that bit to the experts.
Do you like the idea of the dockable? Do you think that combining the ‘RT’ and Phone ecosystems would be enough to catalyse the important developer ecosystem? Should we start a new blog about hybrid PCs? My feeling is that it’s coming anyway and in the near future I’ll be forced to push UMPCPortal and Ultrabooknews together to cover the new hybrid world of Windows phone, tablet and laptop.