So Where Are the Great PC Tablets?

December 11th, 2012

You’d think that, with the release of Windows 8 on October 26, there would have been a whole new generation of innovative ideas from PC makers to exploit the features of the new OS. The Microsoft Surface RT was meant as the “design point,” according to Steve Ballmer, supposedly meaning that it would inspire other companies to take the concept to the next level and beyond.

Of course, it’s also true that there’s no evidence of much of an uptake of PC tablets, including the Surface. Certainly it’s not for want of trying. Microsoft is clearly spending a bundle to promote the ARM-based tablet, with little indication that customers have demonstrated much interest.

When it comes to other PC makers, you’re seeing the usual melange of swivel displays and convertible tablets, all assuming that you want a single all-purpose device that will function as a traditional note-book and, when you push, pull, or swivel it appropriately, morph into a tablet that is worthy of competing with the iPad.

In other words, the jack of all trades, but master of nothing.

Consider one TV ad I saw, designed to extol the virtues of a PC note-book’s video conferencing features. It’s not at all certain how those features are equal to or superior to Apple’s FaceTime. They just are, presented as something altogether new and different and a means to enhance your social networking, I suppose. But before the recipient manages to actually get hooked up, you see some weird swivel routine to get the note-book ready. Not just popping open the cover and letting it wake from idle mode, but some requisite movement of the display to make it suitable for the intended purpose.

In passing, I wonder how many times the actors in those ads have to rehearse those swivel maneuvers before they can make it look easy and not a clumsy exercise with potentially frustrating results.

But I think the ads for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser are worse, since the pitch is all about a more beautiful Internet, which is downright absurd in the scheme of things. Any standards compliant browser, as I’m sure you know, should render sites identically. What makes MSIE better? Does it mangle sites to emphasize bright colors? Surely Microsoft has given up hopes of trying to enforce proprietary Web standards, or maybe the producers of those ads didn’t get the memo.

Certainly Microsoft and their PC partners, not to mention Intel, can’t take a whole lot of comfort in the prospects for PCs this holiday season. Reports still point to reduced sales, while Macs are doing noticeably better. The expected surge in sales because of the arrival of Windows 8 has yet to materialize, even though Microsoft claimed sales of 40 million licenses in the first month. But since that figure includes OEM sales to manufacturers that may not represent units distributed, let alone sold, it’s not a very promising number.

What will really count is the number of reorders. Will they drop precipitously? Will PC owners, both home and business users, prefer to stick with Windows 7?

And where does Microsoft take the Surface? The Intel-based model has been announced for January release, and it’s going to be priced in the range of an ultrabook note-book with similar or inferior battery life. Other than size and weight, where is the Surface’s advantage? What, for example, happens to the few who bought the ARM version, the Surface RT, and find they cannot run the same apps on the “professional” version?

Then again, what about existing Surface RT users who find they cannot run traditional Windows apps because it has the “wrong” processor? This is the sort of confusion that doesn’t happen in the iOS and Android universes, since people realize they are buying devices with customized mobile operating systems that aren’t meant to run the same apps they can run on a desktop computer.

This doesn’t mean that there is no potential for Windows 8 whatever. It’s quite possible that, if customers take the time to get used to the changes, they might embrace the new OS and lots and lots of optimized Windows 8 apps. Or they might become sick and tired of the confused, schizophrenic interface and ask for a refund.

My personal encounters with the release version of Windows 8, running under Parallels Desktop on my Mac, have been mixed. Before the PC users in our audience ask, yes performance is really, really good, but the constant visual changes in some of those tiles, particularly the ones related to social networking and email, can get distracting after a while. Apple’s notifications on the iOS and Mountain Lion are nowhere near as obtrusive. Other than the lock screen on your iPhone or iPad, they just present themselves and generally get out of the way (depending on the preferences you set).

On a Windows Phone, I suppose the interface is OK if you just want to take a quick glance at your smartphone, and get on with your business. That’s a preference. I prefer to use my iPhone for more than a casual glance, and the same is true for my Mac.

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One Response to “So Where Are the Great PC Tablets?”

  1. DaveD says:

    Let me see…

    Expected jump in sales of PCs with Windows 8 never materialized.

    Surface RT sales “modest.”

    Surface Pro to debut in January after the holidays???

    Much more evidence of Steve Jobs’ post-PC world than a PC+ one.

    So far, I see this starting to spell out as F…A…I…(to be determined in 2013).

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