Windows 8 is not the long bet, it’s Windows RT

Today’s post on Daring Fireball, Windows 8 as a Long Bet, seems to have missed something important.

“But why put the touch/tablet UI on all PCs? A touch-optimized UI makes no more sense for a non-touch desktop than a desktop UI makes for a tablet. Apple has it right: a touch UI for touch devices, a pointer UI for pointer (trackpad, mouse) devices. Windows 8 strikes me as driven by dogma — “one Windows, everywhere.”

This is all right, and yet all wrong. If you read it with Windows 8 Pro in mind, which many consider to be a train wreck combination of two different environments, then yes, the above should make sense. But not if you read it with Windows RT in mind.

Think about this: What can iOS do and not do? What can Windows RT do and not do?

They are both “Post PC” operating systems. They are super simple to use, they only run apps from an app store, they don’t need drivers, and they have a touch-optimized UI that makes perfect sense on a multi-touch tablet. They have a lot in common, but there’s a huge difference that is missed in the quoted text above. Windows RT and its 3rd-party apps are touch-optimized, but are also aware of the presence or potential presence of a mouse pointer, and they can work with pointer input and with a keyboard without relying on touch gestures at all. So…

What can iOS do and not do? Easy. It can run any kind of app you can imagine. But these apps are almost universally built for touch. Not all apps can be redesigned to be as comfortable or efficient with touch as they were with mouse pointer input.

Touch can be as precise as mouse pointer input, but in different ways. The initial touch is never very precise. Apps like Photoshop will not work on iOS – their UI must be designed differently. But even redesigned, they may never be as efficient. Apps like development environments or desktop publishing will also need to be rethought, but may also never work as well. iOS requires a lot of back and forth between a keyboard (on-screen or not) and the screen – so that screen tends to need to be horizontal. Who wants to lift their hand up to a vertical screen, even if occasionally. It’s just awkward.

Installing iOS on a desktop PC would never make sense, touch screen or not. So what can’t iOS do? Let users comfortably use applications that work best with mouse pointer input. If a user isn’t efficient and comfortable, the app is a failure. This means that OS X has it’s place for the moment, until the “Back To The Mac” concept reaches revolutionary new heights.

What can Windows RT do and not do? Windows RT is like iOS. Touch input is a first class citizen, and everything from OS to apps, are built for that. The one exception is Office,  which is why there’s a bastard remnant desktop mode that will hopefully disappear once Office goes native.

Installing Windows RT on a desktop PC, however, can make perfect sense, touch screen or no touch screen. Windows RT and all its 3rd party apps fully work with mouse and keyboard without requiring even occasional touch gestures. There’s a reason for that (I’ll reveal it at the end of this post). When running on a desktop PC or laptop with a trackpad, Windows RT can handle applications like Photoshop, Visual Studio, Xcode, Final Cut Pro X, you name it. Sure, these apps would have to be rewritten to run in a fully sandboxed environment, but thanks to cloud computing becoming  more pervasive, this is a software problem that’s inevitably going to be solved soon (Apple has the same need on OS X),

Windows RT on a desktop PC makes sense because it doesn’t subject people to needlessly complex operating systems like Windows 8 Pro or the very latest OS X, with all their baggage and complicated UI paradigms, drivers, trojan horses and malware. Yes, even OS X Mountain Lion still doesn’t prevent users from installing things from random sites.

OS X and Windows 8 Pro are still way too geeky for non-techie humans to work easily and comfortably with – but iOS and Windows RT, well, even toddlers and the oldest grandparents can handle those without breaking anything or calling a geek family member for support.

So what can’t Windows RT do? Nothing. It can run on tablets, run any kind of app that iOS can, using touch-only input that works very well, and it can also run as a mouse+keyboard driven operating system on laptops and desktops, and run desktop-class applications that don’t work as well or as comfortably on a touch-only device or operating system.

So let’s deal with that Daring Fireball quote now, piece-by-piece:

But why put the touch/tablet UI on all PCs?

I don’t know why, but I do know that developers that write Modern UI apps are forced to also make their app work with mouse+keyboard – because Windows 8 Pro will be installed on many PCs that don’t have touch input. Like the 27″ iMac I’m using right now running Windows 8 Pro. Also, the more obvious answer, to get desktop and laptop PC users used to the look and feel of Windows RT.

A touch-optimized UI makes no more sense for a non-touch desktop than a desktop UI makes for a tablet.

See now why this doesn’t quite apply? Windows RT is designed to offer a touch-optimized UI when running on tablets, and also a mouse+keyboard optimized UI when running on laptops and desktops. Heck, if the laptop or desktop also has a touch screen, you can use both. But that’s gravy.

Apple has it right: a touch UI for touch devices, a pointer UI for pointer (trackpad, mouse) devices.

It’s right only up to the point when your competitor has a Windows RT descendant everywhere, the exact same OS on both tablets and desktops, that lets users transition from desktop to tablet/mobile with no change in environment.

Users may realize that moving from OS X to iOS is just not as great. Windows 8 Pro and descendants? Who cares, that OS will be forgotten by the consumers (not businesses) once most desktop-class apps like Photoshop and Visual Studio start running on Windows RT or descendants. These mouse-optimized apps may not work on tablets, but that’s not the point, the point is, the rest of the apps you use will.

Microsoft has something special with Windows RT, it’s just not obvious yet because everyone’s focusing on Windows 8 Pro.