It has become clear over the past few years, that the Post PC era, while not yet upon us, is closing in. With smartphone penetration over 35%, and 1 in 3 in the US owning tablets by 2015 Microsoft clearly sees that the day of the PC being the ubiquitous device for accessing the internet is numbered. They responded slowly (like the responded slowly to the internet in 1995), but by the time they got around to deciding what to do they have decided to go all in. Make their tablet (and now their smartphone) all run the same operating system as the one thing they can be assured that a ton of us will run, the desktop.

However, they also realized that they had to radically change the underlying way that windows operated, as people would not accept a tablet and phone that got viruses the way that windows does. So they created WindowsRT, a sandboxed version of windows that won’t allow easy installation of programs except through the Microsoft store (this will help stop malicious applications from being installed by social engineering). It also limits what a programmer can do except with permissions from the user. And they created a browser that will not allow the installation of plugins (plugins being the major source of browser exploits in the past couple of years). They relented to allowing flash, but they will only run white-listed flash applications, which means that if your website needs to run flash you will have to apply to get on the Microsoft whitelist for flash. Probably the best way to handle flash, however it will probably be confusing for the inexperienced user why their favorite flash game website works when they got their from the desktop and why it doesn’t when the got their from the Metro UI).

Of course if you use the Desktop you can still get viruses and malware to your hearts content, but Microsoft if doing everything they can to force you into the Metro experience. The start button became a start screen thus if you want to start an application you will usually be forced back to the Metro screen. Microsoft is hoping that you like it there, and that developers will see that they can make lots of money writing applications there. And once they have people in the Metro mindset, the tablet and the phone will be there waiting for them. And applications written for the Metro desktop will already run on the Surface tablet, and are apparently easy to convert to the new Windows Phone 8. It sounds like a good plan, unless people start hating the Metro UI and how it has been artificially forced on you by Microsoft. And unfortunately from my usage so far, the whole Metro UI suffers from feeling like a 1 point 0 release, and everyone knows that Microsoft never gets things right until version 3.

Personally I think that this is going to make Windows 7 the next Windows XP and Windows 8 the next Vista. I think that unless Microsoft charges almost nothing for WindowsRT licences that Windows tablets will go nowhere, and that the Windows Phone is already dead. With the phone it took them far too long to get to be on par with the competition and when the competing operating system is as good or better and free, how do you convince partners to use your operating system (other than by giving them a ton of money to do so, like they did with Nokia).

They missed the boat on tablets as well, with Ballmer claiming that Windows 7 was fine for tablets. Because the turn around for a Windows operating system is 3 years (now it’s three years, with Vista it was 6), they are unable to adjust and add things like functionality required for a tablet. Of course Microsoft had had tablets for years, but they never worked and always fell short of the mark. When Apple released the first tablet that made sense, everyone was grasping trying to come up with a response. For Microsoft it was trying to have their hardware partners shovel Windows 7 on a tablet, for Google it was Honeycomb. But after a year and a half later there was a good tablet operating system in Ice Cream Sandwich. Windows 8 will be released two and a half years after the iPad and it will be playing catch up as badly as the first Windows Phone was playing catch up to the iPhone. And since Microsoft only releases a new operating system every 3 years, unless they change their pattern, it will be almost impossible for it to catch up.

Showing that they don’t trust their hardware partners, and throwing them under the bus by releasing the surface may provide a decent hardware experience without all the standard windows crapware installed, but unless the Surface hits the sub $400 market it isn’t going anywhere. Google’s Nexus tablet will probably be announced next week and probably be under $200, so once again Microsoft will be playing catch up. And where will this leave us? Swearing and the stupid Metro start screen and either finding a way to disable it, or re-installing windows 7!