Microsoft becoming Apple with Windows 8 control freakery?

Closed is the new open

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Microsoft is becoming more like Apple by bringing some hardware discipline to Windows 8 tablets, to the annoyance of OEMs who've had decades of freedom.

At his week's Computex trade show in Taipei, Acer chief executive JT Wang complained that Microsoft is putting "troublesome" restrictions on makers of tablets running Windows, according to Bloomberg.

"They're really controlling the whole thing, the whole process," Wang said. Although he didn't identify what those restrictions are, he said chip suppliers and PC makers "all feel it's very troublesome."

If Redmond is clipping the PC peoples' wings, then it would seem that Microsoft is doing for Windows 8 tablets what it previously did for Windows Phone 7: limiting their sizes and the components that make up the new devices. The reason is to ensure there aren't any nasty surprises – or at least not too many on a scale that people will remember – that will taint the reputation of the next version of Windows, and hurt sales.

When it launched Windows Phone 7, Microsoft restricted it to just five phone makers: HTC, Samsung, LG, Dell, and Acer – you'd think that Acer's Wang is already used to Microsoft telling him what to do.

Microsoft prescribed three Windows Phone 7 form factors when it was first launched: "big touch screen" phones that are touch-only devices with 1GHz processors, phones that support sliding keyboards plus touch, and a candy-bar form factor. Acer is working on a touch-screen, 1GHz phone for the updated Windows Phone 7, code-named Mango. The device maker's new phone is called the W4.

Controlling what PC makers can and can't put in their machines that run Windows goes against the entire ethos of the Windows ecosystem, and makes Microsoft more like Apple.

OEMs have had free rein when building PCs that run Windows. Only on certain servers for machines deployed in high-end and mission-critical computing has Microsoft worked with OEMs on architecture blueprints and certification.

Microsoft's lack of control helped turn Windows into the dominant desktop-computing platform, as it let others do the heavy lifting on building the machines, and freed Microsoft to merely license the operating system. At the other end of the scale was Apple, which has controlled every facet of hardware since the early days of the Mac right up to the iPad.

Tablets and smartphones are different. Apple's set the standard on reliability, performance, and the experience enjoyed by millions of consumers and business users. That paid off in the smartphone market, with a quarter of the US market owned by the iPhone. And after one year, iPad sales are roughly half those of all Macs – a system that's over a quarter century its senior.

Coming from so far behind in market share and perception, Microsoft cannot afford for Windows 8 to be let down by the hardware on which it will run. Only now for the Windows Phone 7 Mango edition – when things are at least working – will Microsoft lift the restrictions it had imposed and let third-party apps access the phone's database, accelerometer, camera, and other features.

There's certainly a lot to go wrong in the tablet market from Microsoft's point of view, never mind what PC makers might save by inserting some cheapo motherboard or integrated circuit.

Both Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 break with the historical windows, icons, menus, and pointer (WIMP) user interface by going with multi-touch, finger-based input. Windows Phone 7 used a combination of XNA and Silverlight with hardware acceleration for rich graphics and programming. Windows 8 appears to go beyond Windows Phone 7 by using HTML and JavaScript instead of Silverlight, but it will also likely use a tablet's hardware acceleration. Windows 8 will also not just run on Intel chipsets, but also on some ARM-based processors – a first for Windows.

Microsoft has already limited the number of chipsets for Windows 8 tablets to Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments on ARM, plus Intel and AMD on x86.

Fear of failure and Apple envy is not restricted to Microsoft. HP is talking, if rather unconvincingly, about possibly licensing its webOS to others, but to do so on a very limited basis.

Wireless Week reports that Jon Rubinstein, former chief executive of webOS-creator Palm, told Qualcomm's Uplinq conference this week: "HP is more than willing to partner with one or two special companies." In other words, HP won't unleash the operating system for anybody who wants to run it on any hardware.

Rubinstein also ruled out open sourcing webOS, a move that would potentially cast the operating system's seeds to the four winds. Open source, it seems, is also out of favor with Google, which has not open sourced the Honeycomb incarnation of its Android operating system. Honeycomb runs on Motorola's ARM-based Xoom tablet and is being ported by Intel and MIPS, but Google vice president of engineering Andy Rubin said the reason Google didn't open source Honeycomb after its customary behind-closed-doors development cycle was out of concern for what other people might with to it.

"We felt that open sourcing it at that point would be difficult because people would try to wedge it into phones and create a bad user experience," Rubin said.

It's an interesting twist that after years of being told that open source was the answer to achieving ubiquity, tablet-OS developers have decided that less is more, and that control is the watchword for success. Even Microsoft, whose ecosystem was open – though not open source like Linux – has bought in.

HP's Rubinstein reckons that we're going to see a lot of devices fail. We'll find out very soon whether being more like Apple – meaning more restrictive – works for Microsoft and everybody else. Or whether it works just for Apple. ®

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