What’s Happening with Windows 10 for Tablets

Posted on March 21, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 10 with 0

I’ve noticed a growing disturbance in the Force lately: Irked by my preference for non-Windows tablets, some readers are concerned that I’m ignoring Windows 10 on tablets and, worse, am downplaying its inefficiencies on such devices. And, fair enough, while I have installed Windows 10 Technical Preview 2 on a variety of devices, the truth is that I am sort of ignoring Windows 10 on tablets for now. But I have a good reason for that.

I’m waiting for Windows 10 Mobile. The real Windows for tablets.

And part of the reason I’ve gotten so irritated with Microsoft’s growing delays on delivering new Windows 10 builds is that the version of Windows 10 that will target such devices is horribly behind schedule. I had expected to be testing Windows 10 Mobile on small tablets—not just on a tiny subset of phones—well before now.

Let’s recap.

There will be a variety of Windows 10 “versions” that Microsoft will deliver on everything from tiny, screen-less embedded IoT devices all the way to up giant Surface Hub screens and Xbox One. For me, however, the important targets for Windows 10 fall between these extremes. Phones. Small tablets. Full-sized tablets and 2-in-1s. Hybrid/transforming PCs. Laptops. Desktop PCs.

One of the things I’m personally very excited about—and I have to admit at some honest amazement that this rankles some people—is a return to emphasizing the PC in Windows. Here, my usage very much corresponds with the majority, not that it matters: I use Windows on PCs. For most of the world, Windows is PC and PC is Windows. Windows is not tablet. Windows is not phone.

Now, I do use and love Windows Phone. And I use Windows on tablets, but mostly just to see whether anything has changed, which, sadly, it has not (at least in current generation products based on Windows 8.1). But I think it’s important to recognize that Windows 8.x was a tremendous failure on tablets (and, yes, on phones) and that something needed to give. So with Windows 10, Microsoft is reimagining (sorry) a cohesive set of UIs—like Tablet Mode and Continuity—that will work across a wide range of devices. In doing so, it’s making Windows 10 on tablets more like Windows 10 on PCs. And vice versa.

For that small subset of people who actually like Windows 8 on tablets—and, yes, they’re out there—these changes are not necessarily ideal. But Windows 8 was inappropriate for and unwelcomed by over one billion people. There may be some single digit millions of people at best that really like Windows 8.1 just the way it is on their tablets. It’s not a big audience.

So here’s what’s happening.

We don’t know the exact mix of Windows 10 product editions that will ship across phones, small tablets, full-sized tablets and 2-in-1s, and PCs of all kinds. But we know that there will be at least something called Windows 10 Mobile that will target phones and small tablets and then something we’ll just call Windows 10 Desktop, which will really be one or more actual SKUs (product editions) that map closely to what we see with Windows 8.1 today (“Core,” Pro, Enterprise).

Windows 10 Mobile is the tablet OS I’m most eager to test. So far, Microsoft has only shipped a single public build of this OS, and that was only made available on a very small subset of Lumia smart phones. So there’s no way to test this system on the small tablets on which I think it will eventually shine. But we know that Windows 10 Mobile will remove the desktop and related UIs (excellent), will look and work a bit like Windows Phone does today (excellent), and will be a full-screen experience as you’d expect. I cannot wait to test this. On small tablets. But I cannot. Not yet.

Windows 10 Desktop will be made available on a variety of devices: Small tablets, full-sized tablets and 2-in-1s, and PCs of all kinds. This is Windows 10 as we’ve seen it across the two major milestones of the Windows 10 Technical Preview, and it accomplishes two major things in my opinion: it provides an acceptable desktop experience for those 700-800 million Windows 7 users who absolutely refused to upgrade to Windows 8.x. And it provides a hybrid experience on the small tablets, full-sized tablets and 2-in-1s where you may use the system as you would a tablet—with touch and full-screen experiences—and as you might when the device is docked, as a desktop PC.

How successful these are will depend on your perspective and, I think, on the device you use.

For example, if you buy a Surface Pro 3—”the tablet that can replace your laptop”—you’re buying a device that is laptop first, tablet second. That is, you will use this device as a laptop most of the time, and Windows 10 will be optimized for that usage and will default to it. But you can use Tablet Mode and Continuum to move back and forth between the default desktop and the touch-first tablet mode as you wish. Choice is good.

If you buy a Windows 10 mini-tablet (8-inches or bigger) or standalone tablet of any kind, Windows 10 will default to Tablet Mode when there’s no keyboard or dock attached. It will look a lot like Windows 8.x in that the Start experience is full screen, apps are full screen, and the desktop and its applications are there if you need them. You can switch to desktop mode with floating windows if you want—it’s full Windows, after all—and you will do so automatically—if you want—when you attach a dock or keyboard.

The biggest difference between Windows 8.1 and 10 on such a system is the edge gestures. Instead of Switcher, Charms and app bars, you get Windows 10 UIs like Task View, Action Center, app title bars, and the taskbar when you swipe in from the various screen edges on a touch device. I think this all makes plenty of sense. Windows 8 fans may disagree.

But there is actually a third case. A weird and temporary outlier case.

If you purchased a Windows 8.1 with Bing-based mini-tablet over the past year—and the market is flooded with them thanks to Microsoft’s “zero dollar licensing” policies—and you later upgrade to Windows 10, you will get Windows 10 Desktop, not Windows 10 Mobile, and that’s true no matter what the screen size is. So an HP Stream 7 with a 7-inch screen will get Windows 10 Desktop, even though a similar HP Stream 7 sold a year from now would come with Windows 10 Mobile, with no desktop.

What I want, and what I think many others want, is the ability to upgrade such a system to Windows 10 Mobile. The desktop makes no sense on such a tablet, and with universal Office apps now available, one of the few excuses for keeping the desktop around has disappeared. At the very least, I think we should have the choice: Those that want the desktop could get it, while those that do not could get Windows 10 Mobile.

We’ll see what happens. For now, we’re kind of stuck with a desktop-centric Windows 10 for PCs that many Windows 8 fans find lackluster. And we can’t yet test Windows 10 Mobile on the devices where I think that system will truly shine.

But here’s what I think the future holds. On phones and small tablets, Windows 10 Mobile should be pretty terrific. On larger tablets and touch devices, Windows 10 will make most sense when used in desktop mode, since its PC-centric nature will ensure that the tablet experience is always secondary. And Windows 10 is going to be a great upgrade for PCs. Frankly, given the way the market is heading, this isn’t a terrible outcome.