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Windows Phone must be Microsoft's tablet OS

Gordon Kelly by

Windows 8 family

Headlines will tell you this is a big week for Microsoft. It sees the launch of Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT, the much heralded fix for all our tablet and PC woes. Yet what has quietly slipped by many is that last week was an even bigger one.

What emerged were the first details of another so-called 'blue' release: Windows Phone 8.1. And what made these details most interesting were two things: the scale of their ambition, and that in the days since they have not been debunked.

What do we mean? Support for 7-10-inch screens and upping API unity with Windows RT from 33 to 77 per cent. If that didn't get your grey matter turning, remember last month Microsoft operating systems head Terry Myerson told thousands of employees it plans to unify the Windows and Windows Phone app stores. App code compatibility between Windows and Windows Phone already sits at over 90 per cent.

The death knell for Windows RT has been sounded for some time, but now we are starting to understand that using Windows Phone as its replacement is how Microsoft plans to survive it.

Backwards to go forwards

The rewards of such a transition are significant. Windows phones and tablets could finally unify as Android and iOS phones and tablet have, but with the added bonus of being seeded into PCs via the visually similar, app compatible - and surely Windows Phone transitioning - Modern UI.

Throw in support for the Windows 8-based Xbox One (something Microsoft Studio's Phil Spencer says "makes a lot of sense") and reluctant app developers would surely flock to the merged platforms in droves.

The problem is before it gets better, everything must get worse.

By the end of this week Windows 8.1 and 8.1 RT will bring support for 7-inch tablets. By the end of October the Windows Phone 8 'version 3' update will bring support for 6-inch 'phablets'. Windows RT will still support a limited desktop mode for Microsoft Office, but in 2014 a Modern UI compatible version of Microsoft Office will make this redundant. Meanwhile the Modern UI in Windows 8.1 and 8.1 RT will get the same options to resize icons as Windows Phone 8 so they all look virtually identical.

The commercial that can make all this clear to mainstream consumers deserves to win the Nobel Prize. But at least the logic is clear: for the necessary mergers to happen phone, tablet and PC platforms have to be brought closer and closer together.

Still it will be painful to watch. Not just for the new heights of confusion that will be caused, but because it could so easily have been avoided in the first place.

Ignoring the recipe for success

Windows RT OfficeAfter decades of collective failure, Apple finally cracked the key to tablets in 2010. The recipe turned out to be simple: a finger-friendly phone OS plus big screen dedicated apps equals popularity. Google was so keen to follow it the company ripped Android in two to cover both markets before stitching them back together in Android 4.0. By contrast Microsoft decided the best course of action was to ignore it completely.

The path was simple: bring large screen support to Windows Phone, preferably give it a more appropriate name (though 'Windows Mobile' was out, representing the past of Windows for phones), and keep Windows 8 simple as a faster, more reliable, more secure version of Windows 7. Let tablet and phone support grow then fold the Windows Phone/Tablet interface smoothly into the PC space with Windows 9 as its 'Modern UI'. Job done.

Instead Microsoft was hell bent on maintaining a tie that had failed time and time again: making tablets smaller, cut down version of PCs.

To do this Microsoft had to split Windows 8 in two, build a whole new touch interface, drum up further app developer support and convince PC makers to adopt touchscreens. It had to explain the butchered desktop in Windows RT to consumers along with the logic of having three OSes. Then work was required to eventually merge them again and convince developers to once more adapt their apps.

Of course it hasn't worked and Windows RT in particular has been an unwieldy, unloved, power hungry mess. Furthermore its failure has merely exposed the chasm between mobile and PC that Microsoft hoped it would bridge.

Fortunate failure

The good news is the best possible outcome for Microsoft is Windows RT's quick death. Without a viable tablet platform Microsoft is being forced to return to Windows Phone and take the heavily signposted path to Logic Town it had chosen to ignore. Conversely, had Windows 8 RT developed a loyal following, it could've hamstrung Microsoft for years to come.

The benefits to all this are unlikely to be felt before Windows 9, but that is pegged for launch by the end of next year. An RT edition is inconceivable and Windows 9 can bring clear branding, a single app development platform and become the first truly unified operating system on the market. An embodiment of the new 'One Microsoft'.

Of course critics will then say Windows 9 is everything Windows 8 should have been. They'd be right, but if it can safely negotiate the painful transition Microsoft is unlike to care.

Next, read our round-up of the best new Windows 8.1 features

Go to comments

chaosdefinesorder

October 16, 2013, 11:56 am

This was something that a lot of tech journalists were saying when Windows Phone was first released; "It's a nice enough mobile operating system, but would look better on a tablet" due to the large spilling-over-to-the-right headers to most of the menus and program launch pages...

Gordon Kelly

October 16, 2013, 12:11 pm

I was one of them :) If anything Live Tiles lend themselves better to a tablet than a handset. It was baffling of them not to capitalise on this. The name 'Windows Phone' was incredibly shortsighted IMO.

chaosdefinesorder

October 16, 2013, 12:34 pm

I kne I saw it on this site, I just couldn't remember which of you said it so left it ambiguous ;-)

Quite a lot of MS's decisions with WiPho and W8 have at least felt a little bit like they - and only they - know what consumers want regardless of what it actually is...that...consumers...want...

Case in point being releasing a brand new mobile operating system (WP7) that straight up *removed* copy-and-paste compared to the previous software version despite this being cried from the rooftops as being a bad thing in iOS at the time, and then used the "you're holding it wrong" style response to criticism that deep semantic search for phone numbers, dates, URLs and emails (but ONLY these!) is all the user needs copy and paste for anyway...

One specific example, obviously, but in my eyes it symbolises MS attitude to WiPho and W8 and the end-users...

Also, I don't remember seeing any convincing argument from then as to *WHY* WP7(.8) can't upgrade the software to WP8... was it just the available RAM?

Gordon Kelly

October 16, 2013, 1:36 pm

I think there is a danger of Microsoft going down the Apple route - in fact I wrote about it nearly 2 years ago... :)

http://www.trustedreviews.com/...

Mike E. Delta

October 16, 2013, 3:12 pm

As to your last Q, it was the difference between Windows CE and Windows NT. It may not seem like much of a difference, but if you build a car with a diesel engine you cannot then put regular gas into it, you would need a new regular engine car (what do they call them?). The "engines" were different, you needed different hardware. It doesn't appear logical but then maybe they should never have had different engines to begin with...well, now they don't. It would have been a lot better I know if they had started with an NT phone, but they couldn't wait and neither could I, so it didn't bother me. You really need to let it go, it's a sh* thing to say I get that but seriously, it's not worth the stress, believe me. There are more important things going on in the world. =[

Mike E. Delta

October 16, 2013, 3:31 pm

Forgive me but journalists can say anything, doesn't really make it worth two cents unless it actually means something. Am I right, writers? You would be far more fulfilled affecting great changes instead of just garnering 'hits' for the online real estate that has given you a platform. By no means am I dismissing their work though, it would be a terrible world without it...and it isn't easy, they do it much better than any of us here on the internet! Definitely better than the "Professional Trolls" known as Bloggers! lol, jk *wink, wink* #OnlyFortheHumor =p

Gordon Kelly

October 17, 2013, 2:57 pm

Mike you're absolutely right. We aren't Microsoft board members, we analyse and form opinions (hopefully with some lucidity) but we can't tell companies what to do.

I tried that once in 2009. I told senior Nokia executives the company would be a slave to Android if it didn't buy Palm. Turned out it was a slave to Windows Phone, but I wasn't far wrong ;)

Joe

October 18, 2013, 2:44 am

Actually It would be the second unified OS as Ubuntu 13.10 was just released. I also belive Microsoft could have a very powerful OS but the fact that they arnet first could cause problems. Like what if OEMs decide they love Ubuntu? Or Android and Chrome OS merge or OS X and iOS merge before then? These are all hypothetical scenarios but if they come true Microsoft could be done. But hey, sometimes not bieng first is good right?

prettyconfusd

October 18, 2013, 1:50 pm

Windows Phone definitely shouldn't become Microsoft's mobile OS!

I've used it since it launched, love it, and would never move to Android or iOS but after spending the last two years (since the dev preview) with Windows RT I would never want WP on a tablet.

Remember that while we talk about Windows RT as just the OS on Surface, what we're actually talking about is the metro interface, forget the desktop part for now. While Windows RT devices haven't done that well (though still far better than Chrome OS and that's been out for three years. We don't generally hear people calling for Google to drop that, do we?) RT is still on every Windows 8 machine released from tablet to workstation.

Metro on Windows Phone is great, and it works really well on phones but it wasn't built to scale. It wasn't even built to evolve properly. Windows Phone 7 was always a stop gap to just get a phone OS out there.

RT (just metro) is built to scale from a 7" tablet to an 84" screen at any resolution and any aspect ratio. With 8.1 it's already more evolved and more advanced that Windows Phone, which is still struggling with the two 720p devices that were released last year and will continue to struggle with the 1080p devices coming out next month as none of it easily scales. Unless the apps are updated (which most of them haven't been) they become letterboxed.

The RT APIs were already more advanced than WP a year ago and with 8.1 become even moreso. Gaining 77% parity with WP 8.1 is great, but it's not "write-once-run-anywhere" which will only happen when it's just WinRT and not WinRT + WinPRT.

Windows RT (metro) will scale down well to 4" phones (with some UI tweaks to match the way WP manages the UX) and work just as well as Windows Phone currently does, only even better because it'll be managed as Microsoft's main OS. Look at a lot of apps in snap mode in Windows 8, especally Twitter, they essentially shrink down to phone apps. If all apps did that we'd be set.

Of course, with the 320px snap mode becoming optional for 8.1 that plan might have gone out of the window, not quite sure what they were thinking by ditching that and opting for a 500px minimum requirement...

So yeah, don't mistake me for a hater. I've bought three Windows Phones outright since they became available and converted a lot of family and friends. Doesn't make it right for tablets. Or even for the future expansion of mobile devices.

maeneak

October 21, 2013, 2:42 am

We really have no idea what Microsoft's plans are. Microsoft has a road map for the future of its OS's and devices and we will see exactly what these plans are over the coming years. I believe we will see WP converge with RT with the WP interface for smaller (-5in) devices and RT style for larger

amirpro

December 17, 2013, 1:23 pm

well said

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