Microsoft has gone from calling tablets a "fad" to investing a considerable amount of R&D into discovering the way people use tablet computers. A recent Building Windows 8 Blog details Microsoft's foray into understanding human interaction with touch screens, and offers developers tips on designing their Metro apps for mobile users.

Since the inception of the iPad and iPhone, the modal nature of landscape and portrait applications has become pervasive. Apple simply dropped in an accelerometer and let developers have at it. But Microsoft has taken a different approach. According to the Windows 8 Blog, the team …
… spent a considerable number of hours studying people as they used tablet devices in our usability labs as well as in their own homes. We’ve watched people who were already familiar with tablets, and we’ve watched people new to these form factors get started, and we stayed in touch with them for months afterwards. We noted grip styles, body postures, hand movements, and interactions with a variety of apps, device placements, and orientations. We saw a wide spectrum of variability, and we listened to users identify the factors influencing their choices about body and device orientation.
What tablets were they using? Presumably the Windows 8 developer tablet, or something similar, but I have a feeling Microsoft observed some iPad users as well, especially since they "watched people who were already familiar" with tablet computers.

So what did Microsoft discover? Landscape mode applications lend themselves well to the standard world of computing. We're familiar with the wide-screen world and how to take in that kind of information. It's helpful for multitasking, at-a-glance consumption and watching movies. But when it comes to taking in large amounts of information, Microsoft recommends using the portrait mode, which allows users to get more information on one page and scroll less.

But Microsoft has also promised it didn't take a preference over a single mode, and that Windows 8 should be "ergonomically conformable in all orientations." This seems to add to the "no compromise" approach Microsoft has been promising with Windows 8.

Microsoft Visual Studio 11 automatically offers developers a live preview of how their applications work both in landscape and portrait, with no extra tweaks needed. Then developers can make adjustments based on how they think the application should function. Microsoft is pushing this any-orientation goal for a few reasons, but the big one seems to be because of the variety of screen sizes available with Windows 8 tablets: the traditional 4:3, like the iPad; a traditional wide-screen desktop, at 16:10; and the all-important cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio. In fact, according to the Building Windows 8 blog, there will be a follow-up post that discusses the different aspect ratios and how to accommodate them.

So here's the big question: Will all this work pay off? Can Microsoft do the impossible and actually create a version of Windows that runs on all tablets of all resolutions, shapes and sizes? Or will Microsoft's ambitious plans fall short? Believe it or not, I'm rooting for Microsoft on this one. If successful, the Windows 8 Tablet could be its own category altogether.