All His Life Has He Looked Away, to the Future, to the Horizon. Never His Mind on Where He Was. What He Was Doing.

“Hello, Windows 8? This is iPad. You win.”

That’s Paul Thurrott, tweeting from Microsoft’s Build conference. I’ll file it away for future claim chowder, sure, but right now let’s think about this in the unsnarkiest terms we can manage. This tweet, to me, says a lot.

One of the implications of Microsoft’s everything-except-phones-in-one-OS strategy for Windows 8 is that it could utterly fail as an iPad competitor, but still be a successful OS. I’m imagining here in this paragraph a scenario where Windows 8 proves to be good and popular for traditional desktop and notebook PCs — where by “good” let’s say we mean “better than Windows 7” — but doesn’t gain any traction at all in the tablet market.

What Thurrott is saying, however, is that what Microsoft showed of Windows 8 as a tablet OS today at Build was so compelling that the iPad, if it were anthropomorphized, would simply give up at this point.

What did Microsoft show, though? They showed a Metro-style touchscreen tablet user interface that is, without argument, original. No accusations of ripping off the iPad here. Microsoft is admirably blazing its own trail.

But the OS reportedly isn’t coming out for at least a year. The demo tablet hardware from Samsung they’re showing it on (and giving to Build attendees) is a Core i5 Intel-based PC replete with a fan. Spec-wise these units are much more like MacBook Airs than iPads. Presumably actual shipping iPad-competing Windows 8 tablets will use low-power mobile CPUs — be they ARM, Atom, whatever, just so long as they get iPad-caliber long battery life and low temperatures.

How will Windows 8 run on such hardware? When will they actually ship? How many as-yet-unannounced iPad 3s will Apple have sold by the time the first Windows 8 tablet hits stores? (Not to mention the many tens of millions of iPad 2s Apple will sell in just the next quarter alone.)

It’s all in the future. All potential, nothing actual. Think about how different Apple’s and Microsoft’s approaches are. Apple unveiled the iPad to the public only when it was a completely finished product, two months before it hit stores. The demo units we in the press had access to that day were exactly like the mass-produced iPads that shipped to customers two months later. Can you imagine Apple doing with the iPad what Microsoft is doing with Windows 8? Say, showing a prototype iPad at WWDC in June 2009, running on MacBook Pro-caliber Intel hardware? Letting the public and the press play with the OS in half-finished alpha state on prototype hardware? Impossible even to imagine. (There were no hands-on demos, let alone take-home prototypes or developer downloads, when Apple showed a “sneak preview” of Mac OS X Lion at last year’s “Back to the Mac” event.)

I’m not passing judgment here — at least not yet — regarding which strategy is superior. I simply wish to direct your attention at how utterly different the two companies are.

As in any decision, there are trade-offs. Windows 8 developers are certainly going to be much more prepared for these tablets than iOS developers were for the iPad, for one thing. From what I can tell on Twitter, Windows developers and writers are delighted by this early access.

What strikes me about Thurrott’s tweet is that the two companies have attracted the writers they deserve. Me? I’d be appalled if Apple were to unveil something in the half- (if that) finished state of Windows 8 for tablets. I enjoy writing about what’s real. And no matter how good the demo, I’d be wary of predicting success a year in advance against a technically outstanding and phenomenally popular product like the iPad.

Thurrott saw this demo and thinks, “This is so much better than the iPad, game over.” (And it’s not like Thurrott is alone.) If I were on the Microsoft/Windows beat, I’d look at this and think, “My god, the iPad has been out for 18 months, the second generation is so popular that Apple has only recently been able to keep them in stock, and Microsoft is still an entire year away from releasing its first competing product. Who cares if it runs fast on high-power high-performance PC hardware, why can’t we see it on low-power mobile hardware?”

It’s one thing to look at today’s Windows-8-on-a-tablet and say that it has a lot of potential. It’s another thing altogether to look at it and declare victory.

Show me something real, I say. Look at Amazon. Everyone knows they’re building a tablet. What have they said, though? Nothing. What have they shown? Nothing. When will they say something? When it’s done. What will they show? Something real.

To me, what these Windows writers are doing is like a baseball writer who today has started writing about what might happen in next season’s playoffs, because the team he follows is doing so poorly this season. We’ve got “is good today” against “might be good in a year”. The actually good versus the potentially good.

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