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Peter Pontificates: Pods of Fun

My skills in technology prognostication are long established and well known.  About 15 years ago now, in a Peter Pontificates not unlike this one, I predicted that the Web was a passing fad and was sure to fall into disuse.  After having so clearly established my ability to foresee the future, about 10 years ago I called for – and predicted – significant differentiation among x86 hardware platforms in the way that the memory and I/O buses were connected.  I wrote that the way to get to a truly high performance computing experience was to, “bring us real map registers!”

It would be a mistake to assume that these demonstrations of technological prescience on my part are limited to times gone by.   In fact, around the middle of 2010 I wrote, in part:

The iPad seems to me to be an iPod Touch with a case of Elephantiasis.  I don’t want one.  I don’t know why I would want one. In fact, I can barely conceive of why anyone would want one.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to read the New York Times or a novel on an LCD display. And that means I don’t want to read these things on an iPad.

If the “pad” genre catches the imagination of the market, [w]e can be sure that scads of very similar devices will be brought to us by the clever folks in Taiwan, at prices that will be hard to beat.  Not to mention, as I write this, Microsoft is reportedly readying “Courier” and Google is preparing an Android-based slate.

My record for predicting technological trends thus remains intact.

The iPad clones from Taiwan are uniformly disappointing.  “Courier” was cancelled.  The first reasonable Android tablet (the Galaxy Tab) was released just before Christmas 2010 to less than stellar reviews.  Eight months after its initial release, the iPad still lacks a serious competitor.

The original iPad is stunningly popular.  According to the Wall Street Journal, 1 in every 9 people surveyed said they planned to give an iPad as a Christmas gift in 2010. To date, Apple has sold over 14 million iPads.   FOURTEEN million.  In just 8 months.

They haven’t sold that many iPads because they suck and are useless.  In fact, just a few months after writing the pontification quoted above I bought an iPad.  I liked it so much that I subsequently gave iPads as gifts to several of the engineers here at OSR.  Why?

Because the iPad is a darn good toy, that’s why. It’s an almost perfect device for consuming web content and media.  It turns on instantly, connects to WiFi or 3G with ease, let’s you surf the web, play games, read newspapers and ebooks, watch movies or TV shows, and listen to your music all on a single device.  The battery lasts between 9 and 10 hours.  If you travel, you get one item to carry along that is guaranteed to keep you amused on a long flight.  If you sit at home on the couch, you have a friendly little device that lets you look things up while watching TV (grabbing your iPad and tapping something out doesn’t seem nearly as anti-social as grabbing a laptop, opening it up, waiting for it to boot, logging in, and typing on the keyboard).  If you want to read a newspaper with your morning coffee, you can do it with the iPad – even if that newspaper is published in another city or country.

In short, much to my surprise, the iPad is an excellent device that fills a new and unique niche.  Sort of like the iPod before it.

So, aside from demonstrating how I can occasionally be wrong in matters of technology forecasting, why should I be pontificating on this topic here in The NT Insider?  What does the iPad have to do with Windows driver development?  Well, I’m writing this because the iPad presents a serious risk to Microsoft.

Oh, yes… I’ve heard the rumors about Microsoft slates and tablets and upcoming Windows support for the ARM processor.  And I have no doubt that, one way or the other, Microsoft can knock-out some sort of a credible tablet device.  But the thing that makes the iPad such a thoroughly satisfying device is the entirety of the experience: The ease of use of the interface; the ability to buy games and applications with just a touch of the slate; and, most importantly, the breadth of third-party application offerings.

So while I’d probably still like my iPad, I wouldn’t be nearly as thrilled with it if I couldn’t play Plants vs Zombies.  I wouldn’t be as excited if I couldn’t read The Wall Street Journal each morning.  And I wouldn’t be nearly as pleased with my iPad if it didn’t allow me to buy and read Kindle books.

I realize that the Windows Phone 7 app store (“Marketplace”) could be a prototype for a similar feature for Windows-based tablets.  However, it will take a pretty large installed base before significant numbers of application developers move their wares to a Windows-based platform.

Please understand the point I’m trying to make: It’s not the dollars lost in iPad sales that represents the major challenge to Microsoft.  It’s the overall positive exposure to Apple that people get.  You play with an iPad, you like it, and – consciously or unconsciously – you start to think “you know, maybe this Apple stuff isn’t half bad.”  Before you know it, you’ve stopped thinking of Safari as some crippled piece of shite.  Next, you start cursing web sites that provide Flash content, calling them “ignorant” and “behind the times”  for not getting on the HTML 5 and H.264 bandwagon which (Apple assures us) are open standards and what we all really want.

Yup, you play with your iPad and before you know it you find yourself saying to your spouse: “You know honey, that Apple stuff is pretty good.  Maybe you should look at getting a MacBook Pro as your next laptop instead of a Windows machine.  I mean, 3K for a garden-variety laptop isn’t so bad.  It won’t crash, it doesn’t get viruses, and you don’t have to deal with Windows update.”

OK, perhaps I exaggerate a bit. But do you get my point?  Apple doesn’t just rack-up record technology profits from the iPad.  It accrues monster positive mindshare and enthusiasm.  That’s what Microsoft will have trouble countering.

So, does that mean we should all abandon ship and start writing drivers for iOS?  Hardly.  But I do think these things present serious challenges to Microsoft for both the short-term and longer-term futures.  Now, I’ll tell you what Microsoft should do about it.

If I was president of the Windows Division at Microsoft (there would be a whole hell of a lot of things that I would change, but most specifically in terms of this topic) I would give every developer in the Windows division an iPad – as a gift, to keep, tax free.  And I’d make them use it.  I kid you not.  I’d really do it.  I think it’d be the best US$5M that Microsoft could spend at this point in time.  Of course, you couldn’t keep anything this large quiet.  But what a message this would send to the industry, huh?  It would say “We recognize that we’ve stumbled badly, but we’re now deadly serious about regaining the lead in this technology area.”

In any large organization, there’s bound to be a ton of “not invented here” syndrome.  There will also be plenty of people who, never having actually tried a competitor’s product, nonetheless dismiss and mock it.  Plus, you do actually have to live with a product and use it for a while to understand its strengths and weaknesses.  And so it would be for the iPad.  By giving every dev in Windows an iPad, it’d let them actually feel what the competition is doing.  Heck, if they don’t like their iPad, I’d let them sell it on eBay.  Seriously.  I bet darn few of them would end-up being sold.

The other thing I’d do is I would start designing and manufacturing Microsoft-branded hardware.  Yes, yes, I know all about how important the OEMs (Dell, HP, and the like) are to Microsoft, and how Microsoft needs to be careful about treading on their turf.  Those relationships can be managed.

What Microsoft sorely needs right now is a BIG win in the tablet space.  They cannot settle for releasing a solution that’s just OK.  They need something that overtakes, and not merely imitates, the iPad.  The only way they can control the end-to-end quality and experience, and get a device to market sufficiently quickly is by having total control of the solution.  As an aside, I’d also build Microsoft designed and developed desktop and laptop systems.   I firmly believe that there’s once again a market for high-quality, slightly price premium, systems.  Apple has proved this.  Building their own hardware would also allow Microsoft to quickly and effectively address other emerging threats, such as that from Google’s Chrome OS (hell… that could be another pontification in itself – the Chrome OS laptop is just a freakin’ thin client… OEMs have been making them for years using Windows Embedded Standard, which is a darn good product by the way.  Why doesn’t Microsoft smash this Chrome OS crap before it starts by driving a low-cost, high-quality, laptop running Windows Embedded into the market?   What’s wrong with them?  And, when in the name of Gxd will Microsoft remove all the stupid restrictions on licensing Windows Embedded Standard and let people create systems for all sorts of devices?  No viruses, no updates, no problems.  Just boot it up, and it runs.  But I digress).

The strategy of building Microsoft-branded equipment also fits very nicely with Microsoft’s moves in opening their own retail stores.  Have you ever been into an Apple store?  If not, do yourself a favor: Find one, walk into it, and tell the first person you encounter that you’re interested in finding out about Apple laptops.  I’ll be shocked if you don’t find the experience exceptionally pleasant.  Please, please, let the Microsoft retail stores be this good.

Maybe tablets are just a fad, and maybe a killer tablet from Microsoft is just around the corner.  Maybe Windows 8 will be so new, and so exciting, that nobody will even remember that Apple is a technology company.  Maybe Microsoft is, as I write this, readying a release of Windows 7 Embedded that’ll run on a commodity laptop with WiFi and 3G.  Maybe Microsoft will thereby consign Chrome OS to the same category as NeXTSTEP.  Maybe.  Maybe.  Maybe.

But, just in case… we already have people at OSR exploring how you write drivers and file systems for iOS and Android.  And, no, I’m not kidding


Peter Pontificates is a regular opinion column by OSR consulting partner, Peter Viscarola. Peter doesn’t care if you agree or disagree, but you do have the opportunity to see your comments or a rebuttal in a future issue. Send your own comments, rants, or distortions of fact to:

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Peter Pontificates: Pods of Fun
Peter sees the light on the iPad - better late than never...