Microsoft’s Slate: Exactly Unlike Apple’s Upcoming Tablet

So, Microsoft has unveiled a new tablet PC — a prototype made by HP, dubbed (not coincidentally) a Slate. Fake Steve Jobs suggests it ought to be called the “meh,” and he’s dead right, while the UK’s Telegraph said it could be a “major blow” to Apple, and they’re just dead wrong.

I’d like to laugh at this crazy last-minute pantomime display of “Me too!” (all dressed-up, it seems, as “Me first!”) but I can’t because the whole thing reeks of desperation.

In my personal blog yesterday I made some (not particularly original) predictions about Microsoft’s new tablet. I said it would fail, and that it would fail because it would run the full version of Windows 7 and require a stylus. My stylus prediction proved incorrect (so far; just you wait for the “Microsoft Slate PC Student and Business Edition” which will likely have a stylus and fold-out keyboard. That’s right, aka “a notebook”.)

Now, I know what the first comments down below will be; I’m a shameless Apple fanboy and this is pointless Microsoft bashing, yada yada… but while the former might contain an ounce of truth, this is by no means a pointless exercise. There’s good reason to study the Microsoft slate; while it doesn’t precisely tell us what to expect from Apple’s tablet, it does demonstrate what not to expect.

Chunky Fingers, Dinky Screens

A mixture of bad timing and poor UI design doomed Microsoft’s original Tablet PC vision. The hardware available in the early 2000’s was underpowered, overpriced, and remained that way through the end of the decade. (And I should know — I owned several tablet PC’s myself!)

Ironically, it was the one thing Microsoft could have fixed, the software, that proved to be the weakest link. Microsoft crowbarred-in a mostly-unmodified version of their desktop operating system, an OS designed with a keyboard and mouse in mind. Not a stylus. Certainly not a finger. If you ever tried holding a bulky tablet in one hand, brandishing a delicate stylus in the other, while doing anything other than sitting perfectly still and you’ll know why the whole thing was an exercise in error and frustration.

Apple avoided making that mistake. The iPhone’s software might be based on OS X, but you’d never know by looking at it. Its UI is perfectly suited for a chunky finger on a dinky little screen. I expect when Apple’s slate is revealed it will employ yet another version of OS X; something that lies between the iPhone’s UI and that of the full-fat, full-sugar, carb-rich desktop Mac OS X.

And I guarantee you will not see a single control element (button, tab, scrollbar and the like) migrate, intact and unchanged, from desktop OS X to tablet OS. Apple knows not to make that mistake. Microsoft does not; it’s loading Windows 7 — unmodified UI et al — onto its tablet. But this time there’s not even a stylus to help you. You gotta use your pinkies. The result — an awkward, practically unusable UI.

Ballmer very handily (pun intended) demonstrated this by fumbling about with the thing. His fingers weren’t particularly good at hitting the UI controls on the 7-inch screen that, due to its very form factor, rendered Windows controls as little more than diminutive dots.

We can only conclude Microsoft is making the same mistakes it made nearly 10 years ago with the first tablet PC’s. At least in 2002 it was doing something innovative.

Microsoft’s tablet announcement — just weeks before Apple’s — seems a desperate attempt to grab a little media attention and be the first to announce a tablet. Only, there’s nothing to gain in rushing to make this announcement, particularly not now, while it’s still only at prototype stage. The indomitable Andy Ihantko said it best on Twitter;

Title of Ballmer’s CES keynote: “Sorry, Guys…I Panicked And Told The NYT We’d Unveil A Tablet. You Have 72 Hrs To Build One.”

Worse: Microsoft has backed itself into a corner. This summer, in the wake of Apple’s iSlate (or whatever it’s called) if HP releases this tablet largely unchanged, it’ll get laughed out of the room. The alternative — massively changing it to more closely resemble Apple’s device — will be humiliating.

If we lived in Bizarro World, and Apple’s tablet turned-out to be just like Microsoft’s prototype, I’d be devastated. I’d question Apple’s creative strategy. I’d wonder if Jonny Ive was out of his mind. I’d definitely question Steve Jobs’ sanity. But you and I both know that when El Jobso takes the stage on the 27th and unveils his shiny new toy it will be breathtaking.

In the entire tech industry, the company with the requisite financial and engineering might to even come close to challenging Apple’s tablet is Microsoft. So, is this tired-old slate the best they can do? C’mon. For even the most ardent Microsoft fan, that’s simply embarrassing.

Who will buy this? The curious? Microsoft fanboys? Those who can’t afford an Apple slate? Or just masochists? Disagree vehemently with my fanboy ravings in the comments below.


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