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%.
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 Surface 8 Pro
Microsoft’s next big launch is its Surface 8 Pro tablet in late January 2013, when Microsoft’s Intel Core i5-powered Surface tablet running Windows 8 Pro launches, delivering Microsoft’s vision and version of the best ever Windows 8 tablet – and “keyblet”, as I saw it described online after the Surface Tablet’s initial unveiling.
Even so, plenty of other well known big brand OEMs have launched today (with some yet to still roll out more new models in the lead up to Christmas) with an even bigger range of all manner of tablets, convertible, clip-ons, touch ultrabooks and others, with some x86/x64 models coming with a pressure sensitive stylus - like the Surface 8 Pro - in addition to the full 10 finger multi-touch support all Windows 8 tablets offer.
Windows 8 and RT multitasking
With Windows 8 and RT offering full “desktop class” multitasking, alongside the ability to run two full-screen apps on the same screen at the same time called “Snap” screen - in 1/3rd screen pane next to 2/3rd screen pane – letting you run two or even more apps at the same time, all visible on the same screen – something the iPad is not able to do, and Android not able beyond a custom app suite Samsung developed for its stylus-equipped Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet that launched not too long ago.
In conjunction with the Windows desktop mode available on both Windows RT and 8, which is effectively a streamlined version of the Windows 7 desktop, you can have the Windows desktop on 2/3rd of the screen, with 1/3rd being any other Modern UI app.
Given the fact you can still have movable and resizable app windows on the desktop, and given there are useful apps that run in the desktop on Windows RT and 8 Pro, with Windows 8 able to run any Windows 7 software, you can now run more software at the same time more easily than ever before.
You still have all the apps on the taskbar along with all the Modern UI apps just a click, swipe or keyboard shortcut away… your ability to be as engaged or info fed as possible will either see you reach new levels of productivity or be even more addicted to your Facebook, email, browsing, gaming, TV and movie watching than doing work than ever before.
This level of app utility across fully-powered tablet and desktop models in the one device combined with desktop class multitasking and multi-app onscreen management in ways never before offered to the market certainly challenges the way Apple does things, albeit so genuinely and amazingly successfully, with its separate iPad and MacBook Air models, its separate iOS and Mac OS X systems, even though some merging has occurred between the two OS interfaces over the past two major Mac OS X versions.
Microsoft is challenging Apple's iOS and Mac OS X split, a split I'm expecting will one day be rectified with some kind of MacPad Air iOS X hybrid tablet with attachable keyboard and trackpad. Such hybrid tablets exist, from several vendors today, but they run Windows 8.
Look, Windows 8 looks so good that there’s every chance you’ll buy an iPad mini tablet for the best tablet experience Apple offers along with the biggest stack of apps that simply aren't yet available in tablet-quality on Android or Windows RT/8, while having a Windows 8 tablet or touch screen model as your next major computer purchase, if you're not already running Mac OS X, given both Windows 8 and OS X run all of your existing software - including iTunes, Office, Adobe, Firefox, Chrome, etc - with Windows 8 tablets giving you a desktop touch experience that OS X just isn't offering yet.
Although Apple has been extremely successful into having its iPod, iPhone and iPad halo effects translate into ever growing Mac and Mac OS X sales, Microsoft expects 400 million PCs running Windows 8 to be sold next year, and 670 million PCs out there upgradable to Windows 8 from Windows 7, let alone what is obviously hundreds of millions more PCs running Vista or XP which could be upgraded before being replaced with new PC hardware and the Windows 8 OS.
Unless there is a mass revolt against Microsoft and a heroically massive and rapid adoption of Mac OS X across at least the Western world spanning hundreds of millions of users, Microsoft has finally managed to seriously get itself back in the game, just at the right time and in the nick of time.
It has managed to deliver two new operating systems and more than 200 new hardware designs in conjunction with its OEM partners, all powered by a newly resurgent, confident and capable Microsoft, featuring its own and OEM designs of an apparent quality that is dramatically higher than ever before, no doubt in massive part thanks to Apple’s extraordinarily superior manufacturing smarts, putting all other OEMs to shame year after year after year, giving not only Microsoft things to copy in its OSes but OEMs and Intel designs to copy for its tablets and ultrabooks.
Naturally Intel and OEMs have come up with all kinds of fantastically innovative things of their own, which Apple so nicely answered back with its new 5mm-edged thin iMacs, (new iMacs which could presage touch iMacs that are easy to hold and re-orient on their stands, in, at a guess, 2013 or 2014), or Apple's svelte and superlight one-handed and superlight iPad mini, a tablet which I still believe will be the tablet of 2012 despite all the promise of the true tablet experience that Windows 8 and RT actually deliver on for the first time ever.
Still, if there was any time to really try blunting the ever growing surge of the iPad now in its fastest iteration yet, and now coupled with the allure of the practically irresistible iPad mini, this is the time, this is the place to stand up to iOS and iDevices, with both Windows 8 and RT are certainly the two Windows operating systems to be doing it with, along with the third Windows OS in Windows Phone 8.
It could end-up seeing Google in third spot for developer attention, despite what will be the biggest base of Android OS devices, along with the worst fragmentation around OS versions, low, mid-range and high powered smartphones and tablets, and what is said to be the hardest OS to monetise, with in-app advertising reported to be just not cutting it on the Android platform for developers looking to make money in the way they do with sales and in-app purchases on iOS.
Time will tell, but with Google and its own OEM partners, most of whom work with Microsoft as well, have carved out quite a sizeable Android market – at least in aggregate across all brands and devices.
Still, it’s the biggest OEM players – and OS suppliers who actually get paid for OS licenses and for royalties – that make the biggest profits.
Thus we now have the most competitive tablet market place of all time, and no matter how far it goes into overdrive over the next two and a bit months of 2012, 2013 and what comes next – and then what comes after that – are promising to be some of the most incredibly spectacular and amazing computing developments for individual human beings of all time – especially as we’ll see more “interactive glasses” appearing along with other types of wearable and/or simply ever shrinking technologies.
Until then, we’ve got the rest of 2012 to get through, and even without Monday’s launch of Windows Phone 8 and Google’s new Nexus smartphone and tablets still to come, if you’re in the market for one or more new digital devices, whether for yourself or for someone else, the most exciting fourth quarter of smokin’ hot new tablet and computing tech awaits as many new customers as possible.
So, whether you’re upgrading this year or that’s still to come, and whatever your technological tastes, as Buzz Lightyear never said: to infinite bandwidth, and beyond!