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Steve Ballmer - Windows 8 launch - New York Steve Ballmer - Windows 8 launch - New York Image Credit: Win 8 live event webcast Featured

Updated: While Apple’s bets are firmly placed in its iOS tablets and separate OS X computers, Microsoft has gone all in on its brand new hybrid OS blending the best of tablet and desktop environments across ARM, Intel and AMD processors – and through its Windows Phone 8 smartphones, too.

Apple has its iPad mini ready to set the tablet sales charts ablaze with a lowest-ever price while delivering full iPad power, backed by the largest and most impressive collection of mobile apps, alongside a refreshed and newly twice-as-fast 4th-gen iPad, and new Mac Minis, iMacs and MacBook Pros – including two models with Retina display.

Given Apple’s incredible momentum and unparalleled ability to deliver volume at scale through an amazing R&D effort, the best manufacturing partners which it has had to help and invest into delivering it the best cost controls and new manufacturing capabilities for quality at the lowest build cost prices Apple is able to negotiate with its OEM partners. 

Apple is then able to charge a great premium over this build cost for retail sale, generating profits on each sale, while having products, such as the iPad mini, still coming in at Apple’s lowest ever prices for such excellent technological advances.

A united Microsoft Empire finally strikes back

In the other corner is the Microsoft empire, finally ready after five years and six models of the iPhone, and nearly three years and five models of the iPad, to strike back against Apple’s ever growing and ever strengthening ecosystem of hardware and software with an amazingly Apple-like strategy of its own.

This Apple-like strategy includes building its own hardware to ensure it can deliver the best software, owning and operating its own Windows Store in which Microsoft keeps 30% and handles all hosting, charging, try-before-you-buy, etc., until developers sell US $25,000 worth of software, at which point Microsoft drops its take to 20%.

This little change from Apple's App Store streategy could be a big drawcard if the Windows Store really takes off - as it should, given how widespread current Windows usage is and Windows 8 usage is expected and predicted to be, given how unprecedentedly cheap Windows 8 upgrades are, given how quickly new apps should be arriving in the store each week, given a try-before-you-buy system, and given how so many people are now very familiar with online app stores and online shopping today. 

So, Microsoft has watched Apple’s runaway success, and the company finally found a way to move forward with a new interface, completely repositioning itself for the future, while performing the magic trick of NOT abandoning its entire Windows XP, Vista and 7 user-base in one fell swoop.

Now, with Windows 8 on x86/64, Windows RT on ARM and Windows Phone 8 on ARM too, and after the big change to Windows Phone 7.x coupled with the ongoing failure of touch popularity in Windows 7 (compared to the iPad’s stunning adoption and popularity), Microsoft has finally delivered a radical yet really right feeling re-imagining of Windows with a brand new touch interface that actually works even better than expected - and more than differently enough from iOS and Android to feel exciting, very easy to use, learn and quickly remember, and fun to use. 

Something that was as easy as a tablet but still let you do your stuff in Windows.

I've heard some iPad users say, and what I've sometimes felt myself - despite the stunningly amazing array of iPad-specific apps out there - that I wished the iPad was a fusion of iPad and a desktop OS like Windows or the Mac OS X that iOS itself comes from. Alternately, I've also wished the iPad was additionally available in a smaller size, although the new iPad mini solves that issue.

Windows tablets do deliver a proper tablet UI and experience on top of the traditional Windows desktop, with all elements easy to tap, swipe, move etc - unlike the many previous versions of Windows tablets that initially used a stylus, before early touch efforts evolved bringing tricks like palm rejection while using a stylus, and before finally transforming into 2012's ultra advanced 10-point multi-touch and pressure-sensitive, stylus-capable screens some Windows 8 tablets are sporting. 

Windows 8's touch controls and the UI elements they bring up and change - which are fully and very easily accessible to keyboard and mouse users - work very smoothly, having a nice and noticeable set of easy to use swipes instantly and recognisably different to iPads or Android tablets – alongside the naturally expected full multi-touch and effortlessly smooth pinch-to-zoom and scrolling.

As alluded to, it's also amazing to see Microsoft having figured out how to actually make such a touch interface work with a keyboard and a mouse or other touchpad surface, with touchpads able to employ swipes of their own, mimicking the same motion you'd make on a touch-screen, thus finally bringing Microsoft's touchpad interface to a much higher level, approaching that seen on several of the recent major Mac OS X versions.

Excellent keyboard and mouse controls for non-touch Windows 8 users instantly giving all non-touch Windows 7 users who upgrade the ability to take full advantage of Windows 8’s Modern UI, start screen, “Snap” multi-app capability, improved multitasking, much easier app switching and the simplest information sharing system yet – or even buy an external touch monitor to upgrade to full touch functionality if desired - or perhaps even just an external touchpad rather than a regular mouse - as Apple iMac, Mac Mini and Mac Pro users can do with the Magic Trackpad and OS X.   

Surface tablets and OEM designs

Microsoft also surprised by making and now selling its own Surface Tablet hardware in Surface RT and Surface 8 Pro models, stepping up to the challenged posed by Apple with its iPads and Google with its Nexus tablets, although the chance of a “Pocket Surface” smartphone ending up being launched alongside new Windows Phone 8 models from Nokia, Samsung, HTC and others is doubtful – in 2012, at least.

Thankfully, Microsoft’s OEM partners have made some truly tremendous looking devices.

A quick play with both Microsoft’s Surface RT at today’s Windows 8 launch in Australia, along with some hands on time with various new Windows 8 and RT models from Asus at its launch earlier this week show me, at least, just how impressively good they are.

Thankfully, the release of the iPad in 2010 has put a stop to the thick, monstrous pre-iPad Windows Tablet PCs of 2002 to 2010, with iPads forcing Microsoft to deliver what people want: a PC that works like an iPad and lets them run all these cool new iPad-style full-screen apps, but still lets them run their existing Windows programs - on the one device, easily, with, well - call me crazy, but here's a nice minimum battery-life number - 10 hours maybe? :-)

A great example the Asus VivoTab, amongst several new models across Asus' Windows 8 range, which was designed to directly compete with the iPad – and Windows RT tablets running ARM processors – despite an AsusTab running with Windows RT and an ARM processor also being available.

The VivoTab I’m talking about is running the latest hypertheading, dual-core Intel 1.8Ghz Z2760 Atom processor offering 19.5 hours of battery power when the tablet screen is clicked into the battery-augmented keyboard and touchpad dock, with approx 10 hours battery life in the tablet itself when away from keyboard add-on. 

Although some point to the next and even more powerful version of the Intel Atom processor due next year, my initial perception of a Z2760 Atom powered tablet running the full powered Windows 8 was the smoothness of its operation as I used it in tablet and laptop modes, firing up apps and desktop programs and having a play.

I’d like what battery life is like with two or three browsers open with plenty of tabs loaded, along with several Word documents or other Office files loaded alongside Internet security, Skype and more with music streaming in the background to see how well it handles such a load. 

Still, on a first look basis, this completely slate-only, iPad-like Windows tablet but with battery-enhanced add-on keyboard with trackpad “cover” transforming it into an ultrabook looks extremely promising.

Naturally Core i5 and i7 tablets, with Asus and plenty of other big name brands offering these more powerful Windows 8 tablet models, will be much more powerful than today’s much more powerful sounding Atoms, but Atom powered tablets will be ultrathin, ultralight and ultralong battery life competitors to ARM powered tablets running iOS, Android or Windows RT, while offering the full desktop/tablet computing experience that an iPad or Android tablet alone cannot, including full compatibility with Windows 7 apps.

Still, for an Intel tablet running Windows 8, with 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD which I was told (but has not been confirmed) pricing of AUD $1099, it comes with battery-enhanced keyboard and trackpad accessory cover at a price that compares favourably in price with outright buying a 4th-gen iPad with external keyboard and case accessory.

However, Apple still leads here with telcos offering the ability to buy iPads on one or two year contracts, depending on the telco. Indeed, Vodafone is still selling the iPad 2 with 64GB and 3G, even though Apple itself only sells the iPad 2 in 16GB Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi and 3G versions, showing just how versatile Apple remains with its iPad offerings and sales maximisation opportunities.

Windows Store apps and Microsoft’s user base

Yes, Microsoft is starting with “thousands” of apps in the Windows Store for RT and Windows 8 computers, while Microsoft promises hundreds and thousands of new apps already on the way over the next few weeks and months as submitted apps are approved - full screen, "Snap" enabled apps which will run on both Windows RT and Windows 8, and an app library which should, in theory, grow quickly.

There are already 275,000 iPad apps and growing, many of which could be ported or recreated on Windows 8, and if the platform takes off and sells in typically big Microsoft numbers for licenses sold, coupled with actual Windows 8 users (rather than people using downgrade rights to go back to Windows 7), developer and app support should come thick and fast, with Microsoft already have done a solid year's worth of work with its massive developer base since the Windows 8 developer preview.

So, not only will the new base of full-screen apps grow, new tablets and computers running Windows 8, whether new or upgraded from Windows 7, Vista or XP, on Intel or AMD processors, can run all apps that ran under Windows 7 - giving you the best of both worlds - full screen tablet apps and desktop apps - in a surprisingly seamless fashion, despite all the talk about the change that Microsoft finally having a proper touch interface in addition to its famous desktop brings.

Let's not forget, Microsoft’s Windows user base has long been estimated at over 1 billion, a figure that some have revised to 1.5 billion worldwide.

While Apple now claims 200 million iOS users, a figure that is about to grow by tens of millions in the next two months alone, there is no doubt that Apple is playing its most serious game of “All your user base are belong to us” against Microsoft, Google and everyone else that’s in the game.

That goes right down to cheap 7-inch OEM tablet makers and even those who sell “fake” but actually working iPad "clones" and presumably soon-to-come iPad mini clones running Android OS or perhaps in the not too distant future, Windows RT instead – while potentially cheekily sporting an bitten Apple on the back or some other Chinese Shanzai tech copyshop brand or logo.  

As always, there’s the promise of even more powerful Atoms and the 4th-gen of Intel’s Core series of processors due next year, but with Intel’s 2012 Atom having added what appears to be a much more powerful dual core hypertheading gigahertz Boost-capable processor that the anemic Atoms of old and netbook yonder.

Thus, the pressure is increased by the only company capable of pulling off what is finally a truly serious competition to iPads, MacBook Airs and Android tablets vying for the hearts, minds and wallets of customers, and that company is Microsoft.

Many times before has Microsoft been the underdog, coming in from behind to capture the largest market share and relegating other players to the sidelines or the single digit market share figures.

Windows 8, RT and its competition enhancing Surface tablets are Microsoft’s efforts deliver an excellent tablet experience that's better and nicely different to what you already enjoy on iPad or Android, yet combined with the power of accessing and using the desktop and desktop apps in Windows 8 and a smaller yet still significant collection of Windows desktop apps on Windows RT.

Microsoft's Tablet wars conclude on page two, please read on!

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

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One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks, including stints as presenter of Ch 10’s Internet Bright Ideas, Ch 7’s Room for Improvement and tech expert on Ch 9’s Today Show, among many other news and current affairs programs.

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