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Three different products, one cohesive user experience: Suddenly, Microsoft has a strategy that makes sense.


In March 2010, I met with several members of the Windows Phone team in Redmond to discuss their recently-announced new platform, my own plans to write a Windows Phone book (since released as Windows Phone Secrets) and other details related to the coming year. To put the timing in perspective, Apple had just days earlier announced that its new tablet computing device, the iPad, would begin shipping to customers early the next month. So while I was flush with excitement over the obviously innovative Windows Phone, my attention kept turning to another obvious target.

Are you considering porting this new Windows Phone OS to a tablet? I asked. Microsoft told me it had no plans to do so. And when I pressed them on this, the answer was prudent and logical enough: Look, we're late to the game with a modern smartphone, they basically said. We need to focus on that first.

Fair enough. But throughout 2010, as I slaved away on the book and watched Windows Phone mature, my mind kept drifting to that same premise. Windows Phone is beautiful. Wouldn't Windows Phone OS make for a wonderful tablet platform? Shouldn't Microsoft simply copy Apple's strategy and move its smart phone OS up to a bigger device, rather than moving its bigger and heavier Windows desktop OS "down" to a tablet?

Cries for this very strategy were made from many quarters, and never more loudly than from those who actually used, and immediately fell in love with, Windows Phone.

And no one was more vocal than I. Convinced that Apple's strategy of starting over, in effect, with something smaller, lighter, and less weighed down by legacy technology baggage was the right one, I wondered aloud, early and often, why Microsoft wasn't porting Windows Phone OS to tablets. And as Apple's iPad juggernaut gained steam throughout the year, Microsoft's lack of a tablet strategy seemed all the more curious.

Not helping matters, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had declared at CES in January 2010 that its PC maker partners were "doing some great work with slate PCs that will be rolling into the marketplace [that] year." Infamously, that never materialized, and when Ballmer took to the CES stage a year later, he talked up a coming generation of Windows-based tablets, again, as if the previous year had never happened. It seemed ludicrous at the time, right?

The thing is, what Ballmer discussed at CES 2011 was real. This year, PC makers really are shipping a wide range of tablet-type PCs, both convertible laptops and true, iPad-style slate PCs. They are running "Oak Trail" Atom processors or second-generation "Sandy Bridge" Core i-Series processors, which mean that they will actually deliver great battery life and performance, something that simply wasn't true of the meager PC tablet selection a year earlier. But hardware alone cannot fix the ills of the PC tablet, as we all know. The problem is Windows.

Windows is a wonderful OS, the best solution there is for desktop and notebook computers. But the Windows OS hasn't changed, from a conceptual standpoint, since 1995, when Microsoft replaced the tired "manager" interfaces from previous Windows versions--Program Manager, File Manager, Print Manager, and so on--and replaced it with the Explorer shell. This shell featured then, as it does now, a number of familiar elements, elements that have been evolved, yes, but not really dramatically overhauled in over 15 years: A Start button, Start Menu, taskbar with tray notification area, desktop, and floating windows.

In the parlance of the Microsoft Office team, Windows UI evolutions since Windows 95 have been like "putting lipstick on pig," even when the changes are seemingly big, such as the richly saturated color change in Windows XP or the translucent glass effects in Windows Vista. But the underlying UI is the same, really. And all you need to do to prove this to yourself is to switch your own PC into Classic mode or, in Windows 7, what's called Windows Classic. Yes, it's a bit different, but not much. That's Windows 95 staring back at you.

And that's fine. The Windows 95-style UI serves as well today, on traditional PCs using a keyboard and a mouse. It served us well as we used ever-higher resolutions displays, as we transitioned from 4:3 square monitors to widescreen HDTV displays and multiple monitors. It even worked fine with the ahead-of-their-time experiments with Tablet PCs (using a stylus to interact with the small onscreen elements) or Media Center (controlling Windows with a remote control in the living room).

But where this UI finally started falling apart was when computing turned to touch and then multitouch control. It added touch support to the Tablet PC versions of Windows XP years ago, and to the Ultra-Mobile PC ("Origami") UIs, and then multitouch in Windows 7. But as has been the case for years, the Windows UI simply isn't optimized for touch. Still isn't. So while touch and multitouch are now fully integrated technologies in all mainstream versions of Windows, few people use the technology. Few even know it exists.

What Ballmer knew in January, what Microsoft couldn't say at the time, was that it was well aware of these problems. But while Microsoft never had any intention of letting a new and unproven platform--Windows Phone OS--dictate its future in the tablet market, it had every intention of utilizing the Windows Phone user experience--which some refer to as "Metro"--in a much broader range of products. Including Windows on tablets, yes. But not just Windows on tablets.

So last week we got our first real glimpse at a Windows 8 user experience. And while many were quick to point out that this new Start screen, which is both a replacement for the Start Menu and a rich platform in its own right, bears a startling similarity to Windows Phone's Metro UI, few understood the real implication of this experience. And that is this: Microsoft has heard your cries to bring Windows Phone to a tablet. But what you didn't realize was that Microsoft had been planning for quite some time now to instead bring a new, cohesive user experience to virtually every end user product it makes: phones and tablets, yes, but also notebook and desktop PCs, the living room, and, I think (or at least hope), the server.

And really, it wasn't Windows Phone you were asking for. You were asking for that UI, that user experience. That same dramatic, simple innovation. The beautiful, sweeping gestures, the dynamic and vibrant tiles, the colorful simplicity. That's what you wanted. Right?

For those who claim that, no, Paul, what we wanted was a simpler device, one devoid of Windows' complexity and so-called heaviness, I call BS. (And I'm not alone: Ed Bott has written his own put-down of the Chicken Little response to big, bad Windows on a tablet.)

Copying Apple would have been a mistake for Microsoft. Apple did what it did--create a new platform that was basically technologically on OS X but shared no common UI--because it had nothing to lose. The Mac market is relatively small--the company claims about 54 million active users today, but when the iPhone was hatched 6-7 years ago, it was probably closer 20-25 million tops--and no reason to worry about backwards compatibility. Microsoft, meanwhile, services a much larger community--somewhere between 1.1 and 1.2 billion PC users--and a much more diverse community comprised not just of consumers all kinds but also business users and, crucially, businesses that wish to really lock down the products their users access. These markets demand backwards compatibility, from both hardware and software standpoints. Windows will continue to address this need, as always.

What's amazing here is that Microsoft was able to create a single UI--a UI which, by the way, still has no actual name that anyone outside the company is aware of--that works well on phones, ARM-based slate devices (which will have no backwards compatibility with legacy Windows software), x86/x64-based slate and convertible tablets, netbooks, notebooks, Ultrabooks, PC desktops, the Xbox 360 and, perhaps, media center PCs, and, I hope, the server.

This single UI can be controlled with touch and multitouch, with keyboard and mouse, with a remote control or Xbox 360 hand controller, or with voice or Kinect-based hand gestures in the air. And it works.

When I saw first Windows Phone over a year, I knew I was looking at the future. I just thought that Microsoft didn't see it. I thought that Microsoft was squandering what I saw as one of its biggest advantages.

But now we have come to understand that there is a strategy underlying it all. That Microsoft intends to consolidate different products, all based on different technological backends, around a single UI. And suddenly it all makes sense.