Looking for the Killer App: Imagining Windows 8 in the Enterprise

I spent last week at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference with 16,000 of the company’s 460,000 partners, and Windows 8 was at the top of the agenda for the company and the attendees. As I’ve written before, my recent experience using a Samsung Series 7 running Windows 8 has convinced me this is a potential game-changing moment for Microsoft and the industry – rivaling even the original Windows 3 launch (which I attended way back in May, 1990.)

Before the game really changes, however, especially for the enterprise, Microsoft needs to show the world what the new game looks like and what the rules of engagement will be. While we saw inklings of that in the keynotes by Tami Reller and Kirill Tartarinov, the heads of Windows and Dynamics respectively,  inklings are not enough. In order to drive the market towards a new vision of Windows 8 in the enterprise, Microsoft will have to show the way by coming up with some killer apps that leverage the potential of Window 8, Dynamics, Azure, and the rest of the Microsoft stack.

The opportunity is unprecedented, and missing it is not an option. Microsoft is poised to drive a reimagining of the PC/tablet/phone user experiences that could completely upturn a tablet market that Apple defined scarcely two years old.  And essential to that reimagining is showing how users – and developers – should look at the interplay between the three device types.

The opportunity to blend the three is unique to Window 8 – Apple has MacOS for PCs and iOS for tablets and phones, and Google has Android for tablets and phones and basically relies on browsers to deliver its desktop user experience, such as it is. But Window’s uniqueness can’t and won’t last long – it’s hard to imagine twelve months going by without Apple trying to merge its three platforms is some way or another, in particular if Windows 8 shows signs of success. I have less confidence in Google mounting a response – their enterprise chops are pretty much non-existent, as far as I can tell, as witnessed by their inability to grok the need for enterprise-class security in Android devices.

Regardless, the challenge on the table for Microsoft is important, because underlying the need for a killer demo app is the need to impress upon Microsoft’s millions of developers – plenty of which already moonlight developing in the iOS market – that Windows 8 is worthy of their attention. That worthiness has to overcome the unmitigated disaster called Window 6 phone and its follow-up, a Windows 7 phone that proved to be a another developer dead-end. With the primary goal one of getting millions of developers geared up to produce millions of Windows 8 apps, the value-add over iOS and Android had better be pretty compelling.

Building this killer demo app could be more daunting than it may seem, but that’s mostly because of the plethora of very compelling concepts and technologies that should be part of the scenario. On the concept side, Windows 8 is really intended to be the first development and deployment environment that spans the phone, tablet and PC user experience. With a twist: the Surface, tablets like the Series 7, and the many convertible laptop/tablets about to enter the market, are breaking down the artificial barrier between tablet and PC that Apple created with iPad.

Whereas iPad is primarily a consumption device, with what amounts to some elegant kludges for enabling varying degrees of input, the Windows 8 tablet experience will be for both creation and consumption. With many of the new hardware devices either coming with a built-in keyboard (like the Surface and the convertible laptops) or supporting a variety of Bluetooth keyboards (like the Series 7 and its brethren), the line between tablet and PC begins to blur.

Which means the two distinct user experiences that characterize these devices – keyboard and mouse input on the PC and multi-touch input on the tablet – will be able to converge in some if not all Windows 8 apps. From a design standpoint that’s perhaps more complex than it may seem: not only can you add a keyboard and mouse to Windows 8 apps, but Windows 8 lets you extend the screen options so that you can have a pure keyboard and mouse (no touch) experience on a monitor and pure touch, or touch plus keyboard and mouse on the tablet.

These multi-input, multi-screen capabilities greatly extend what an app can look like and do in Windows 8. Could an app have touch, keyboard, and mouse as its primary input technologies, depending on the particular use case? Why not? Imagine an asset management app that spanned the parts of the process that take place in the field (inspection, verification, inventory control, service, for example) and at the user’s desk (dispatch, verification, field service, approvals, etc.) The same user could take his or her Surface into the field, inspect and verify using a tablet UI, and then flip open the keyboard and write a detailed report. That report could then be presented in a touch-based presentation mode or modified in a collaboration mode with different user input modes depending on whether the collaborators were at their desks, sitting in front of a tablet, or working from a Window phone.

In other words, the distinctions between what happens in “mobile mode” and what happens in “desktop mode” can be part of the same app, and have a similar or overlapping user experience. This essentially offers the possibility of extending how much of the scope of a business process can be covered by an app: business processes today that have gone mobile typically have separate mobile modes that are significantly different from their desktop modes, and in fact, in most cases today the two modes are covered by completely different apps with completely different user experiences and licenses. (This is very different in a pure consumption app like a dashboard or standalone analytic – the visualization of information can be largely identical between all three devices, it’s input and interaction that require different approaches.)

It’s important to note that I have been unable to verify exactly how identical the Windows 8 phone experience will be to the Windows 8 tablet and PC experience. Microsoft has been a little too mum on defining the degree of overlap, particularly from the phone side,  and how that will impact app design. Yet more evidence of another Microsoft silo that has to be taken down as Microsoft makes its unique play for the consumer/enterprise market. But, based on some vague reassurances I’ve been able to garner, the blurring of these distinctions and the extension of a single app across phone, tablet, and desktop becomes at least a theoretical possibility.

It’s clear that this won’t be desirable for every app, far from it. But from a development standpoint – as well as from a licensing standpoint – there are many many cases where building one app to cover a business process that spans all three devices will be hugely important for developers and customers.

There’s a number of things that have to be straightened out before we can really assess what this killer app scenario can look like. A big question is simply how well will Windows 8 support different deployment options: The partners at WPC were assured that when Windows 8 goes GA on Oct. it will support multiple screen sharing scenarios – right now the version on my Samsung tablet has pretty much the same four scenarios available in Windows 7, with some contention between what can be on which screen when. Also necessary will be some clarification about whether a native Windows 8 app can be have a desktop (keyboard/mouse) user experience and a table/touch experience simultaneously: I tried to see if any of the Windows 8 apps on my Series 7 would support that kind of operation, and the answer seemed to be no.

While these questions may seem trivial, the underlying question they are begging is not : How different can the experience in Windows 8 be from what we think of as a desktop/tablet/phone experience today? I can imagine a number of scenarios where I would I want sit at my desktop with my tablet mounted next to or above my keyboard and mouse, and alternate between the two input modes. Add the phone on the other side of my keyboard – maybe that’s what stages all the voice communications for my Windows 8 apps  — and now I have multi-mode experience that, from the developer’s standpoint, can be built as a single app and used by a single user across all three devices.

The bottom line from an enterprise applications standpoint is that there are many processes that could span the three main enterprise devices, and the customer experience would be all the richer for it. That richness should translate into opportunity for Microsoft and its partners, and headaches for Apple and Google.

But only if Microsoft can show the world what the killer enterprise app experience can be. Maybe some partner will do it first, but my sense is that this should be job number one right now at Microsoft. If Microsoft wants the market to tilt in its direction, it’s going to have to show the market how that’s going to work. Apple had the easy job of defining the ultimate consumption device. To Microsoft falls the task of reinventing consumption to include creation. Did I say this rivals the game-changing precedent of the Windows 3 launch? If Microsoft succeeds, that prediction may prove to be an understatement. A very big understatement.