In Search of Microsoft's Tablet Strategy

By  |  Monday, May 31, 2010 at 11:43 am

It’s Memorial Day in the U.S., but in Taipei, it’s time for Computex–the show that serves as an excellent freeze-frame of what the PC industry is excited about at the moment. Judging from the news so far, what it’s excited about is the iPad.

As Engadget is reporting, Asus is showing off something called the Eee Pad at the show–a vaguely iPad-esque looking device that runs Windows 7, packs an Intel ultra-low voltage CPU, and (like the iPad) claims ten hours of battery life on a charge. It’s safe to say that Asus still has heavy lifting to do to make the Eee Pad a reality: It isn’t planning to ship it until next year. By then, it’ll face competition from other Windows 7 tablets, such as this Computex debutante from MSI, not to mention Android tablets (MSI is showing one of those, too)

Both the Asus and the MSI look pretty much like Windows subnotebooks that have had their keyboards chopped off. Assuming that Windows-based tablets have a future, though, they’ve got to amount to something more than that. And they’ve got to amount to something which neither Microsoft nor any of its hardware partners have articulated so far.

Steve Ballmer’s CES keynote was only five months ago, but it’s already something out of an era that feels ancient. He showed off upcoming “Slate PCs,” including a much-hyped HP model which is now mysteriously missing. At the show, a Microsoft executive told me that Microsoft had no plans to customize Windows 7 any further for touch-screen devices. Meanwhile, the Microsoft “Courier” concept tablet which a lot of people loved turned out to be destined for the dustbin of concept PC history.

Even though Microsoft hasn’t had much to say about tablets lately, it would be stunning if its tablet strategy hadn’t evolved a lot since early January. Actually, given its track record in recent months, it’s probably just as well if it stays mum until it can show products which will definitely ship in our lifetimes.

So what’s Microsoft thinking? I see three possibilities:

  • It could continue with its current strategy of putting full-blown Windows 7 on tablets;
  • It could mimic Apple’s approach by building a version of the Windows Phone OS designed for bigger screens;
  • It could do both, by offering both full-blown Windows and mobile Windows for use on tablets–a little like the duality of Google’s Chrome OS/Android gameplan.

(There are probably other strategies Microsoft could persue, such as building a new OS utterly from scratch or hoping that the iPad is a fad; those seem unlikely, though.)

Trouble is, there are major gotchas with all three of the likely scenarios:

  • Even if the new Windows 7 tablets are solid from a hardware standpoint, they’re doomed to be unsatisfying compromises unless both the operating system and the apps that run on it are designed with touch in mind–not as an afterthought, but as the primary interface;
  • Microsoft clearly has its hands full just getting Windows Phone 7 out there as a phone OS;
  • Two mobile versions of Windows is a recipe for confusion.

If I were forced at gunpoint to guess what Microsoft will do, I’d venture that it’ll try possibility #3 and offer multiple Windows variants for tablets. This is a company that’s more comfortable placing multiple bets than letting everything ride on one gigantic gamble. I also think it’s going to be 2011 before Microsoft’s strategy is clear and products based upon it are widely available.

So what would get you excited about Windows tablets?


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9 Comments For This Post

  1. macsmarts Says:

    or the other option… Microsoft will buy HP which bought Palm so it can have a ready made mobile OS – having HP would allow it to brand it’s own computers. The long lead time on Win Mobile 7 is a ploy.

    Ok – I don’y believe any of this and realize part of it is ‘anti-trust impossible’ but still…

  2. John Baxter Says:

    A well-implemented “Metro” interface on a tablet would interest me. (I’ll likely have an iPad by then and might have a Windows Phone–interest probably wouldn’t turn into a tablet purchase.) Windows 7: no. I like Windows 7 on desktop and laptop).

    Tablets in general: without connectivity deals similar to what Apple managed (somehow) to arrange with AT&T–or fairly ubiquitous tethering by then–competing tablets have ongoing cost of ownership problems.

    Speaking of AT&T: fine with me, here. (Would be a problem were I to go to those places where AT&T is troubled. Hint: I haven’t flown anywhere since about 1993, and the airlines and government certainly aren’t working to change that. I used to enjoy flying–first in 1955.) I was going to leave Verizon for AT&T on first release of iPhone whether or not I bought iPhone, because of rotten Verizon coverage at home AND at the boss’ office AND at two restaurants I am often found at. That’s probably been fixed–if I start thinking of something that is only on Verizon, I’ll likely buy a “burner” and test coverage first. Verizon’s coverage maps say I’m covered. They said that when I left for bad coverage. AT&T nice 5 bars here at home.

  3. sfmitch Says:

    Microsoft sure doesn’t look good in the tablet (or smartphone) market.

    Steve Ballmer is doing an awful job of running Microsoft. I think a cardboard cutout of Bill Gates running Microsoft all these years would have left Microsoft in better circumstances than Ballmer.

  4. AlfieJr Says:

    you got it right Harry.

    the more direct version is, MS is dead in the water. and it’s already too late. killed not by Apple, but Android.

  5. Christy Says:

    Nice article…I enjoy your writing style. I haven’t really followed this particular market very closely, aside from just wishing that I owned one…so I’m curious to know others’ opinion re: whether MS’s biggest motive behind tablet campaign is a) a true response to Win user request/demand or b) a catch-up attempt in hopes of appearing as edgy as the competition. Or maybe a little of both?

  6. Tom B Says:

    Given that MSFT has no demonstrated expertise in operating systems, and the old IBM-ers who foolishly let Bill Gates in the door have all retired, I’d say things are looking pretty bad for Redmond.

  7. David Hamilton Says:

    The key element is how to get a tablet ‘app ecosystem’ going: The problem with the Win7 or combined approach is how to get existing Windows applications reworked for the display size and multi-touch.

    I don’t see how they can get developers to do that, not in any realistic timeframe. So the prospect of a whole load of poor Win7 apps seems, to me, to rule out Windows 7 and make the Windows 7 Mobile approach the only viable one.

    Of course, W7M is currently a long, long way behind the competition. Apple they might catch (on features, at least) but Android will make it tough for them.

    The only hope for Microsoft is that they can learn from (and avoid) some of the problems beginning to confront Android (platform fragmentation in versions and screen sizes, etc.)

  8. Peter Says:

    “So what would get you excited about Windows tablets?”

    Microsoft getting bought out by Apple.

  9. GiGo Says:

    Well, the ideas of a purely tablet style computer is stupid to me.

    I have been using an ASUS Eee Netbook T91 for the last 6 months. For those of you who don’t know what that is then will bring up the page on Amazon.

    Basically its the best of both. Netbook and Tablet. I use it mainly as a stock inputting machine (for an EPOS system so I fold the screen flat and use it as a tablet), but some times I want to use it to design a poster or do some ‘paper work’ (oh yeah not to mention unlike the iPad it can do more than one thing at once!), all I need to do is bring up the on screen keyboard or flip the screen around to reveal the keyboard and not to mention a touchpad.

    Why are people so obsessed with a full tablet system, they will be a fad, unless someone comes up with a great on screen keyboard, that will hide its self with out getting in your way!