Microsoft looks to bridge tablet-PC divide

By Richard Waters

Microsoft is set to counter the technology revolution triggered by Apple’s iPad, with the unveiling on Tuesday of software intended to turn touchscreen computing into something more familiar to the world’s 1bn PC users.

The software will be shown off at a Microsoft conference for software developers in California. Persuading developers to write applications that run on its operating systems has been key to the company’s historical success, but has been under threat as attention shifts to a new generation of tablets and smartphones.

“Without the developers, they won’t have much of a platform,” said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a research company.

The test, or beta, version of the forthcoming Windows 8 operating system represents a bet that iPad does not represent the final shape of tablet computing.

Rather than the pallet of icons and simple, stripped-down “apps” popularised by Apple, Microsoft is set to show software that combines elements of both tablets and PCs.

A trial version, known as Windows 8, is expected to be released to developers this week, though devices employing the software will not go on sale for at least a year, based on Microsoft’s typical release timetable.

Windows 8 will have two interfaces: the traditional “desktop” familiar to PC users, and a touch-based interface using the same large “tiles” used on Windows software for smartphones. It will work on both the Intel-designed chips used in PCs, as well as the low-power chips found in smartphones and based on designs from UK-based ARM.

The software will also be designed to bridge the gap between the “apps” found on tablets and smartphones and the full-featured applications of PCs.

“The distinction between notebook [PCs] and tablets will blur,” said Rick Sherlund, software analyst at Nomura Securities in New York.

Microsoft and its hardware allies had a good chance of winning over business customers with a new generation of thin, lightweight notebooks, many of which would have detachable screens or use other ways of combining touch with the traditional PC experience, said Mr Sherlund.

Along with a new, touch-enabled version of the Office suite of applications, the wave of notebook upgrades by business customers triggered by Windows 8 could finally shake Microsoft’s share price out of its decade-long slump, he added.

However, combining the different technologies and user experiences of both PCs and tablets in a single software platform presents a complex test, analysts warn.

Microsoft will have to make its operating system function for the first time on different chips, while also creating a way for developers to write software that works with different interfaces, said Mr Cherry.

“Coming to the party late, they can’t afford another Vista,” he said, referring to a criticised version of Windows.