The third generation of Apple’s hugely successful iPad went on sale on Friday. Hordes of eager fans queued outside their local Apple Store, Best Buy, Radio Shack, Walmart and other outlets to be among the first to lay their hands on the latest and greatest version of the iconoclastic tablet computer. Apple is geared up to sell millions during the first few days. The backlog is such that the majority of customers who pre-ordered online will have to wait two or three weeks for delivery.
With its high-resolution “retina” display, improved graphics, better rear-facing camera, twice the internal memory and the option of speedy 4G wireless, the new iPad lives up to all expectations save one: it is heavier and thicker (to accommodate a fatter battery) than its predecessor. That is a small price to pay for the benefits of a screen with four times as many pixels and a much faster wireless connection, while still offering 10 hours of battery life between charges.
Like millions of others, your correspondent is under orders to nab at least one of the new iPads as soon as possible, though he has no intention of losing sleep over it. Two family members had demanded iPad 2s last Christmas, but reluctantly agreed to wait for the new, improved version to arrive in early spring. If it means extending the four-month wait for another week or two, so be it.
Your hapless correspondent is not the only one to have suffered the whips and scorns for putting off purchasing a pair of iPads, because something better seemed in the wings. For the past year or so, corporate IT managers have been under increasing pressure from field workers, sales people and other employees to equip them with tablets, especially iPads. Their reluctance to do so has stemmed largely from the fact that none of the tablets currently on the market has the management tools needed to integrate them securely into company networks.
In the corporate world, the vast majority of computer networks are based on Windows clients and servers that use a software service known as Active Directory to control all the settings and security policies for the various user accounts. In the terms of the trade, tablets like the iPad and the various Android equivalents are “unmanaged environments” that lack the various features needed for use in an enterprise. That makes them not only tedious to upgrade and maintain, but also liabilities. The biggest fear is that they can leave backdoors open for malware to sneak inside a corporate firewall and wreak havoc.
As ingenious as it is, the new iPad is still very much a consumer product rather than a professional-grade computer. That is why many IT departments have been waiting for Microsoft to deliver the next version of its operating system, Windows 8, with its promise of a more professional-style tablet.
Due out later this year, Windows 8 will come in two distinct flavours: a lightweight version for touch-based tablets; and a heavy-duty version for personal computers that can also use a keyboard and a mouse for input. One of the few things they will have in common is the green Metro welcoming screen — with its “tiles” of active content — first seen on the latest Windows phones. While the mainstream version of Windows 8 will run on the usual “x86” processors from Intel and AMD, the tablet version has been written from the ground up for a family of chips based on a processor architecture licensed from ARM in Britain.
ARM processors are noted for using very little juice. That translates into long battery life between charges — hence ARM’s widespread adoption for portable gizmos. Like its predecessor, the latest iPad uses a pair of processor cores licensed from ARM, as do all the Android tablets, as well as numerous handheld consoles, set-top boxes and even television sets. Tablets built to use Windows 8 on ARM (now officially known as WOA) have the potential to be as slick and frugal as the latest iPad.
While Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook have carved successful niches for themselves as book readers, all the other Android tablets on the market have made barely a dent in iPad sales. However, the arrival of WOA tablets later this year from a dozen or more makers could upset things. For many business and professional users, a tablet that can run Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote — and sync wirelessly with calendar, contact and e-mail services on Microsoft servers — could make Android and iPad devices look like toys.
For that to happen, though, WOA tablets need to have access to far more applications than a mere handful from Microsoft, as useful as they are. But what has been learned from a recent blog by Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft’s president of Windows development, is that WOA will not be able to run any of those legacy applications written for previous versions of Windows. In short, WOA represents a complete break with “backwards compatibility” — long the hallmark of Windows software. Microsoft justifies WOA’s break with the past on the grounds that none of the vast panoply of legacy applications for Windows is touch sensitive — and would therefore be next to useless on a tablet operated via a touch-based screen.
Other software firms have survived and thrived when breaking with the past. Apple did it most famously when it dumped its original Macintosh operating system for Unix-based OS X, forcing users to buy a whole new set of applications. It did it again when it shifted its entire computing platform from PowerPC processors to Intel chips. In a smaller way, Microsoft itself did much the same when it first flirted with ARM processors over a decade ago.
Windows CE was a nifty little operating system that could run in a few megabytes of memory. It was developed originally for the personal digital assistants and palmtop computers that were popular at the time. Your correspondent relied for years on one such palmtop (an HP Jornada 720). He loved its six-inch coloured touch-screen, its small but perfectly functional keyboard, its wireless connectivity and its ability to run for 12 hours before needing to be recharged. He was less enamored of its limited number of applications, and remains convinced that lack of software was one of the main reasons why ARM-based palmtops flopped.
Could a similar fate be in store for Microsoft’s latest ARM affair? To have any chance of succeeding with a Windows tablet, Microsoft has to persuade its huge army of third-party developers to create applications for WOA. Under normal circumstances, few would bother.
Microsoft’s answer is ingenious. The company has designed WOA so that not only is it unable to run existing Windows programs, but it also cannot use a software emulator as a fudge for doing so. The only applications that will run on the ARM flavour of Windows 8 are programs written specifically to work with the new Metro interface that WOA shares with the desktop version of Windows 8. Any software developer wishing to write an application for the desktop version will therefore automatically produce code for an ARM version as well.
What could go wrong with that? Well, for a start, desktop users could always give the Metro interface on Windows 8 a big thumbs down — and find ways of switching it off completely. They could then run Windows 8 with the classic desktop view like all previous versions of Windows. Doing so would let them use their legacy software. And were that to happen in a significant way, third-party developers would cease writing apps for Metro, which would then impact sales of Windows tablets. Compounding matters, Windows 7 users would have little reason to upgrade. And Microsoft could be faced with a rerun of its Windows Vista fiasco.
It is too early to say how many Metro apps will be available by the time the new Windows tablets hit the market this autumn. Whatever the number, it will still be dwarfed by the 200 000 apps written to take full advantage of the iPad’s features. But if business users take to Windows 8 on ARM the way pent-up demand suggests they might, the picture could be a good deal rosier — as IT managers splurge on WOA tablets while upgrading their networked computers to Windows 8. As Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, notes, this is the company’s “biggest bet yet”. We are beginning to see why. — (c) 2012 The Economist
- Image: Programmerman/Flickr
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