Editorial Turning point for the tortoise and the hare

That meteor shower was a bust. I'll never get back the five minutes I spent waiting to be awed. Anyone similarly impatient will be in gratification heaven for the next week, as the biggest cosmic bodies in the tech cosmos streak across the sky with announcements, device releases, price shifts and earnings reports.

Tossing astronomy aside for its failure to bedazzle, I turn to astrology to illuminate the upcoming eventful days. From a This Week in Astronomy blog: "A Venus-Pluto-Uranus T-square will be testing relationships and finances. The Sun enters Scorpio and aspects every slower planet except Pluto, and there's an intense Mars-Jupiter opposition." I don't understand most of that, but I know about opposition. That fits. The energy of opposition crackles in the ecosystem warfare waged this week by Apple, Microsoft and Google.

Switching now from inscrutable astrology to fables (because next to cosmic messaging I like simple allegories to explain life), we can see that the slow-but-steady tortoise is placing the most audacious bet.

Here's the agenda. For the business-minded, a cluster of quarterly earnings reports is jammed into the week: Yahoo on Monday (starting to turn the corner from media to tech); Facebook on Tuesday (explanation of challenges and unpleasantness); Apple on Thursday (iPhone 5 sales and Facebook-like stock dismay); Amazon on Thursday (anyone hoping to see broken-out Kindle Fire sales will likely be disappointed).

Editorial Turning point for the tortoise and the hare

If you like gear more than balance sheets, the main events are the Apple event on Tuesday (iPad mini is the default expectation, plus computer upgrades), the Microsoft double release of Windows 8 and Surface on Friday (yow), and Google / Nexus product announcements on Monday the 29th (three Nexus lines and downward price pressure).

The Apple and Google announcements bracket Microsoft's product blast-off, and Redmond is bringing the meat to this sandwich. All three are striding further into the post-PC era with tablet developments. But this week, Microsoft is taking more risk and putting more chips on the table.

Not to marginalize the expected revelation of a 7-inch iPad. When I picked up a first-generation iPad for the first time, my instant thought was, "Too heavy." It's amazing how three inches and a few ounces can influence a device's lifestyle integration. For example, the iPad offers a beautiful canvas for reading books, but the size and heft discourage the traditional curling-up with a page-turner. It is a clunky bedtime accessory. I admit that my appraisal of screen-size sufficiency might be written off by the fact that I watched every episode of "The Tudors" on a nano. You heard me. I learned that any screen is huge if you put it right against your face. I also find the iPod touch a pleasant form factor for reading books, a viewpoint that makes long-standing acquaintances reconsider my judgment.

Anyway, Apple will presumably drive a stake into the wide ground between iPhone and iPad (10-inch) with a competitor to the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire. Perhaps too obligatory to be called smart, an iPad mini would at least give Apple a tablet price point in the $200 to $350 range that is carved out in today's market with increasing definition. Whatever Apple's secret philosophical attitude about a 7-inch tablet, it must bring a product to its catalog that is bigger than a phone and less expensive than a flagship iPad.

Meanwhile, Google is playing the other end of the court if it fulfills rumors by announcing a 10-inch Nexus. The rumored device is equipped with pixel density specs that would make the new Nexus more eye-candilicious than the current iPad. Whether the 10-incher happens or not, it seems likely that Google will jet some air into the 7-inch market turbulence by upgrading its existing Nexus from 16GB storage to 32GB, at the same price ($250), while reducing the 16GB unit to $200. This would be delightful for end-users, just in time for holiday tablet-giving.

To repeat: None of these interesting and enticing developments (rumors) should be marginalized. But this sort of product jockeying reminds me of Lands' End vs. L.L.Bean catalog competitions. If one is stealing share from the other by introducing tailored khakis, the other will follow with tailored khakis that have a higher thread count.

Editorial Turning point for the tortoise and the hare

By contrast, Microsoft is drawing a then / now line straight across a core product, and tying it into a bold and forward-looking ecosystem gambit. The Surface tablet, Redmond's first spawn in that category, is a bold throw-down by itself. But the Windows 8 release is the gutsier maneuver, a decisive infrastructure and front-end reboot that risks upending assumptions and inviting some degree of unhappiness.

Apple invented the post-PC paradigm, but is playing both sides of the fence. Microsoft is hardly abandoning its PC operating system business, but Windows has experienced a three-year trend of declining share in the mix of Microsoft's revenues. That business is tied to declines in PC shipments suffered by HP, Dell, Acer and other computer builders in calendar Q3 -- historically a productive back-to-school buying quarter.

In light of these secular issues affecting Windows as a desktop product, it perhaps makes sense to lead with mobile. Windows 8 adopts the mobile-optimized Metro design language and usability shell, places it into a desktop context ... and hopes for the best. That is flippant, of course, and it is more accurate to say that Microsoft is wagering on ecosystem consistency across all devices, user experiences and Metro-specific apps. ("Metro" is no longer a Microsoft-sanctioned term, but everyone on the outside is still using it.)

Windows 8 is getting shredded in pre-release commentary. Some of the "Users are baffled" reporting is facile and speculative. On the other hand, push-back such as the video of a 3-year-old masterfully navigating the Metro interface makes the wrong point. The question is not whether the system is well-designed and easy for a child to learn; the question is whether a discontinuity in a decades-old OS paradigm will prevent adoption by companies and individuals.

It seems unclear whether Microsoft has prepared a narrative and sales initiative to counter that possibility. If there is blitheness in Redmond about possible stonewalling refusal to buy into Windows 8, I have to admire Microsoft for steadfastness. The company has designed a new look-and-feel for computing in the mobile age. The most optimistic scenario for Microsoft is that it is playing catch-up by leapfrogging. Steve Jobs was the visionary who revived Apple and managed a breathtaking serial innovation of blockbuster products that turned Apple Inc. into the world's most valuable company. But in a week packed with the furious skirmishes of a post-PC ground war, Apple is most likely refurbishing its computers and shaving a few inches off its tablet.

Microsoft is not dealing in rumor or repetition. For better or worse, this week at least, Microsoft is the visionary.


Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc.

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Editorial: Turning point for the tortoise and the hare