Why Microsoft’s Tablet Efforts Are Doomed

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.

Steve Ballmer at CES

Ballmer shows off HP slate at CES 2010 Photo: Microsoft

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.


9 Responses to “Why Microsoft’s Tablet Efforts Are Doomed”

  1. Adam Says:

    Creating content on a Windows 7 Tablet does not require a keyboard and mouse. I’m creating an interactive DVD using Adobe Encore, Premiere Pro, Photoshop, and maybe AfterEffects right now using a Windows 7 Tablet. I copied HD video straight over via USB and its Wacom stylus for input and control is far more accurate than any mouse or finger. Still I do use touch for multi-touch zooming/panning or accessing tools on the left side of the screen.

    What makes the touch-screen keyboard on Windows 7 only usable with a stylus? You know you can resize it to make it larger and thus very finger friendly?

    • swildstrom Says:

      I was referring specifically to a Microsoft executive talking about Office apps on a tablet. Graphics-oriented applications, such as Photoshop or Premiere are wonderful on a tablet, provided it has enough processing power to run them satisfactorily.

      On a slate display (10″ or less) the problem with expanding the soft keyboard to make it big enough for finger typing is that it then covers too much of the screen. Smart on-screen keyboards, especially the one on the iMac, strike a much better compromise by using a four-row keyboard that contains only the keys you really need for the context in which you are working. The presentation of keys subtly but significantly morphs between contexts–for example, the iPad keyboard has no spacebar when you are entering a URL since the space is not a legal character in an address and the room can be better used for other keys. The Windows keyboard is the same in all contexts and has the bad habit of appearing directly over the text-entry field.

      • Adam Says:

        So turn the Tablet to portrait mode and dock the keyboard to the bottom of the screen. That will make it so it never covers any of the program UI elements. Having the full real keyboard available with all keys (when I need it) is important for typing keyboard shortcuts even when my focus is not in a text field. Here’s a video showing how well it works with programs like Photoshop that are not designed for touch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eAIUHG1CPI As you can see docking the keyboard to the bottom keeps it out of the way, while also giving me a fully touch-friendly interface for accessing all of the tools via keyboard shortcuts I would normally use with a hardware keyboard. It’s really a nice solution considering Photoshop will never be designed to be finger-friendly.

        They Windows 7 touch keyboard does offer some context sensitivity though. For example, in the URL field, it autocompletes URLs and adds .com shortcuts. You still need the spacebar in the URL field since it doubles as a search field.

  2. coastcontact Says:

    It appears that Microsoft has lost its way because there is no “visionary” there to see the future. Sony has faces the same dilemma. Steve Jobs Jobs was duplicated in the founders of Google and Facebook. Steve Ballmer is an operations manager. Innovation was the keystone to Microsoft’s success.

  3. Turbogeek Says:

    I agree with everything your saying, however one thing I wonder is if microsoft is banking on better hardware technology to come along that can run the their bloated OS. They might be right too. In two years we could see 500 GB SSDs, new low power quad core mobile processors with integrated graphics and more RAM than you can shake a stick at. This will appeal to hardware manufactures as well that will market continual hardware upgrades to run windows.

    I expect to see a stripped down mobile version for their windows 8 OS and expand on the web based office product that could be more touch friendly for all mobile devices.

    • swildstrom Says:

      Assuming you are right about the hardware (though Intel has developed a bad habit of overpromising and underdelivering on low-power, high-performance x86/x64 processors), two years will leave Microsoft well behind the market. The same is true for Windows 8, which looks to be two years or so away.

      I will concede that Microsoft is making a lot more progress in cloud computing than in their core desktop efforts.

  4. Turbogeek Says:

    It will take at least two years for Microsoft to catch up to Apple and Google regardless of whether they wait for the hardware to improve or try to redesign their software.
    The windows phone OS might be the option that spans the gap. Haven’t tried it myself, so I’m not sure if it could be used for a tablet device or not.

    • swildstrom Says:

      Windows Phone 7 might be exactly what Microsoft needs. It is build on the solid foundation of Windows CE and has a pure touch UI. If Apple has proved one thing with the iPad (actually, it has proved many things), it makes far more sense to scale up to a tablet from a phone OS than down from a desktop OS.

      Unfortunately, Microsoft has taken the position, both publicly and in meetings with OEMs, that Windows 7, not Phone 7, is the OS for tablets. Maybe there’s a secret skunkworks somewhere in Redmond working on a Windows Phone 7 tablet, but I doubt it. Microsoft, unlike Apple, has long made a habit of being reasonably transparent about its product roadmap and at least for now, that roadmap does not include larger WP7 devices.

  5. Tom McCallum Says:

    Microsoft will fail in the tablet market as they will fail to recognise that what they need to do is provide a platform, not a product. Both Android and iOS do exactly this, the iPad tablet is just an extension of the platform, not a product in and of itself… as I blogged in August : http://mccallumsolutions.com/ipad-product-or-platform/

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