It is clear from the Windows 8 release preview that Microsoft is heavily pushing its Metro UI in the hope that it will be able to merge its mobile and desktop operating systems together. Indeed after Computex last week it would seem that this decision has caused manufacturers to create a new form factor, the touchscreen notebook and in extreme cases, such as the ASUS Taichi, a notebook that has dual displays, one to be used as a tablet screen on the outside and another to be used as a traditional laptop display would be. The question that comes to mind when viewing these devices though is whether manufacturers feel as though they are being forced into making touchscreen laptops because this is how best to interact with Windows 8 and if so, will this pose problems for both Microsoft and PC manufacturers.
The Introduction of Metro UI
Windows 8 and Microsoft’s move towards Metro UI is the biggest departure Microsoft has made from the traditional desktop OS in many years. Not only has it ditched the ubiquitous start button but by introducing the Metro UI previously seen on Windows Phone 7 it is hoping that it will be able to merge its desktop, tablet and mobile operating systems together. By doing this, Microsoft believes that it will not only provide a more unified user experience but also encourage developers to create apps that have huge appeal to the millions of people that use Windows across all devices. However, it risks alienating its desktop users and more worryingly also its enterprise customers. While it is impossible to make a judgement on an unfinished product, it is likely that business users would have preferred an evolution on Windows 7 as opposed to the revolution of Windows 8. Although there will be a desktop view similar to Windows 7 they will have to cope without a start button and in Windows 8 some things can only be carried out in the Metro UI. It seems that Microsoft is concentrating on its home users and the idea that this tile based UI will help freshen up Windows and show people that Microsoft not only cares about the desktop but also the tablet and mobile markets as well. Whether or not this has forced manufacturers to produce devices that supposedly play to Windows 8’s strengths is another matter entirely.
A Form Factor Nobody Wants?
Indeed the decision to produce laptops with touchscreens looks questionable. There is no evidence to suggest that what consumers want are laptops that also have touchscreens. Indeed for many people the two notions should be separate. We enjoy using touchscreens on phones and tablets because they are a convenient way to browse the internet and respond to emails without having the added bulk and size that having a keyboard brings. However, when using a laptop we often do so because we want the keyboard as it increases our productivity compared to a touchscreen. Therefore a laptop with a touchscreen actually seems to offer up functionality that people do not want. Tablets normally come in a slate form factor because that is the easiest way to use them. Having a touchscreen on a laptop is inconvenient due to the angle of the screen which is likely to lead to an uncomfortable experience during long periods of use. Even more worryingly for manufacturers is that having a touchscreen on a laptop will likely increase the price of the device. A touchscreen might be something that consumers do not mind having if they do not have to pay any extra for it but it is unlikely that they would pay for something that is likely to be unwieldy and less convenient than a tablet would be.
Furthermore manufacturers do not seem to know what market they are producing the device for. The ZenBook Prime ultrabook by Asus is looking like the ultrabook to beat when it is released later this year. At Computex Asus announced that both 11” and 13” variants of the device would also be available with touchscreens. However, someone buying this device is unlikely to want to pay extra for the touchscreen. The Prime is a high end device that will likely cost around $800-1000 yet people who buy this sort of device are not the sort to also want a laptop with a touchscreen. For example many people who have bought tablets have done so because they realised that previously they only used their computers to browse the internet and respond to emails. Therefore a tablet is both cheaper than a laptop and also offers up more portability. On the other hand a person who spends $1000 dollars on a laptop does so because they don’t want the limited functionality of a touchscreen and instead wants the power and productivity of a laptop. By adding a touchscreen to a device aimed at this sort of consumer you are not adding any sort of value to the product as you are targeting an audience that has deliberately chosen a powerful laptop over a touchscreen as it provides more value to them. This leads us to wonder whether the manufacturers realise this or instead feel the need to build laptops with touchscreens because that is the easiest way to use Windows 8.
An OS Reliant on Touchscreens and Multitouch Trackpads?
Reports have suggested that Metro UI works extremely well with touchscreens and quite well with trackpad gestures. Indeed as a tablet experience Windows 8 looks like it could offer up a serious challenge to Android and iOS. However, by incorporating a tablet interface into the desktop OS Microsoft has forced manufacturers into producing devices that have touchscreens as this is the best way of navigating the OS. Manufacturers either have to add a touchscreen to their device or improve upon their trackpads and driver support. It is likely that a manufacturer would see a touchscreen as a much more appealing feature to a customer than updated multitouch trackpads would be. Thus they have opted for the touchscreen as Windows 8 is best used with either a touchscreen or multitouch trackpad and only one of those options is a clear selling point. If this is the case then it could lead to serious problems for both Microsoft and PC manufacturers. As stated previously people will not want to pay more for a touchscreen if they are already spending a considerable amount of money on the laptop in the first place. These customers will expect to be able to use their PC as they want without the need to buy a touchscreen version. Indeed it may lead these people to reject Microsoft’s new OS if they are unable to navigate it quickly and efficiently, something they have previously been able to do on a traditional laptop.
Failure is Not an Option
It would therefore seem that Microsoft’s gamble has also become a gamble for manufacturers as well. They may see Windows 8 as an opportunity to sell new hardware and promote a new form factor. Unfortunately this looks like a form factor that nobody wants. People looking for a tablet experience will stick to the iPad or even specific Windows 8 tablets. Those people wanting a tablet with the ability to occasionally use it to write longer emails of word documents are likely to be drawn to the Asus Transformer Book. A Windows 8 tablet that also has a keyboard dock much like the Transformer Prime. Finally there are the people who just want a laptop as their sole computing device. They do not want to pay extra for a touchscreen as they would prefer to use a mouse and keyboard. This leaves that touchscreen laptop in an awkward position in the market and could end up with both the failure of these form factors and more worryingly the failure or windows 8. If such a device is needed to use Windows 8 properly then Microsoft has fundamentally failed to successfully revolutionise its operating system. Indeed if it fails it won’t be the only company hit.