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Switched On: The great slate debate of Windows 8

Ross Rubin , @rossrubin
Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Just as Windows Phone 7's "touch-only" interface threw away the past to create a streamlined, more approachable experience, Microsoft is creating a "touch-first" experience for Windows 8 that has more in common with its new phone software than previous versions of Windows. This "Metro-style" UI will be able to run on virtually any modern PC, with screens from 10- to 30-inches and above. The touch interface will be only occasionally relevant on desktops, though, more so on laptops. Where it's obviously meant to shine is on pure slates -- will consumers really flock to Windows 8 for such slates, though?

The software and hardware -- to say nothing of Microsoft's cloud services -- have come a long way. Let's give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and say that the company will create a first-rate tablet experience in the absence of legacy Windows applications. That represents a significant improvement from the state of the Windows tablets as it has existed since the dawn of the Tablet PC. The thinness and longer battery life of both laptops and slates have also improved considerably as well since those days. Particularly with access to ARM processors, it wouldn't be surprising to see Windows 8 slates match the razor-like profile of the iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1... or whatever the state-of-the-art is when Windows 8 ships.

One question, though, is whether Windows 8 tablets will be price-competitive with such devices. Today, it's easy to find Windows laptops that cost less than $500, but it's difficult to find a Windows slate that costs that much. For example, the 8.9-inch HP Slate 500 sells for $799, near the top end of many Honeycomb tablets or the iPad line. And the 11.6-inch Samsung Series 7 slate starts at $1,099. Manufacturers will probably be able to get more price-competitive using ARM processors versus today's Intel chips, but there is the Windows license fee to consider.

And the other question is, since one of Windows 8's advantages is continued support for traditional productivity apps like Photoshop and Office, how many consumers would purchase a pure slate when they can also use the PC for productivity tasks better suited to a keyboard and mouse experience? For all of Microsoft's touch optimization, Windows 8's link to backward compatibility pushes consumers away from slates as much as a user interface miscue. Why? Because a Windows 8 laptop simply provides better value. In contrast to Apple, which has drawn a line in the sand (or is it the highway?) between the more capable "trucks" of its Mac line and the "cars" of its iPad line, Windows 8 includes a free "truck" with every "car"; buying a slate is like sealing off the cargo area.

Of course, Windows 8 PC manufacturers will be able to include integrated keyboards (like the Samsung PC 7 or ASUS Eee Pad Slider), or ones that dock (like that on the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer), or connect via USB or Bluetooth. The former, however, adds significantly to the thickness of a tablet while the latter two mean there's an extra accessory to lug around. Portable netbooks saw some success as the "second" PC, but they were cheaper than Windows 8 tablets will probably be for some time. And even so, their fortunes faded competing against the iPad and larger budget notebooks.

As simple as its user interface may be, the iPad wouldn't have been a success had consumer computing usage not shifted more to its strengths or surfing the web, consuming media (especially video), lightweight games and other casual apps. Microsoft may not ultimately care what shape atoms take around a Windows 8 license. But the desktop dichotomy that Switched On observed in June remains true. It may not make sense to try and create a fully featured Office or Photoshop to a native slate interface. Perhaps these apps, like Windows itself, must start over.

But to fully realize the promise of a "no-compromise" tablet -- at least in terms of the functionality that Windows brings today -- Microsoft and other Windows app providers must move more sophisticated app functionality from the idyllic rolling hills that once provided the backdrop of the Windows XP traditional GUI, to the rigid urban grid of Metro.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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