Tablets or pads, an interesting new device category since Apple has launched the first iPad back in April 2010. Many manufacturers have followed since then, mostly with Android as an OS or Amazon with their pads designed primarily designed for reading books. And Microsoft is trying hard to launch a pad of their own in 2012. Their approach is radically different than that of Apple or Google, however. They are literally on the other side of the power divide. Let me explain:
The software used by Apple and Google for pads come from the low end of computing, from smartphones. Smartphones are optimized for power consumption, they have a low power CPU, low power components, low power everything and from the outset, the operating systems were designed for that. There might have been more power optimized OSes out there such as Symbian, but nevertheless, I would dare to say that iOS and Android were specifically built from scratch to adapt to this environment. No legacy baggage and apps are trailing behind even though they are built with operating system kernels once designed for the desktop PC, e.g. Linux in the case of Android. But the kernels where shrunken, unnecessary parts removed, the graphics subsystem designed from scratch, etc. It was these operating systems which were then subsequently used as the basis for pads.
From a user's point of view, the user interface on smartphones and pads running the same operating system look pretty similar and apps written in a sensible way to adapt to different screen sizes run on both types of devices without modification. Pads might have the screennsize of netbooks or even small notebooks but they have to be light, which severely limits battery capacity. Consequently the processors used in the tablet are more or less the same as those in smartphones. And it shows when the processor is asked to do complex tasks such as rendering graphics intensive web pages with lots of flash included. Such web pages are rendered more slowly compared to on a PC and scrolling is not as smooth. Sure, you could put in a faster processor but that would come at the expense of how long the device will run on a single battery charge. And, also not to be underestimated, when power consumption rises, so does the heat generated which is immediately noticed negatively by the user. So it's a compromise which works well in most cases but here's the dividing line to netbooks and notebooks and their operating systems: Power
Now back to Microsoft: They are trying something different here which is a good thing as more of the same probably won't work for them, the competition is already there for two years and has a massive lead. What Microsoft is trying to do is to scale down their Windows OS to run on the ARM platform. And more than that they want their Office Suite and other desktop programs to run on ARM as well. Great, get an additional Bluetooth keyboard and you've got a replacement for your notebook!? I remain skeptical that it will work out like that anytime soon for a number of reasons: First, there is the power divide again. Office runs more or less smoothly on high power Intel platforms but how will it perform on a platform that has only a fraction of that processing power by design to conserve power? Secondly, it's a question of the user interface: On a tablet, I like big buttons so I can hit them reliably with a finger. Also I like an app to use as much of the display as possible because while I still multitask on a tablet it is much more limited compared to a PC where I have a keyboard and a mouse and tend to be more in creative mode rather than consuming mode. In creative mode I like a taskbar so I can switch between many applications instantly without holding a menu button for a second, etc. I also like small buttons because sometimes I have several windows open on a small screen and that only works if the applications can run in smaller windows. And with a mouse, that's not a problem, it's an advantage. So a tablet user interface for consumption is very different from an interface for creation.
Microsoft is addressing both things. The link above describes in detail how they are working on the power consumption. And with their consumption focused tile UI first introduced with Windows Mobile, whether you like the design or not, which is intended to run alongside the traditional user interface in Windows 8 on the PC (and tablet) as well, that is taken care of, too. iOS and Android don't have that so far, they are coming from a different direction. So how well will this work for Microsoft? I think there is a certain appeal to replace a netbook with a tablet + keyboard + mouse but only if the UI is right for creation in multitasking mode. Good, that is covered. So it ultimately boils down to power consumption vs. processor speed. I am not sure there is a sweet spot there yet that will ultimately satisfy those who want to use a pad for more than just with their fingers to consume information. Eventually it will come even if it takes some more years until power consumption is further optimized. And I'm pretty sure that by then others will have a UI as well to address those who need a keyboard, creative multitasking and a mouse.
So where does this leave Windows Mobile? For the moment, as far as I can tell that OS is pretty much developed and evolved on its own on the other side of the power divide. With Windows on ARM, Microsoft pretty much says that it will not attempt to jump over to a tablet with Windows Phone. Seems to be a lonely life down there and perhaps a short one should Microsoft succeed and shrink their Windows kernel to run on tablets. After all, it's the same processors running on tablets and smartphones.