Don’t write off Microsoft just yet

There’s been a lot of press recently about the death of the PC, and the rise to dominance of the tablet. So far the tablet story has been about the iPad, and more recently the raft of smaller form-factor Android tablets such as the Kindle Fire and the Nexus. This has been presented as a step-change in how IT will function, and many pundits – including me – have written at some length about the risks inherent in the growth of “Bring Your Own Device”. Microsoft have come late to the party, and Windows 8 RT has taken over from WebOS as the tablet OS least likely to get a date. But is this fair?

I’ve owned a number of laptops over the years, in various form factors. I ended up gravitating to HP’s Elitebook 27x0p convertible tablet PCs, running Windows 7 with tablet extensions. My guilty secret being that I *really* like to take notes with a stylus in meetings. I don’t convert them – no machine can read my handwriting – but I can file them, annotate them with links, and email them to colleagues.

Unfortunately I’ve become a cyclist. A somewhat obsessive one. I’ve spent lots of time and money reducing the weight of my bike, and my own weight, over the last year. By about 1.7kg in the case of the bike at a cost of, well, more than I’ll admit to my wife, and about 15kg at a cost of nothing at all in the case of my own previously bloated form.

So the discovery that the latest HP Elitebook weighs more than 2kg on its own, before you account for the PSU and a suitable protective sleeve, made me reconsider my options. Disappointingly I’d already bought the Elitebook, my second, by this stage. Another candidate for the cupboard of shame. I was amused though to find that my backpack, including laptop, PSU, street clothes and locks weighed more than my bike…but I digress. Back to the point.

I tried an iPad. I tried an Asus Transformer Infinity, at somewhat vast expense. Both ticked the lightweight, easy form-factor box. The trouble is that while it’s pretty clear that consumers are switching to tablet en masse, there’s a good reason for that. The clue is in the name: IOS and Android tablets make excellent devices for consuming others’ content – video, photo, web – and contributing similar media and short text posts back. The app ecology has lots of provision for home use, social media, multimedia content creation and gaming, and the price points for the software fit the consumers’ pockets.

But have you ever tried to work on a tablet? I mean actually work, not pretend to work. If you’re a very senior manager then you can make a case for an iPad – again, it’s a great consumption device, and your main use of IT is as a consumer of others’ reports and a sender of brief commentaries. If, on the other hand, you need to write reports, produce spreadsheet models, interact with legacy line-of-business applications and otherwise act as a producer rather than consumer, then an iPad or Android tablet is a bit like a dog walking on its hind legs. It doesn’t do it well, but you are pleased with yourself that it does it at all. Nonetheless, it always feels refreshing to go back to a proper PC with a real keyboard and a real copy of Office, a bit like getting back into your own bed after a weekend on a friend’s sofa.

The Asus, at least, had a decent keyboard to go with its cool metal finish and astonishing battery life. What it didn’t have was any decent applications. Not apps, applications. I tried all of the available Office-a-likes. No wordprocessor that could create revision marks, or create a table of contents, or embed graphics easily. No spreadsheet worthy of the name at all. The ones that could handle an even vaguely complex workbook couldn’t create formulae worth a damn, and even the ones that could enter simple formulae made the process of selecting a few cells an appalling torture. The presentation tools were similarly Mickey Mouse.

Then you consider how convoluted it can be to transfer data from your corporate network to these devices – and how insecure. You find that they make fairly rubbish Citrix endpoints, and that their in-built email software has bizarre limitations. For example, why can’t I view only unread messages on either IOS or Android? Why can’t I edit the text in the forwarded part of a message. Why can’t I use any formatting, for Heaven’s sake?

And neither of them had a stylus. You could buy capacitative things with a tip the size of an old-fashioned pencil eraser and about the same precision as my five-year-old’s crayon drawings, but then you find that Evernote doesn’t support inked annotations, and that the notes apps that do are, well, rubbish.

So I gave up, and went back to lugging the brick around. Then someone pointed out that even though I’m not the CTO, I should probably look at this new-fangled Windows 8 nonsense that everyone is so roundly condemning. After some harrumphing, I agreed. Some diligent web-surfing led to a number of potentially exciting products of which no-one actually had any stock, and to the Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 2, which was available – even if the tablet, case and keyboard had to come from three different vendors. At least Apple understand how to launch a product…

But when I finally got all the parts in the same place, it was a revelation. Here’s a light, long-battery life tablet with a really rather usefully wide screen that does all the tabletty instant-on, touch-and-swipe convenience and consumption stuff as well as any other tablet, and seems to have sufficient apps for my needs. Because I touch one tile, and suddenly it’s a proper Windows 8 Pro laptop. I’m writing this blog in Word, using the very natty Bluetooth keyboard which lets me prop the tablet up in both landscape and portrait. I reviewed our sales figures in Excel. As well as using the mail app, which has many of the limitations of the IOS and Android equivalents, I can use Outlook, which doesn’t. And so on and so forth. I don’t have to constantly request the full version of websites instead of the mobile one, because the site doesn’t assume I’m using a phone. I can transfer files from my network by dragging them, all within proper domain security, and I can use all the properly approved corporate services without having to reinvent the wheel.

It has a proper stylus, with handwriting recognition in both tablet apps and proper Windows, and I can use OneNote and Windows Journal again. Good for me. Less good for my staff, who have to go back to interpreting my hieroglyphics. At least I’m swearing a bit less now…

Then, when I’m done working, I can go back to using it as a Kindle, or a media player, or a games machine.

I haven’t the faintest idea why anyone would use a Windows RT tablet. If all you need is a consumption device, buy an iPad, or a Galaxy Tab or something. Join the herd and enjoy Angry Birds.

But if you absolutely positively have to be able to do some actual work from time to time, accept no substitute. Get a full-fat Windows 8 tablet and a copy of Office 13 and sink back into your own comfortable bed.

2 thoughts on “Don’t write off Microsoft just yet

  1. While I’m personally not the biggest fan of Microsoft, I will say that Windows 8 on a tablet is probably the most productive OS that one could hope for. I find that iOS doesn’t always do well will syncing information between apps and Android doesn’t always have the best tablet apps. Maybe Windows 8 hits the sweet spot between mobility and productivity. Great post!

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