Why cheap Windows devices are both good and bad for Microsoft

This holiday season, Microsoft, joining the rest of the Windows world in eschewing further Windows RT tablets, fielded the productivity-oriented 12″ Surface Pro 3. But when it came to licensees, no price floor seemed too low. Microsoft worked with HP and ASUS to introduce a pair of sub-$200 Intel-based Windows PCs designed to go after Chromebooks. (Microsoft calls the category “cloudbooks”.) While each boasted extensive battery life, their other specs were predictably lackluster, including the lack of a touchscreen, that key component Microsoft once touted as the path to Windows 8’s manifest destiny.

And if the lack of touch may have served as an impediment to the “modern” part of Windows 8.1, HP and Toshiba also offered 7” Windows-based tablets that were rather unfriendly to the desktop part of Windows 8.1. However, they’re available for less than $100, and with certain promotions for less than $70.

The aggressive pricing, particularly on the tablets, in part reflected Microsoft’s decision to drop licensing fees for phones and small tablets in order to more effectively with Google. Largely removing price from the equation laid bare Windows’ advantages and challenges versus its Google rivals in laptops (Chromebooks) and tablets (Android).

When it comes to Chromebooks, Microsoft has a strong advantage in a rich app library. Intel-based Windows laptops can run Chrome, making these cheap laptops something of a Chromebook Plus even though they trade off computing power for simplicity of operation. Indeed, these cheap Windows laptops serve a wake-up call to Google to make faster progress on its offline capabilities, which remain disjointed.

Tiny Windows tablets, though, expose the weakness of the Windows touch app selection compared to Android, which can take advantage of the vast library of smartphone apps without encountering the sparse interfaces that many of these apps exhibit on larger Android tablets. They reinforce the need for Microsoft to get a more touch-friendly version of Office onto Windows.

Taken together, the cheap devices show us the validity and fallacy of the path Microsoft started down with Windows 8. Indeed, Microsoft has one operating system running on disparate devices with different usage cases, but not one where the universal benefits of the platform benefit those platforms equally or even comparably.

That situation will be tested further in 2015 and beyond with Windows 10 as Microsoft doubles down on the motion of “one Windows” — folding in not only Windows Phone but classes of devices including products ranging from the realm of display-free Internet of Things to 80” multitouch displays. Microsoft hasn’t revealed many details of refinements it expects in its touch interfaces. However, and perhaps most importantly, it has communicated that it wants to end “the duality” that plagued Windows 8 and which led to neglect of the desktop in that operating system. The big bet is that a universal application model that spans desktop and tablet interfaces will attract more developer interest than just

But while that may be a better way to get today’s desktop Windows developers to reach over to touch, it doesn’t necessarily entice today’s iOS and Android smartphone and tablet developers — many of whom are heavily focused on mobile experiences — to bring those to an environment that even gracefully transitions to keyboard and mouse. That cheap Windows notebook bought this holiday has worthwhile upgrades in store, but the path is less clear for those small tablets and, even more importantly for Microsoft, Windows phones.