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Microsoft: Just swallow this tablet ... the rest will take care of itself

Redmond will win on the fondletop, not software

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Open ... and Shut The clearest sign that Windows 8 may have a fighting chance has nothing to do with the software, and everything to do with hardware. Microsoft's hardware, that is.

The gods must be crazy.

After all, Microsoft has spent decades printing money based on a booming software business. Despite the criticism leveled by the technorati, Microsoft actually writes fantastic software. The problem for Microsoft, however, is that what was the state of the art in 2000 is crufty in 2012, and for an enterprise behemoth like Microsoft, it has to bridge the old world and the new.

In the case of Windows 8, or RT, or whatever it's called (here's a cheat sheet for understanding the distinctions), this "gets" in the way of the forward thinking Microsoft put into the Metro interface.

As David Pogue of The New York Times writes:

[B]oth Surface tablets, and indeed Windows 8 itself, suffer from an insanely confusing split personality. Beneath the colorful, edge-to-edge world of RT apps, the menus, icons, taskbar and overlapping windows of the traditional Windows desktop are still there. On the Surface, that old desktop pops bafflingly and unnecessarily into view whenever you use the Office programs.

Or as Matt Bunchanan of Buzzfeed writes: "For a device that's supposed to feel more like an appliance, with seamless and beautiful software, there are a number of weird moments that scream "computer!" like black-and-white nightmares bursting into rainbow dreams."

It's an attempt to appeal to Windows old customers while also winning over the new, and it may end up frustrating both. And there are plenty of other frustrations with the software, as Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writes.

But I think there's hope, which hope has nothing to do with Microsoft's software. Microsoft has to make too many compromises with its customer base to move forward its software story with conviction. Fortunately, the exceptional Surface hardware may well save Microsoft from its software.

By many accounts, the Surface is beguiling and beautiful. Pogue calls it "spectacularly designed," with "drool-worthy" specs. This isn't a cheap clone of the iPad. It's appetizing in its own right.

Which is why I think consumers will give it a chance, despite its Jekyll and Hyde software flaws. We may gush about Apple's software, but the thing that has sold hundreds of millions of Apple devices isn't the software. It's the industrial design and iconic white earbuds that simultaneously screamed, "Look at me, I'm cool!" and "I can't hear you because these earbuds have ruined my sense of hearing!"

I'm not arguing that Apple's software is bad. As the owner of five or six MacBooks, six iPhones, and two iPads, I quite like it. I'm just saying that software isn't the primary selling point for Apple's devices.

The device is.

And to the extent that software is a driving factor, well, the client-side software isn't the only consideration. When it comes to cloud services, Apple remains consistently weak while I'd say that Microsoft is quite strong. For someone looking for a holistic, end-to-end computing experience, Microsoft (or Google) is likely a better bet than Apple.

But it's not software and it's not the cloud that people first see, which draws their interest. It's the hardware. The hardware initiates the conversation that gets someone interested in turning on the device and experimenting with the interface. In 2002 when I switched to Mac OS X I really struggled with the transition from Windows, but I soldiered on because the hardware was so pretty. Once someone gets past the hardware and looks at the Windows RT interface, they're still going to be impressed.

It's only later when they have to sift through the split personality and other niggling problems that they may experience some buyer's remorse. But by that time, they'll already be sold. ®

Bootnote

Have you had a fondle and a poke, or are you a bit of a Tim Cook? Got an opinion regardless? Wade in with fellow Reg readers in our Windows 8 Forum here.

Matt Asay is vice president of corporate strategy at 10gen, the MongoDB company. Previously he was SVP of business development at Nodeable, which was acquired in October 2012. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe (now part of Facebook) and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register. You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.

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