Can Microsoft Compete with iPad? Not Even Ballmer Knows

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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?

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