Microsoft has long relied on hardware partners to build Windows PCs. But the mishmash of Windows 8 mobile device form factors, brands and features has left customers stumped.
Microsoft Surface Pro: Is It Right For You?
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I'm all for choice, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
It strikes me that this is a growing problem for Microsoft's Windows 8. When the revamped operating system catches a would-be buyer's eye, there's quite a bit of work required to a make a smart purchasing decision from a hardware standpoint.
That's thanks to inconsistent and confusing terminology, branding, categorization and specifications. One user's "tablet" is another user's "slate." Depending on who you ask, the day of the week, and who knows what other variables, a Windows 8 device like Dell's XPS 12 might be called a tablet, ultrabook, touch PC, convertible, hybrid, transformer -- you get the idea. (Dell calls it a "Convertible Touch Screen Ultrabook™." Yes, that's a trademark symbol. Intel registered one for the term "ultrabooks.")
Then there's this minor detail of Windows RT, the stripped-down version of Windows 8 that runs on some devices -- a distinction that might easily be lost on the unsuspecting buyer.
"With so many choices and so little practical information available from manufacturers about when each device is a better fit, it means that buyers have to do more research to make a decision," said Forrester senior analyst David Johnson in an email to InformationWeek. "This doesn't simplify or shorten the buying process and could make them delay their purchases indefinitely."
Johnson added that the differences -- both significant and subtle -- between various Windows 8 models aren't always apparent to buyers until they've had a chance to use the devices. A road warrior might be better suited for a device with a built-in keyboard instead of a true tablet, for example, but they might not figure that out until it's too late. "This is something that we think many buyers will not fully grasp until after they've made their purchase and have to live with their choice for the long term," Johnson said.
That lack of practical information is, in business-speak, a barrier to entry. I spoke recently with Terena Bell, CEO of the translation firm In Every Language, who explained why she'd been impressed by Microsoft's extensive ad campaign behind the Windows 8 launch. Yet when she decided to plunk down her company's cash on a Windows 8 machine that would run upwards of $1,000, she was stumped by her hardware choices and had trouble finding reliable information and reviews. Microsoft's slick ads were both friend and enemy -- they first got Bell interested in, and later confused by, Windows 8.
"I knew I wanted the one that folded over instead of the one where you unplug the keyboard and plug it back in, because I'd seen both of those commercials -- but the commercials didn't say which one of those it was. It just took way more time than I would have liked to have found [the right device]," Bell said. She ended up purchasing Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga 13. A Black Friday offer sealed the deal. "It's almost like they made it hard for me to buy their product."
Let's recap: A business owner with full decision-making authority, one who had no qualms about paying the early adoption tax on a high-end Windows 8 device -- and who was considering buying six more for her employees, by the way -- found it tough to spend a thousand bucks with Microsoft and its partners. That should keep the folks in Redmond -- and those in Round Rock, Palo Alto, Morrisville and across Asia -- up at night.
Techaisle analyst Anurag Agrawal calls Windows 8 "a marvelous innovation," but he noted that the six major PC OEMs: Dell, HP, Lenovo, Asus, Acer and Samsung -- not to mention Microsoft's own Surface Pro and Surface RT -- create a mystifying menu of choices when it comes to Windows 8 devices.
"They serve up a dizzying array of brands that causes confusion even within the knowledgeable and well-researched end user," Agrawal said in an email to InformationWeek. "[There are] too many individual brands competing with each other both on the OS side and on the device side."
He pointed to the ultrabook category as an example. Walk into an Apple Store looking for an ultrabook, and you'll walk out with a MacBook Air. If you want a Windows-based ultrabook, you're confronted with a hodgepodge of names and brands that, frankly, don't mean anything: Elitebook, IdeaPad, Yoga, XPS, Envy and so on. "Each PC vendor has its own ultrabook brand name, unlike the simple nomenclature of Apple," Agrawal said.
Complicating the matter is the number of traditional laptops and desktops that can run Windows 8 but don't offer a touch-screen interface. "Windows 8 on a PC intuitively pushes the user to use his finger on the screen, and the majority of PCs installed or being shipped today do not have touch screens," Agrawal said. "This makes the user feel empty and slack away from Windows 8."
Forrester's Johnson concurred: "We're hearing from buyers of Windows 8 PCs looking to downgrade to Windows 7 on non-touch hardware, and enterprises are not keen to move to Windows 8 -- particularly on older hardware -- as a result." That's also likely to hinder software-only upgrades, according to Johnson: "For non-touch-enabled PCs like traditional notebooks and desktops with only a touchpad and keyboard, Windows 8 offers no significant advantages, and in many ways offers a worse experience than Windows 7," he said.
So what's the answer? I'm no advocate of Microsoft mimicking Apple and diluting its long-time business focus. But the Surface brand appeared to take one logical page from the Apple playbook: Straightforward choices. It's only one, really, between the Pro and the RT model. Beyond that, it's a matter of a few spec choices such as storage capacity. While "RT" lacks much in the way of real-world meaning, "Pro" is a step in the right direction: This one's for work, and that one's for play. Buy accordingly.
Techaisle's Agrawal suggests that the traditional drivers of PC sales over the years -- price and configuration -- need to shift, in large part because it's no longer a desktop-or-laptop decision. Pricing remains relevant -- your budget is your budget, especially for smaller companies. But according to Agrawal, the conversation needs to shift from specs and brand names to use cases. "There is a need for PC vendors and Microsoft to define products by the number of simultaneous applications they can run without degrading performance, [for example]," Agrawal said. "Which ones are good for cloud and virtualization? Which support remote management? Will the computer be used as a device connected to a network either in the office, home or traveling? That is how users buy PCs these days."
In other words: Choices are good, but they need to mean something. It shouldn't be tough to spend a thousand bucks.
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