Mobile Communications

Peter Scheffel (South Africa) - Windows 8, a Worthy Contender to the iPad?

Contrary to popular belief South Africans definitely don't lag behind in the tech savvy arena. In the case of both the iPad 1 and iPad 2 - these were sold out within days after the launch. And according to Arthur Goldstuck of World Wide Works, 80 000 of the iPad devices are already sold into the South African Market including those that were bought by FNB for their new offering.

What's more is that a range of auxiliary players are aiding iPad adoption further. Take News 24, South Africa's biggest online news portal, whose recently launched iPad app already has gained an audience of 15,000 active iPad users. And the big telcos like MTN and Vodacom who are looking at launching flat-rated data solutions for Android and iOS (iPhone and iPad) smartphones and tablet PC's. The more affordable flat-rated data packages are firmly aimed at iPhone, iPad and Android devices and likely to boost the uptake of these devices in South Africa even further. So what about Microsoft's Windows 8 offering to the market? Could it be a worthy contender to the iPad in South Africa?

Microsoft is the best of the late starters. Case in point - Microsoft ignored the Internet until a memo by a certain Mr. Gates on May 26 1995. The company mobilised in true Microsoft fashion but did they lose the first-to-market advantage?

We all know that Apple currently has the tablet market largely to itself with almost 80% of the market share. By contrast Gartner predicted in a recent study that Microsoft will only master 10% of the tablet market by 2015, in a recent tablet study. However, if like me you've actually seen the offering that Microsoft is proposing, this number seems unrealistically low.

What is clear from the communication at the recent BUILD conference in the States is that Microsoft intends hardware manufacturers to shrink the form factor of existing notebooks to the size and shape of a tablet. What's compelling here is the proposition that you can use a device in touch mode when you are on the move, but turn the same device into a powerful notebook with the addition of a keyboard and a mouse using the legacy Windows style PC interface.

What this means is that we get Windows 8 that comes with the content consumption mode for touch and reading interaction, as well as the content creation mode for power users. Now compared to the iPad that lacks the power user's content creation capability it is just possible that Microsoft might well capture, maybe even clean up, the market share that currently doesn't exist as long as the hardware manufacturers can create the battery life and thin form factor that Apple has pioneered.

Microsoft has also thrown down the gauntlet to its competitors from a development perspective. It clearly wants as many developers to start building "metro" style applications - what Microsoft calls tablet apps - in large numbers with the release of its free tool editions without any activation requirements. It's a clear play to build the ecosystem before the release of Windows 8 as this has shown to be the key in successful platforms recently.

However not all is "perfect" with the new Windows 8 development framework known as WinRT. But what's appealing to me is that WinRT makes HTML5 and java script a "first class citizen" for the first time. The library ties you into the Windows platform which is unfortunate, but the true strength is a platform independent "metro" java script library that supports any HTML5 based browser.

If you were to read into this the ability to "build once and deploy on many browser" based devices then you may start to see how we view that mere 10% a little understated. The WinRT library seems a strong competitor for building tablet based applications.

Despite the fact that there are no doubt going to be discrepancies between the Windows Phone 7 (WP7) developed applications and the Windows 8 apps leading to extra work to develop for both platforms, the Windows 8 tablet user interface builds on the work that Microsoft started with the Kinect and expanded with WP7.

Applications based on this interface, like the iPad, have the potential to provide access to a new class of user who never mastered the art of mouse and keyboard computer interaction in favour of a haptic interface.

It is also likely that more powerful and capable content creation applications can be built on Windows 8's tablet interface if the constraints regarding application memory are not as stringent as they are on the iPad.

Given all of this we may just be in for one of the most interesting period of innovation in the tablet space - that sadly will not be witnessed or influenced by Mr. Jobs.


Peter Scheffel is CTO for BBD



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