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September 25th 2012 2:01 pm

Windows 8 and the Myth of the All-Purpose Device

With the release of Windows 8 and its ecosystem of hardware near at hand, I have been thinking about the ancient (in technology years) myth of the all-purpose device. This myth is one every geek knows and dreams of. The idea of having a single device that you carry around that can meet all of the technology needs you have is one that has captured the imagination since the days of the first "portable" computers. For geeks everywhere, though, it is ultimately a dream that leaves us depressed and unfulfilled.

There have been a number of solid contenders, some of which have even become the only device used by average users, but none has come as close as the laptop in general at winning the prize. And that's saying something considering how far laptops still fall short for many tasks.

For the average user, whose tech needs are fairly limited, many devices can become a usable all-purpose device. I'm sure we all know at least one person for whom the iPad, for example, has replaced all the other gadgets they use except their phone. Some people even manage to get by with an iPhone or higher end Android device as a replacement for everything else. I know when the iPhone first came out, many of us who identify as geeks had a short period of time where we found ourselves using our computers and gaming consoles a lot less, and started getting hopeful that this would finally be the unicorn we've been waiting for. But, alas, familiarity breeds contempt and reality set in.

I think what prevents any device from truly becoming all-purpose for a geek is that geeks care about their hobbies intensely... enough so that they simply have to have the best experience possible when practicing those hobbies. For heavy readers, the iPad sounds like the answer to a prayer... finally a computer that will be good to read on (be honest, reading on computers is awful no matter how you spin it). After extended use, though, the compromises involved end up becoming a thorn in their side and they either go back to paper books or buy a dedicated ebook reader. Then they use that for books and love it... until they need to read PDFs or magazines... at which point the iPad comes back out.

A similar thing happens with gaming. Using a phone as your game console sounds great; who wouldn't want to play a few rounds of Street Fighter while waiting in line at the grocery store? Inevitably, though, the device trying to be all things to all needs ends up having to compromise too much and those compromises become a growing aggravation. Before long, the serious gamer has given up and returned to their portable gaming console for a better experience.

This cycle happens not only in tech, but in anything that someone becomes a geek at. How many people have bought a decent multi-speed road bike for biking, only to get into a specific type of riding enough to then buy another, way more expensive bike later on that is precisely crafted for their type of riding?

In all things, the all-purpose or multi-function items are for people who do each of the included tasks to a limited degree. For the geek, though, the future always holds a single-purpose device for the things they really spend much time doing. For me, my gaming demands a dedicated system with proper controls, my reading demands an e-ink reader with page advance buttons, and, as I have been doing it more for the past year, my writing has been driving me to look at a portable machine designed to really fit the needs of my style of writing (in this case, a good balance of screen size and portability with long battery life and a perfect keyboard).

With all these in mind, I am fairly certain that Windows 8 is the last shot the industry has for a while of really building an all-purpose computing device that is good enough at the things it does to eliminate the need for all these single-purpose gadgets we geeks have accumulated over the years. Based on early reviews, though, it doesn't sound too hopeful that they will pull it off.

Average users are probably just going to go with Windows 8 and live with it despite whatever complaints they have. That's what they have always done. And just as well, since they don't really use their machines enough for it to really matter. If Microsoft wants Windows 8 to be a success, though, they need to win over enough of the geeks that they will get some good press and recommendations.

In a lot of ways, they are targeting the geek user who desperately wants one device that can meet all their needs... tablet device in an array of sizes, portability, battery life, ability to run portable and desktop apps, and a keyboard docking ecosystem to boot? Count me in, right? This sounds like just the unicorn we have been looking for. But, will we just find ourselves once again disillusioned after a year of desperate attempts to do the tasks we really care about and do them well?

I think Windows 8 can succeed at this all-purpose role it is trying to fill only if Microsoft pays attention to the details along the way. Will a Surface tablet be a great e-reader? Will it be great for gaming? Will it be the preferred way to watch streaming video? Will it be the best writing device that many writers will find? These are the kinds of details Microsoft has traditionally left to the 3rd party developers, assuming that Microsoft only needs to provide a capable platform for others to build on top of. The Windows 8 strategy, though, is not going to survive unless Microsoft takes a more hands-on approach and is willing to step in and work with 3rd party developers to help them make Windows 8 the best ecosystem for sepcific tasks that tend to find their way to dedicated devices. If not, they will find Windows 8 becoming the jack of all trades and master of none, which is fine if all you care about is selling units to average users, but it is no way to build your future now that Kickstarter and ubiquitous 3D printing have made the proliferation of cheap, single-purpose gadgets a real threat to the all-purpose dream.

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10 replies

One problem I see with Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 is that unlike iOS and Android you can't use the same apps on the Windows 8 phone and Windows 8/RT tablet (or tablet hybrid). These apps and the overall OS interface may look and behave similarly but there will be two separate app buying experiences (not to mention additional cost). That is true for iOS to some extent where there are separate iPad apps and iPhone apps but there are many apps which work on both as well. I think both Windows 8/RT and Windows Phone 8 would benefit from more synergy between the apps in both platforms particularly for app developers.

Ultimately, as with iOS and Android, one key to app success will be gaming apps and Microsoft will try to leverage the XBOX brand but the question is how well tablet and phone gaming apps will appeal to the PC and XBOX gamers. Maybe that is one reason the keyboard is a key aspect of the Surface to support that type of gaming in addition to the more casual tablet style games popularized by iOS (and Android).

Then again, Windows 8 is also complicated by supporting so many types of hardware including desktops and non touch laptops. Maybe the thought is that all Windows 8 laptops will eventually become tablet hybrids and desktops will come with touch screens but the transition period will be rough.
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Current interface design across the entire industry suggests that every major player is assuming the day will come, and soon, when every device will have a touch screen. I don't think that thought excites anyone who tends toward single-purpose devices. I fear that the market will side with the average users, though.

As far as the need to have multiple versions of every app in the Windows 8 world goes, don't assume you will have to buy every app multiple times. Smart devs will find ways to make sure you don't get caught in that trap. There are already examples in iOS and Android where the mobile version of an app is a free "gateway drug" to get you hooked enough to buy the desktop counterpart. I think we will start moving towards subscription style licenses to apps at some point, at least for the more expensive ones. Office 2013 is only the beginning of that trend.
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Actually, Adobe started the subscriptions trend with all their Create Suite early this year. You can now rent a Photoshop license or a Premiere license or even the full Master Collection.

But yeah, Office following that trend is really going to popularize the option. Though I don't find it too tempting with the price difference for Office. Adobe, on the other hand, offer monthly rental, which really drives the price down and makes it very attractive.
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Personally, Windows 8 dosn't mark the all purpose device. You're absolutely right, devices are highly specific for needs. To me, Windows 8 marks the all purpose OS, allowing devs to design apps to every device specific for your needs. As to how games like Battlefield 3 will end up after Windows 8, i'm honestly really not sure. We have seen RT versions of Unreal Engine 3 be announced, but other than that i'm not quite sure. I have a feeling the "Modern" UI, before it becomes productive for everyone/everyapp to use has about 3 or 4 iterations to go through. But it's a start. From my experiences in it, I regret actually leaving the Modern UI portion of the OS. Still gotta use Premeiere Pro, and Visual Studio to fill in that gap.

The all-purpose device though to me, means that we probably are reaching a climax (atleast momentarily) of technology progression. When my Surface, has the computing power of my gaming PC at home (in the future), that's the all purpose device.
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Yeah. I loved the Metro UI (it was called that since I got the phone :P) on my Windows Phone. It really worked on my phone. However, I've been using Windows 8 Ent at the office for over a month now and I have no interest in ever using Modern apps.
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I was going to start a discussion about the Kindle Paperwhite and my experience with it, with a lot of similar ideas. I had relegated my previous Kindle (a Kindle keyboard) to my night stand. I was traveling without a Kindle and without a laptop. My iPad and my Nexus was more than enough for my outside the house needs, and for most of my in house needs as well. I am using my Macbook Air as I used to use my desktop, an occasional computer to write long form or do intensive work, two things I seldom do at home anymore.

So, I thought that I was getting closer to that Mythical All-purpose device. Obviously, tablets will get more useful with more options and I would use my laptop less and less, and my Kindle would stop working and I would not substitute it, I thought wrong.

First, the price of the paperwhite made it very tempting to update my Kindle even if I thought of it as a night stand/in home device only. Second, the size and single purpose of the device makes it very suitable for traveling. Who cares if I already have an iPad? this is small, probably won't need charging except in the longest of trips. Even the elimination of sound, which I never used in the past, is a plus to me. This is for reading only, it is small, comfortable. It may very well be my last Kindle, but I am not as sure as I once was on that.

I am relating this experience with one I had with my son. He is not a luddite, but certainly a lot less interested in technology per se as I am. He has a laptop that he uses a lot, he loves and still uses a Palm Pre Plus I bought for him, he doesn't want a Tablet. What he really wanted was an Mp3 player that could carry all his music, he must have around 30GB. After discussing, the pros and cons of the touch, I suggested he look into the classic, 160GB will last him for a long time. He got one, and it is exactly what he wanted, all his music, now and for the foreseeable future, sounds great, battery life is good, and it's small enough to carry with him at all times. I am pretty sure if he had to choose only one to save from a fire, he would chose the iPod over the Pre.

So, single purpose devices can get traction and be a perfect fit, both for the gdgt user and the layman. But who will make them? You talk a lot about what Microsoft is trying with Windows 8, but isn't Apple doing the same? Convergence of OS X and iOS, the new Nano, the lack of redesign for the Shuffle and the Classic, seem to imply single purpose is not front and center in their plans. Even Amazon seems more excited about the Kindle Fires than about reading only devices, we seem to have gotten lucky in that the Kindle paperwhite is more single purpose than its predecessors, it doesn't look like a design orientation for any company in my radar.
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Yeah, the question is, "who will make them?" I fear the future will be bleak for those of us who prefer dedicated devices unless they really manage to solve the problems of multi-purpose devices.
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Great post! you're totally right on all counts
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True. On the software side, M$ needs to make the app platform accessible to developers. On the hardware side, M$ needs to avoid the platform confusion we see on the Android, one reason I own a Nexus reference platform phone and tablet. One way to do this is, oddly, to take a page from Google and release a reference platform into the marketplace. This should be well made and work well. None of the "it sorta works if you play with it" crap I see in store displays. If a feature is baked in to the OS, it should work the first time and every time after that. M$ came close, but not quiet. This isn't the first time either. Which is why I never buy a 1.0 M$ product.

If I could entitle this post, I'd call it: "Waiting for SP1, maybe SP2."
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LOL, yes, waiting for SP1, that's pretty good. That usually only fixes bugs, though, and not design. If the design isn't working for people, it will more likely be... waiting for 9.
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