With iPad sales soaring off the charts, the tablet market is one that Microsoft cannot afford to ignore. But it may also be one in which it cannot bring itself to compete successfully. The result could be big problems for the future.
According to the New York Times‘ Nick Bilton, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will show off new Windows 7 slates at his Consumer Electronics Show keynote in early January. Even those with short memories may recall that Ballmer made a splash last year by featuring a Windows slate. That turned out to be the Hewlett-Packard Slate 500, which went from being a potential consumer blockbuster to a limited edition corporate product because of the severe deficiencies of Windows as tablet software. (Disclosure: I was a consultant to HP on the project.)
Will Samsung or Dell, Microsoft’s rumored partners, be able to do better than HP. It strikes me as very unlikely, because the real problem isn’t the hardware. And to the extent that hardware is an issue, it is because of the choices than Windows forces upon manufacturers.
Microsoft has been messing around with touch-based approaches to Windows since it introduced Windows XP Tablet PC Edition in 2002. The trouble is that in the intervening eight years, it has only added superficial changes to the Windows user interface to support touch. For example, the soft keyboard, an essential component of any touch system, is a the same facsimile of a physical four-row keyboard form 2002, and is really only usable with a stylus. While there are some handy touch features in the Windows 7 OS shell, such as pinch and stretch to zoom content within windows, applications, including Microsoft Office, remain resolutely mouse- and keyboard-centric.
When Apple first introduced the iPhone, it pretended that the software it now calls iOS was a version of Mac OS X. For developers, there was a bit of truth to this in that they could use the same tools and many of the same programming interfaces (APIs) as when writing code for the Mac. But for users, it was, happily, a lie. Apple wrote a totally new interface, Cocoa Touch, for devices that relied exclusively on touch for input. When the iPad came along, Apple tweaked things to optimize the UI and the built-in apps for the larger screen.
Microsoft could conceivably write a real touch-based UI for Windows, although doing so is a serious effort that would require a major commitment of development resources. Considerable energy would also have to be poured into touch-optimizing applications, especially Microsoft Office, whose availability is presumably a central reason to have a Windows 7 tablet. Third parties would have to do their part rewriting Windows programs for the new UI.
Even if all of that were done, you’d still be left with Windows, a huge, monolithic lump of an operating system. Its system requirements are daunting. It requires a reasonably fast x86 processor and at least a gigabyte of RAM, preferably two. It is full of features and services that are nothing but deadweight on a tablet. All of this is very rough on battery life, which makes Windows tablets very lucky to achieve half of the iPad’s 10 to 12 hours of use. Startup from sleep takes a good 30 seconds.
Microsoft seems to persist in the delusion that the heft of Windows is needed to do “real” work. Bilton quotes “a person familiar with the company’s tablet plans” as saying: “The company believes there is a huge market for business people who want to enjoy a slate for reading newspapers and magazines and then work on Microsoft Word, Excel or PowerPoint while doing work.” Reading Office documents works just fine on an iPad, or on many other devices. Creating them, if they are of any complexity, isn’t really work for a tablet because it requires more screen real estate and processing power than a lightweight device can deliver, not to mention a keyboard and mouse. But it really seems, from the tone of the comments, that senior executives at Microsoft have never actually used an iPad or Galaxy Tab, or, for an unhappy comparison, and HP Slate 500.
Until the Microsofties understand what is really going on in the tablet market, they cannot hope to make a dent in it. And that could be very serious trouble for the company.