When three tribes go to war – get ready for one of the most pivotal weeks in computer industry history

22 Oct 2012

This week is shaping up to be an historic week for computing. Tomorrow, Apple will reportedly reveal a new form factor tablet, the iPad mini. Microsoft will reveal Windows 8 on Friday. It’s a big gamble for relevance with today’s consumer. The same day, Google will unleash a cohort of new products and innovations just to spoil Microsoft’s party, it seems.

In the history of the human race, the history of the technology industry as we know it is teeny. Yet for its relative youth it is littered with milestones that are of overwhelming importance to society and the global economy. And Moore’s Law is still holding true.

But a lot has changed since Windows 7 was released by Microsoft to manufacture halfway through 2009.

If anything, computing has broadened out beyond anyone’s expectations mainly due to the smartphone and tablet revolutions. Computing is now everywhere – in everyone’s pockets – and more than two-thirds of the world’s population now carries a mobile device.

This week will mark a new start line in the sand for where three different and competing platforms will attempt to head in the next few years.

·      Tomorrow, Apple is expected to reveal its new 7.8-inch iPad mini, as well as a new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina and a refreshed line-up of 9.7-inch iPads with Retina and Lightning connector technology.

·      On Friday, Microsoft will launch Windows 8 to the world – and it better hope that legions of OEMs will have the tablet PCs, ultrabooks, all-in-ones and other devices ready to sate the appetite of a public that shows more determination about living its digital lives according to their own rules.

·      Also on Friday, Google will most likely try to rain on Microsoft’s parade by unveiling a host of new tablet and smartphone devices that show it has its finger on the pulse of what consumers want. It will reportedly launch a 10-inch Nexus tablet with Samsung, a new 3G version of its Nexus 7 and an LG Nexus 4 device powered by Android 4.2.

Does Microsoft realise this is the post-PC world?

In the intervening years since 2009, a lot has changed. The big question is whether Microsoft realises how much things have changed.

Just like the iPhone disrupted the mobile world forever in 2007, the launch of the iPad in 2010 set in motion a series of events that transformed what we even think of as computing forever.

If you listen closely enough to Apple and many others, this is now the post-PC era. Indeed, everything Google does, for example, is from a ‘mobile first’ perspective.

The growth of the PC industry is stalling and many are hoping that the arrival of Windows 8 will inject growth in the market. But will that happen? NPD predicts that by 2017 the tablet market will have overtaken the PC market.

While Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer confidently declared the dawn of a new era last week, these words will ring hollow to my ears if Microsoft hasn’t gotten over once being the biggest player in town.

Its Surface product – a tablet PC combo in RT and Windows 8 Pro versions – has the potential to show just how much it has grasped this versatile computing age. But Microsoft has been coy about pricing and availability. With a launch looming Friday it will need to meet that emotional moment in a consumer’s mind when they decide they must have one now!

How prepared are its OEM partners in ensuring other products come to market in time that can offer or exceed the quality and user experience of the reliable yet expensive MacBook Pro? A Windows 8 demo this morning I had arranged with Microsoft was cancelled because there were no machines available with Windows 8 on them. Hardly reassuring with a launch due Friday.

Then there are the apps. One of the biggest drawbacks for the Windows Phone platform has been the lack of apps. If Windows 8 promises to provide the unity of computing power and experience that transcends computers, tablets and smartphones where, dear Microsoft, are the apps?

A potential bruising of the Apple

Apple’s rude financial health on the back of the iPhone, which accounts for two-thirds of revenue at the technology giant, is well deserved. It is hard to believe that this is the same company that in 1996 Microsoft stepped in to save from bankruptcy.

Thanks to Steve Jobs’ leadership, Apple has set the tone for the post-PC revolution, bucking the trend by throwing out beige, making colourful iPod devices, creating iTunes, creating the App Store, giving us the iPhone and iPad, bridging cloud with desktop through OS X, the list goes on …

Apple turned the mobile device market on its head in 2007 with the launch of the iPhone and arguably everyone owes Apple a debt of gratitude for shaking things up.

It disrupted the computing world, too, with the iPad and followed this feat up by leading the vanguard of the ultrabook form factor with its MacBook Air.

But like most empires, its very strength is its weakness. The overwhelming success of iOS can’t be denied – remember, it also kick started the apps economy – but there is evidence the desirability of the iPhone 5 is being eschewed by young people who don’t have the cash and instead will spend it on Android devices with bigger screens.

If all that brain power and innovation swayed in the direction of Android because of economics and a more open platform, that is a threat.

Googling tomorrow’s computer devices

Google’s grasp on the cloud of interconnected devices is bolstered not only by its search engine and advertising business but by indispensible services like Gmail, YouTube, Docs and a flurry of mobile services.

You get the sense that it really wants to rush into the hardware business, thanks to devices like the Nexus 7, various smartphone alliances, namely with Samsung and LG, and the sheer potential of technologies like Google Glass.

Google is a company with computer science at its very core and heart and is younger than either Apple or Microsoft and therefore doesn’t have the traps of legacy to cloud its judgment or massage its ego.

Its launch of a smattering of devices on Friday may have been hastily arranged, but I can’t shake the conviction that it wants to say something.

That ‘something’ is that computing as we know it doesn’t have to reside in familiar form factors. Computing will be in cars, houses, our pockets … all around us. Google Glass will be an interesting milestone that will be as momentous as the arrival of the iPhone or the launch of Windows 7 and 8.

Three giants will gather this week, but ultimately the consumer will decide in the coming weeks and months what form of computing works for them. And in the train wreck that is the world’s economy, it’s not an ideal time to be betting on fickle consumers surrounded with choice already.

War image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years