8 reasons why Windows 8 on a tablet won't fix our legacy Windows desktop apps problem

One of the ugly realities of the desktop computing world is that many (if not most?) of the apps that enterprises use are Windows-based desktop applications that have been designed to run on a desktop or laptop with a keyboard and mouse.

One of the ugly realities of the desktop computing world is that many (if not most?) of the apps that enterprises use are Windows-based desktop applications that have been designed to run on a desktop or laptop with a keyboard and mouse. This has been fine for the past fifteen years or so. But with the popularity of the iPad, enterprises are struggling with the fact that users want to use tablets yet so many of our apps are Windows desktop applications. How do we address this?

Microsoft makes it seem like the new touch-based Windows 8-style UI (formerly known as "Metro") is the answer. Unfortunately it's not. Here are eight reasons why:

x86 Windows desktop applications won't run on ARM-based tablets

Windows 8 will be available in versions that can run on Intel x86 architectures and ARM-based architectures. ARM is the type of processor that is in most mobile devices like iPads and phones. It's low power which means thin devices with lots of battery life. Unfortunately all those existing Windows desktop apps will only run on x86-based systems. So if you want to use those apps on a tablet, it will have to be an x86 Windows 8 tablet. Those will be more expensive, thicker, heavier, and with less battery life than their ARM-based cousins.

Guess which types of tablets people want to use? The skinny long-life ARM ones! If people were happy with the performance and battery life of running a Windows desktop application on an x86-based tablet, then the Windows tablets of 2001 running Windows XP Tablet Edition would have taken off.

Desktop remoting to a Windows 8 tablet is no different than any other non-Windows tablet

While it's true that you can access Windows desktop applications from your ARM-based tablets via remote Windows environments like Remote Desktop or VDI via protocols like RemoteFX, HDX, PCoIP, or VNC, the experience of using the remote Windows app has nothing to do with the local tablet OS. It literally doesn't matter if your tablet runs Android, iOS, or Windows 8. Therefore Windows 8 doesn't bring anything new or awesome to the table. So if you just want a tablet client for Windows, why not just get an iOS or Android one that will be much cheaper?

This is even true if you're remoting Windows 8 or Windows Server 2012 new style UI touch-based applications. Protocols like RemoteFX, HDX, and PCoIP currently (or will soon) support multitouch for their iOS and Android clients, so you don't gain anything by using a Windows 8 tablet as a client for your Windows 8 VDI.

Legacy desktop applications do not integrate with the new-style touch UI on Windows 8

While the Windows 8 OS itself looks nice with the Windows 8-syle new touch-based UI, those new UI only apply to the Windows OS itself. Individual applications have their own UIs, and they don't change just because you run them on Windows 8. In fact Windows 8 has a "new UI mode" and a "desktop mode." So even though you boot your tablet into the fun new touch-based UI, the instant you launch a legacy desktop application the system will flip over to something called "desktop mode." And that desktop mode looks just like the old fashioned mouse-based desktop mode we've been using forever. How useful is that without a keyboard or mouse? Not very!

The reality is that the Windows 8-style new touch-based UI is almost like a completely separate OS instance from the desktop mode. They even have two different browsers which can't share favorites between the two modes! So is Windows 8 the best of both worlds? No! It's more like you took an iPad and bolted on to a laptop. While you get access to both, it also means you can't bring just one without the other.

Microsoft believes users only want to carry one device, not a tablet and a laptop

Total BS! How many iPads have been sold? 50 million? How many iPad users do you know who have completely gotten rid of their desktops or laptops? Sure, there are many instances where people travel with just their iPad, but that doesn't mean they threw away their laptop. It just means they leave the laptop at home since the tasks they need to do while traveling don't require the power and form factor of a laptop.

But if you combine the tablet and laptop into a single device, what have you done? Now you have to lug around the laptop bits everywhere you go, even if you just want to consume content tablet-style!

Of course the whole reason you're doing this is because you want to run legacy Windows desktop applications, right? Well that means you need an x86-based Windows 8 tablet. Not only is this more expensive than an iPad or ARM-based Windows 8 tablet, it's also thicker, heavier, slower, and has less battery life. (Heck, I'll bet we'll see Windows 8 x86 devices on the market that are heavier and more expensive than an iPad plus an Ultrabook.)

Oh, and by the way, all the x86-based Windows 8 tablets that have been announced have come with a stylus since you wouldn't buy an x86-based tablet if you didn't need legacy Windows desktop application support, and Windows desktop apps suck with fingers.

People don't want to use a stylus as a mouse replacement

There is nothing good about using a stylus to poke at an application that was originally designed for a mouse. Not only is it still difficult to hit the tiny targets even when tapping them with a stylus, using a stylus with a tablet for extended periods of time is tiring. Seriously, have you ever used a touch-based desktop computer? You're constantly moving your hand back-and-forth to pick up the stylus, tap the screen, set down the stylus, reset your hands on the keyboard, type, pick up the stylus… Plus after five minutes your arm gets really tired! You get angry while wishing their was some way to rest your arm on the desk while still having some graphical way to interact with the screen. You know what that's called? A touchpad! 

Some people suggest that the stylus is not a mouse replacement but instead for taking notes or signing documents. (You know, because in the digital future tablet world we all have tons of documents to sign that are magically delivered to use electronically.) If that was the case then why don't Microsoft's ARM-based Surface tablets come with styluses?

The reality about Windows 8 tablets is that they're multitouch, so the act of resting your wrist on the writing surface (which is how normal people write) sometimes messes up the writing detection. Then you end up doing this sort of acrobat stylus balance where your hand doesn't touch the screen resulting in all your signatures looking forged. Having a stylus is not a good thing for the mass populous.

If it were easy to rewrite your Windows desktop application for touch, then you would have done it by now

So maybe all this means the "win" for Microsoft is that everyone will rewrite all their Windows desktop applications for Windows 8 touch? Unfortunately there are a few problems with that:

  • The version of Windows 8 that runs on ARM is very different than the version that runs on x86. So all your existing x86 apps will need MAJOR overhauls.
  • All your existing Windows desktop applications will require completely new UIs to be useful for touch-based users.
How many ARM-based Windows 8 tablets do you really think will be out there? Enough to warrant rewriting your Windows desktop applications for them? Or do you think, "hmm, there are 50 million iPads out there now. Maybe we just focus on that, let the x86-based Windows 8 users use the existing application in desktop mode, and ignore the Windows 8 ARM users?"

Let's be honest, if you're going to take the time rebuild your application for touch, are you really going to build it for Windows? After all, a native touch-based iOS app on an iPad is not fundamentally any different than a native touch-based app on a Windows 8 tablet, except the iPad already has a huge market share. Plus Microsoft has screwed us so many times in the past with their monopolistic and asinine licensing practices around the Windows desktop, so this the perfect time to break free!

Windows 8 tablets are not easier to manage than iPads or Android tablets

Microsoft also claims that Windows 8 will be easy to manage for enterprises since it's the familiar Windows that everyone knows and loves. But that's not quite true.

First, ARM-based versions of Windows 8 cannot be added to domains. So there goes that familiar management paradigm that we all know and "love." That's not to say they can't be managed, but that they'll have to be managed in the new MDM or MAM way with something like Windows Intune and Systems Center. That's not a bad thing per se, but it's the exact same way that iOS and Android devices are managed. So again, the fact that the device is Windows doesn't matter.

Only Windows 8 tablets will have the "real" Microsoft Office

This is one thing that I can agree with! True, the "real" Microsoft Office is better than third party Office wannabes. Unfortunately the reason this is true has nothing to do with Windows 8 tablets—it's purely the choice from Microsoft as an ISV that they have decided not to release versions of Office for iOS or Android.

So is this just a ploy to get people to buy Windows 8 tablets? I hope not! If so, it's just sad and cries of desperation. (Though business is business, so have at it Microsoft!)

That said, does anyone really believe that Microsoft continuing to ignore iOS and Android for Microsoft Office will actually boost Windows 8 tablet sales in any kind of meaningful way? Of course not. This just gives other companies more time to perfect their office products for iOS and Android. I'm sure Google (who owns QuickOffice) doesn't mind that one bit!

Is there anything to like about Windows 8 tablets?

I've always said I'd love it if my laptop had a double-hinged screen which I could fold over to use it as a touch device. Of course I'd take the option versus not having it (assuming it didn't add too much weight or affect the battery life too negatively). And yeah, if I had the option of snapping my keyboard off and just taking my screen, I'd love that too (again assuming the weight balance and hinge stiffness was right so I could still use the keyboard in bed or on my lap, and assuming the OS was quick enough to use in little bursts).

So I'm not saying that Windows 8 is bad or that all Windows 8 tablets are bad. Instead I'm saying if you think Windows 8 tablets will "solve" your iPad problem, you're wrong. If you think think Windows 8 tablets will "solve" your legacy desktop app problem, you're wrong. And if you think x86 Windows tablets will let you run legacy desktop applications on a device as thin, light, fast, and long-lasting as an iPad, you're wrong.

But if you view Windows 8 tablets as simply another form factor option which treat no differently than any Windows laptop, then you'll be just fine.



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