This week some interesting news came out about the 3 different SKUs that Windows 9/Threshold will apparently have. What we’ll get is:
1) Desktop version with an actual desktop and a modern/win32 hybrid Start menu.
2) Desktop-less Mobile version that will run on all ARM hardware (both phones and tablets) and maybe on Intel Atom CPUs.
3) Business version that might allow disabling the modern (by modern I’m referring to the WinRT framework, but I’ll keep calling it modern to avoid WinRT and Windows RT confusions) environment completely.
This is good news all around. For starters, mobile users have absolutely no need for the desktop: on a 10″ device, the desktop is awful, targets are too tiny to touch with fingers and mousing around isn’t very comfortable in such limited real state. In the same vein, desktop users can use modern but it’s not a very comfortable experience in the framework’s rough state these days. Many people shout to the winds about how horrible modern is for the future, not realizing their blindness: a UI framework is never a static structure, it adapts and changes to improve with time and experience. Modern is literally 2 years old: remember how awful win32 was in the 80s? Took them until 1995 to make it something great. We face the same scenario with modern and its WinRT language: it’s inadequate and weak now, but give it a few years and it’ll start picking up APIs, libraries, functionality. It will most assuredly replace win32 at some point, just not anytime soon. I find it ridiculous that people decry and condemn a 2 year old piece of software in this instant-gratification society spoiled by the past decade of amazingly lucky constant successes. The iPod-iPhone-iPad 1-2-3 punch is an anomaly in technology history, an incredibly fortunate one for Apple and the rest of the market. Mark my words: this is not going to happen again for a long time. These huge market impacts come about once every decade, we’ve had 3 in that time period. The slowdown has already started – noticed anything breaking released since the iPad was launched? Nope. Get used to it. Great things normally take time, and WinRT needs time to become great. And no, the smartwatch is not the next big thing.
So, what does this have to do with Surface?
Plenty, specially after the recent news of the 3 Threshold SKUs. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus only on the mobile release that will run on any ARM CPU. This version is the fusion of Windows Phone and Windows RT we’ve been hearing about for months. Some call this the death of RT (playing into the aforementioned inadequacy cry) but that’s missing the point. Microsoft now has 3 platforms to maintain: Phone, RT and x86-64, which is unnecessarily excessive. x86-64 will remain and Phone and RT will merge. This is no death for any of the platforms, I like to think of it as a rebirth: while their names might fade away, the actual code will be fused bringing the best of WP and RT together. That means both app libraries will combine and we’ll also get Cortana, notification system and a big etc. Since RT is big and heavy just like the x86-64 version, it makes more sense that the main base will be WP to which all RT goodness will be added, then both will be enhanced once fused as 1 (a 32GB tablet would now have 30GB of free space instead of the current 14 or so). Also, this would mean that even a sub-par hardware configuration like my Surface (1st gen) would work quite well, as it’s still a quad core ARM CPU with 2gb of RAM: barely minimal for RT but plenty to run a WP/RT lighter OS. But I digress. This fused SKU can breathe renewed life into Surface amplifying its app store, making the OS lighter and faster and getting rid of the unnecessary desktop in hybrids. This, however, can only happen once the modern version of Office is ready for release, meanwhile Microsoft can’t take away the one feature that makes Surface special (literally why consumers like me bought the machine, because 99% of my work consists of Word, Excel and Powerpoint).
The new hybrid OS would however imply changes to the Surface philosophy. While both the ARM and x86-64 versions would be one Windows 9, the market targets will be very different, bringing to memory the days when business and consumer Windows were a big differentiator. Many have asked for an Atom based Surface but I suspect this has not yet happened due to market tension: Microsoft has acknowledged they do not intend to compete with OEMs, so I expect for them to keep the Surface line a premium one with Core CPUs and higher price tags. This also brings into question other recent rumors of Microsoft abandoning Surface for its recently acquired Lumia brand. Now, what I consider most logical here is that the mobile SKU of 9, based on ARM CPUs, would be used in Lumia devices, both phones and tablets while the x86-64 variant would remain in the Surface Pro line. This would indeed do away with the Surface (on ARM) line, but then again it’s been quite a market flop. The Pro line, in comparison, has been quite the success, especially with the recent Surface Pro 3 that has delighted reviewers everywhere. It would make good branding sense to keep Surface just as a Pro line, for people who want to do serious work, and use the Lumia brand for ARM based hardware: phones and tablets for play and some work (hence the need for the modern version of Office).
With that said, what does a Surface 3 even look like? First of all, the name: I don’t see Microsoft doing this but it wouldn’t be too far fetched that they’d consolidate ARM phones and tablets under the Lumia branding, calling the Surface 3 something like the Microsoft Lumia 1 (as they seem pretty obsessed with One branding lately), it wouldn’t get confused with the phone model numbers in the hundreds and thousands. I’d keep the main characteristics of the non-pro Surface and Lumia aesthetic: from Surface I’d keep the kickstand (full flex inherited from SP3) with the Windows button on the right side, a 3:2 screen that fits the same chassis as S1 and S2 so the current Type covers are still usable. From Lumia I’d keep the colors: make the tablets available in a bunch of different colors, and boom, you have a successful Lumia/Surface hybrid that feels like a more fun, smaller, tablety version of Surface Pro which is designed for consumption while letting you work lightly on modern Office. For illustration:
That’s how I see MS evolving: Lumia phones and tablets using mobile Threshold SKU fusing WP/RT, Surface Pro tablets using x86-64. The phones don’t need to change much, just keep evolving. Lumia tablets that replace ARM Surfaces would reflect Lumia and Surface Pro qualities (playful, colorful, consumption-oriented, light work capable, 3:2 screen, button on side) while Surface Pros would remain where they have succeeded, in the professional/business market. Add to this that with Threshold all apps will use mostly the same codebase and you have the write-once-use-everywhere dream of universal apps come true, both stores combine to have around 450,000 apps that you can use in your phone, tablet or desktop. Not only is this a great direction for Windows in general, but it’ll be a great push for both the phones and tablets, besides propelling the WinRT framework overall. As for how the WP/RT merge will look like? I wouldn’t mind it being a mixture of WP/RT user interfaces while at the same time distancing themselves from the Windows modern aesthetic so the regular consumer knows it’s no longer Windows 8.x but something different:
This mockup, however, seems like it won’t be the case. We’ve heard that the start screen is most likely going away for everyone, desktop and tablet users, to be replaced by a hybrid start menu kind of thing that can act as a more-or-less full screen expandable start menu of sorts. In my mind, this is what that means to combine both approaches in a bid to appease touch and desktop users:
This seems like a sensible combination. The principles of the start screen, flexibility, customization, touch convenience and grouping are preserved, while desktop users are not booted to a different experience. Since many users hate occluding what’s in the desktop, well, they probably wouldn’t populate their hybrid start menu as much as I did, although parts of the desktop are still visible here. Microsoft would be wise to provide optional transparency controls though, it can never hurt them to give users more choice if occluding what’s behind the start menu bothers them so much. These kind of changes can work. Now they need proper execution, branding, marketing and software support. Get to it Microsoft.