This week at TechEd I spent a lot of time around Windows 8, and came to a realization about the Metro versus traditional UI debate. Regardless of your feelings about Mac versus Windows, Windows 8 offers one major thing that Apple does not: the opportunity to blend tablet and laptop in one device. There are a million ways to compare Mac and Windows, but fortunately for our sanity, I’m only going to talk about this one.
In the TechEd Windows keynote, Microsoft emphasized the message that manufacturers will be offering a huge array of form factors, ranging from traditional desktops and laptops (both with and without touch) to all sorts of different types of tablets (seriously, there were about six different types of hardware in the keynote). Leaving out Windows RT for this discussion, all of these form factors run the same version of Windows 8, which means that both the Metro UI and desktop UI will be available, no matter the hardware.
When it comes to Apple, the World Wide Developer Conference was this week, and it came and went with no touch-enabled MacBook. While Mac OS X and iOS are gradually growing more alike, the bottom line is that tablets and laptops and desktops remain completely separate.
So who will be attracted to these combination tablet/laptop devices? Or to phrase the question differently, should Apple be worried?
For people that want tablets, there will be a lot of different options, and they’ll even be able to access the desktop interface when needed. If the Android tablet versus iPad struggle has taught us anything however, it’s that the iPad will be pretty hard to unseat from its top position.
The desktop Windows 8 versus Mac OS X issue won't be changed much, either. Sure, the Metro-style Start menu will cause some grumbling, but users will be able to spend most of their time in the traditional UI if they want to. When it comes to traditional laptops and desktops, Windows 8 will have a small effect here, too.
Where will Windows 8 have its biggest impact? It will be in the spectrum in between pure laptop/desktop and pure tablet. Think of all the people using external keyboards with their iPads, users that spend most of their time on a tablet but aren’t quite willing or ready to give up a desktop entirely, or even people that bought Windows tablets 5 or 10 years ago. All of these people could have their needs met by Windows 8 with its dual user interfaces—something that never really existed before.
The only option for combining iOS and desktop interfaces is through remote desktop connections, but that solution has some limitations: no offline access, there needs to be a desktop running somewhere, there are desktop licensing issues, hardware choices are limited, and the fact that they’re separate, non-integrated machines (you would have to use a cloud service to move data from the remote desktop to the local tablet).
At the end of the day, platform preference is a very personal thing. We all have our favorite parts and pet peeves about any OS. Despite those considerations, if you want a device that’s both tablet and laptop, you have to get that from Microsoft, not Apple.