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Summary:

Microsoft wants us to believe its response to the iPad will be coming this year, but its message about the way forward is not clear at all. Based on recent happenings in the tablet area, it is understandable if we are confused on what to expect.

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Microsoft wants us to believe its response to the iPad will be coming this year, but its message about the way forward is not clear at all. The success of the iPad has forced CEO Steve Ballmer to grudgingly admit that Microsoft must provide an answer to that success, but he can’t provide details on how Redmond will actually do so.

Ballmer’s recent discussion about Microsoft’s tablet plans were anything but clear on Redmond’s plans. He repeatedly referred to Windows 7 as the platform for upcoming iPad competitors, but didn’t offer any details on how that platform can work with touch tablets. The only real Windows 7-based slate that has been publicly shown, the HP Slate, was reportedly cancelled by HP but then recently appeared as a tablet for HP’s enterprise customers. But it won’t compete with the consumer-focused iPad.

Microsoft made a showing of tablets in June at the Computex trade show, to promote the launch of the Windows Embedded Compact (WEC) platform. But WEC tablets can not run Windows 7 programs, so consumer tablets based on WEC wouldn’t run existing apps. That won’t compete with the iPad, either.

The only solid statement that Microsoft made about its plans is that Intel’s upcoming Oak Trail processors would play a big role in its plan to compete with the iPad. Oak Trail is the next generation Atom chipset used in netbooks, and it will be smaller, more battery friendly and run cooler than current processors. The problem with relying on the Oak Trail information is one of timing — the processor won’t be out until early next year, and since partners then need a good half year to build products, we’re looking at late 2011 for any of Microsoft’s partners to have a tablet to compete with the iPad. That will be too late, as Apple will be firmly entrenched in the consumer tablet market by then.

The recent licensing of ARM technology by Microsoft may play a role in future tablet products. The company may intend to produce a version of Windows 7 to run on ARM hardware, which would be a good fit for tablets. Developers would have to produce new versions of Windows apps to run on this new platform, but Microsoft could help in that effort. Touch operation from Windows Phone 7 could be incorporated into the ARM version of Windows to make it a better fit for tablets.

This murky outlook demonstrates clearly the disadvantage Microsoft has over Apple. With its dependence on partners to make new products, Microsoft cannot predict exactly what products their partners will produce, or when they might arrive. Apple does everything itself so it has no such burden, and that’s Microsoft’s real difficulty in competing with Cupertino.

The real competition must happen on the consumer side, as that is where the iPad is going strong. Windows 7 is not designed to be a consumer platform running on touch tablets, and it would need a radical change in its design for it to be competitive. Windows Embedded Compact might be the best path for this, as it can be tailored to the form factor and intended uses, but it would require an app ecosystem to cut into iPad sales.

Related content on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d): Can Anyone Compete With the iPad?

  1. I go back to one of my original arguments. Microsoft should build its own mobile platform — handsets and tablets. It seems that building a road map that the company can commit to is difficult at best. This mainly due to the fact that Microsoft is OEM dependent.

    Many will argue that — this would be a disastrous move on the part of Microsoft. It would force the OEMs to retaliate. I have no data either way on the argument. My thought is that Microsoft needs to take massive action — otherwise they will lose position in the mobility landscape.

    As evidence I point to the XBOX. No, Microsoft did not build it — directly — but they had a controlling interest in the platforms build.

    As such it has done well — EDD for FY10 Q4 has generated $528 million in revenue.

    -10.3 million Xbox 360 consoles sold
    -Xbox Live membership surpassed 25 million

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  2. I don’t think it’s only Microsoft that has been wrongfooted by the iPad. I’m thinking of all those ARM-based Smartbooks that were being promised about 18 months ago. These were to be netbook-like devices that would run all day and would be highly adapted for 3G connectivity. I’d still like such a device, but I feel the window of opportunity for them has closed. I suspect not many manufacturers are pursuing that concept with much enthusiasm now – at least not for mass markets.

    For my part, handwriting recognition would be a big plus with a Windows 7 based tablet. (Sad to say, handwriting recognition in Windows still isn’t good enough for this to become a really popular feature.)

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  3. I don’t agree with the distinction everybody seems to be making between “consumer” and “corporate” devices. This is superficial at best. Whether the operating system, the GUI, the hardware design and implementation ect. are tailored to serve mobility have nothing to do with whether you consider yourself a consumer or a corporate user. The question of which platform, which approach, which philosophy serves the end user best has a universal answer. The rest are details that will eventually be taken care of by software development…

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  4. You know one thing the Kin proved is that there comes a point where the shareholders are better off if you just take the money you were going to spend on a tom fool idea and give it to them as a dividend instead.

    After 10 years hasn’t Microsoft reached that point with Tablet PC’s?

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  5. No, Microsoft absolutely cannot compete with the iPad. This is a “magical device” that consumers and corporations are figuring out new uses for DAILY ! The iPad is exploding in the educational, medical and insurance industries and more to come.
    Consumers are in love with the pad and all 4 million owner continue to spread the word about how revolutionary this device really is. It sales lead will only increase. Microsoft cannot stop it. Also remember by the time Microsoft and all those Android contenders ship their stuff the Apple will have moved on the new and improved iPad 2 (or possibly 3). So NO WAY JOSE, those Redmond lackeys don’t stand a chance. And don’t even get me started on Windows 7 which does not mix with touch at all.

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  6. Apple’s vertical control is good for “jumping the chasm” to a new paradigm, but once the chasm is jumped, competition is better at monopoly for giving customers what they want.

    It is not clear whether the competitive environment will be Windows or Android. Now that Android has pulled ahead of the iPhone in smartphone sales, people will remember that Apple’s approach has stumbled before.

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  7. The problem here that Microsoft faces is the same one it faces with WP7. Any successful Windows tablet would require a mobile-optimized version of Windows that would break compatibility with existing Windows applications, just as WP7 breaks compatibility with existing Windows Mobile apps.

    Limited to no apps is a death knell to any platform these days, just ask Palm. iOS has a huge catalog of apps and a burgeoning community of developers eager to develop on the platform. Apple made a smart move making sure existing iPhone and iPod Touch apps would run on the iPad, but there were thousands of iPad-native apps available at launch because of their strong developer backing.

    Microsoft just doesn’t have any of this. Interest in WP7 development is lackluster at best, and without an existing developer community to lean on, introducing a true tablet-optimized version of Windows would be a trainwreck.

    The only alternative is to follow HP’s suit and market Windows tablets at the enterprise, catching sales from a sector that will forgive flaws in the UI and overall experience for the ability to work with legacy applications and such. I can’t see a consumer-focused Windows tablet gaining anything but negligible market share at this junction.

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  8. Two reasons why Windows 7 tablets will fail.

    Point 1. Windows 7 is too complex and bloated for a tablet.

    Point 2. Windows 7 is mouse based which leaves touch wanting.

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  9. Angelina J hit the nail on the head – consumer AND business users are finding more uses daily for the iPad. Just one week ago I was touting that my iPad, with DocsToGo, Dropbox, iAnnotate PDF, Note Taker HD, and Goodreader was a complete netbook class replacement. All I missed was a file manger to browse our network files. Then today (don’t know why I’m so slow) I discovered FileBrowser, and life is now good. Granted, it is slow scrolling through long subdirectories, but now I can pull any of our server documents into DocsToGo or iAnnotate PDF on the fly. Total software investment: maybe $35. Value=priceless. No, it is not the best at anything by a long shot (compared to a fully loaded tablet with OneNote – except perhaps for size, weight, battery life, instant on, cheap software, video performance, software speed, oh well… I think you get my point). Every time I think it is “crippled” or “falls too far short” of what I need, another developer delivers a crackjack solution in a light-weight yet powerful app. That term “app” is the true key – DocsToGo is no MS Office 2007, but it doesn’t need to be. If I need to write the great American novel (or Supreme Court brief) I darn sure need to be using an enterprise class notebook or desktop – but if I’m reviewing a draft, iAnnotate PDF gives you a good shot at a PDF printout of that draft. Around here, I’d say “don’t leave your office without it.”

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  10. I know that at least Microsoft Research can some up with some competitive products. Too bad the rest of Microsoft’s bureaucracy ruins it for all of us because they won’t actually make those products happen.

    If they wanted to compete, they would’ve thrown their full weight behind Courier, and they didn’t-despite much applause and general surprise by the blogosphere that Microsoft apparently CAN innovate, after all. It was a massive opportunity-all wasted.

    The sad part about all of this is that the only tablets that are actually useful for me all inevitably run Windows XP Tablet PC Edition or later. The Kno might become the first exception, but dual 14″ screens make for far more weight and bulk than I would tolerate.

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