I've spent the last few days test-driving a Samsung Slate PC running Windows 8. It's quite similar to the Surface Pro tablet that Microsoft announced this week, and it's clear to me that the concept of a tablet that can run both the new Metro interface and older Windows 7-style applications is a winner.
But concept and reality don't always come together according to plan, and Microsoft definitely has some major challenges making its new platform a contender in the same weight class as Apple and Android. It's not technology that promises to make things complicated for Microsoft: That part of the equation seems to be relatively solid. It's the non-technical side that needs serious help.
The equation I'm referring to is what I call the three rules of success in the mobile/cloud commerce world. The rules are based in part on what has made Apple, the Apple Store, and iOS such a success, with a nod to how Amazon has been able to rule its increasing large corner of the e-commerce market. When Microsoft gets these three rules right, the market will have a new contender for Apple's vaunted position as the premier mobile/cloud commerce company. Right now, Microsoft has gotten one requirement right and has a fighting chance at acing number two. But number three, perhaps the most important of all, needs a major reset.
[ Want to read more from Josh Greenbaum on Windows 8? See The Windows 8/Metro Challenge. ]
My first requirement for mobile/cloud success is a great user experience. Microsoft has successfully nailed this one with Metro. It isn't just another touch interface, but one that's designed in ways that iOS users might even be jealous of. For example, you operate many important applications and system controls by swiping the left and right screen edges, with a finger if the tablet is on a stand and with the left and right thumbs if it's being held. Navigation is simple and intuitive, and remarkably different from the more simplistic swiping iOS affords.
And then there's the fact that Windows 8 with Metro supports all the functionality of the Windows apps world. It's very much an OS for creating content as well consuming it. From a usability standpoint, this is a winning combo.
The second requirement is to have a great choice of apps to deploy on the new platform. Microsoft has a long, long way to go to match the countless apps available to iOS and Android users. While this isn't a trivial issue in the least, I believe Microsoft has more than a fighting chance to build out a large portfolio. It plans to harness millions of existing Windows and Java developers, so at a minimum many developers will be able to target the Windows 8 environment using the dev tools they already use. This apps question will remain an issue for some time, but the stage is set for a large number of developers to build a lot of apps for Windows 8/Metro, and hence for nailing mobile/cloud requirement two.
My final requirement is one that Microsoft has gotten half right and half wrong. And getting one half without the other is a guaranteed failure. The requirement is relatively straightforward--provide an easy, relatively pain-free and lucrative way for developers to sell their apps, and a concomitantly easy, pain-free, and simple way for customers to buy and deploy these apps on their devices.
The plans for the Win 8 app store appear to favor developers, making it easier to get apps approved compared with the Apple Store, as well as giving developers a larger slice of the revenue pie. That's a good start, as both Amazon and the Apple App store have proven, the commerce model may be the most important of the three: It don't mean a thing if it's hard to go ca-ching. It's as simple as that.
But the customer side of the Microsoft commerce experience has a long way to go if my recent experience with the Slate is representative of how things can go wrong, particularly in terms of how Microsoft wants to integrate its different online commerce systems. In a nutshell, three unforgiveable errors happened in the course of doing something as simple as buying a movie to watch during a recent business trip. And those three errors added up to a big fat fail for the commerce side of the Microsoft experience.