Interoperability: It's a big word that describes an even bigger problem -- namely, that of the compatibility of your apps and data between different devices. And while the mobile worlds of Google's Android and Apple's iOS have come a long way, nothing compares to the complete end-to-end compatibility offered by a Windows computer. The issues that a Windows 8 tablet could address are the twin troubles of file handling and app compatibility -- two things that remain troublesome thorns in the sides of both Android and iOS.
The File Conundrum
These past months I've spent using the myriad of Google's Android Honeycomb tablets and Apple's iOS-based iPad 2 have been an eye-opener. The two platforms inherently work very differently: Apple has its alternately maligned and beloved "walled garden" approach, while Google is more open, but wracked by inconsistencies, wherein one tablet supports certain file types and another doesn't, and it's not clear to a user why one does and the other doesn't.
(The answer, simply, is that some tablet makers add file-type support on their own, to support basics like WMV, AVI, and PDF that Google doesn't natively support. But this support is generally through the inclusion of separate software added to Android's base install, and the implementation of file support doesn't appear fundamentally any different from stock Google...which makes it hard to be clear that this is a differentiation from one tablet to the next.)
At least Android provides a file system users can access -- even if it's a mess with haphazard folder nomenclature and requires third-party software to tap into it. Google admits it never intended for Android's file system to be accessed and used as Windows Explorer is, but the reality is that tablet makers and file manager app developers are embracing the fact that this feature exists in Android. It's nowhere in iOS; there, you have to rely on a developer to provide support for iOS's "Open in" option, something I've seen inconsistently implemented. And even then, file handling gets kludgy and awkward, a sad reality given the overall simple elegance of Apple's platform. Files get locked into the app you're using, and need to be associated with that app -- a counterintuitive experience that is opposite what consumers are used to in the desktop universe so many of us rely on.
It's About Files...and About Apps
In reality, for most of us, a Windows computer is already part of our lives. And in going between a laptop or desktop and an iOS device or an Android device, one can run into all sorts of issues and incompatibilities. Not to mention the specific issue of app compatibility.
App compatibility goes both ways. Let's face it: All the cool, new software development has been for mobile devices. And I've often wished that a cool app I'm using on a mobile device could be used on my laptop, too. And maybe that I could manipulate or share the data on the mobile with the desktop (and do so in a way that doesn't rely only on the cloud).
Likewise, apps aplenty on the PC could benefit from being on a tablet, but right now, they won't run there. Heck, they're designed for a whole other operating system than what we're using on our tablets today.
The exception: Tablets like Fujitsu's Stylistic Q550. This Windows 7 tablet quietly shipped this summer, with a clear aim at vertical markets and corporate use. Why? Because those markets already have custom apps designed for use on laptops that could translate well to a tablet -- but those markets need the platform stability and compatibility that Windows 7 already provides.
Today's Windows tablets try hard (besides Fujitsu, Motion Computing and Viewsonic are among the few manufacturers with such products), but they can't make up for the inherent weaknesses of, not the hardware, but -- yes -- Microsoft Windows. It's been nearly a decade since Microsoft broadly touted the idea of a "tablet PC," and the company is only just on the cusp of introducing a touch-friendly interface -- one that won't be introduced until we get Windows 8.
The Benefits of Unity
Corporate IT isn't the only arena that will benefit from a Windows-based tablet, though. Consumers will reap the benefits of unity, too.
With Windows 8 and a bona fide touch-optimized operating system, the Windows platform -- along with the apps that will inevitably be developed for it -- has the potential to compete with the established mobile operating systems, and better unify how we do things across our different devices. At that point, it's no longer a question of whether an app will work on the OS, but instead a question of whether an app will run on everything from an ARM chip on up to a quad-core CPU. Hardware guts will matter, and developers will have to figure out ways to elegantly bridge the different hardware requirements, but in an ideal world, the potential for unity is high. Right now, not even Apple has unity; its highly successful iOS apps run only on iOS devices, leaving Mac OS X users in the dark.
Imagine for a moment the popularity boost the Mac would get if it supported the vast selection of software present in the iOS universe. Now transfer that theoretical possibility to the Windows tablet-laptop-PC ecosystem. It may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Let's just hope that Microsoft, and the Windows 8 app developers, can take full advantage of this potential, and find ways to make it work.