Are tablets the tombstone for Microsoft?

Some say they spell doom, but history suggests otherwise

Ten years ago, I was covering CES for GCN and, typical for those times, Microsoft’s Bill Gates delivered the keynote address. This was supposedly the year of the tablet PC, and many of the media events I got invited to that year were to show off new tablets. Every company seemed to have one. Even mostly monitor companies like ViewSonic were getting into the swing with brand new models. There was a tablet for everything from business to movies to gaming, and the world looked to going the way of the slate.

Bill Gates even proclaimed in that same keynote that tablet sales would soon outstrip those of laptop PCs and, within five years, desktop PCs.

That hasn’t happened. Microsoft’s Tablet PC OS for the most part failed. Many of the companies that paraded out new tablets just as quickly, but with much less fanfare, discontinued their march to tablet glory.

So it was with great interest that I read a proclamation in InformationWeek that, because tablet PCs had finally reached their tipping point, whatever that is, Microsoft was doomed, because many tablets don’t run Microsoft’s OS these days.

If it turned out to be true, it would be quite ironic. Bill Gates dreamed of a tablet PC empire 10 years ago, only to be buried by tablet PCs running non-Microsoft operating systems a decade later. It’s practically a Greek tragedy.

But it won’t happen. To see why, we have to look at why tablet PCs failed the first time around. There were two types of tablets, slates and convertibles. Slates were pure tablets, with no physical keyboard. Convertibles looked like laptops but could be converted into tablets. Although convertibles were heavy, people preferred them to slates because they didn’t want to give up their keyboard security blankets.

Eventually, users discovered that they were always using them in notebook form, so there was no need to pay extra money for a convertible in the first place. It’s kind of like buying a convertible car and then never putting the top down. It’s just a waste of money.

The bigger threat to the notebook market most likely will come from netbooks. Think about it: Computer users that just check e-mail and surf the Web probably aren’t going to jump into the tablet market. They are going to spend a paltry $200 or $300 and get a perfectly functional netbook. And users who need high-end graphics or power will stick to laptops or even desktops since tablets don’t offer that raw power. What’s the advantage to dropping your keyboard other than a very tiny savings in weight? And incidentally, almost every netbook, notebook and PC we tested in the lab this year had some form of Microsoft OS on it. Only the Apple products came with different operating systems.

I like tablet PCs, but they are a niche market at best. Goldman Sachs says tablet PC sales will increase 500 percent next year while traditional PC sales will only increase by 8 percent. But, even if it’s true, that still won’t change the market.

You have to look at the starting points. PCs are close to saturation in the United States, and tablets are really just starting out again. A 500 percent sales increase does not put them anywhere close to the rest of the computer industry. It wouldn’t if they had a 5,000 percent increase. When you remove iPads from the picture, tablets barely even have a toehold.

InformationWeek is saying that Microsoft’s days are numbered, but frankly, I don’t see it. Not in the near future anyway, and not because of tablets. Even if tablets do take off, many will probably run a Microsoft OS. The few tablets we tested in the lab this year, like the Motion Computing J3500, had a Microsoft OS. Again, only the Apple products didn’t. Of course, mobile phones mostly don’t run Windows Mobile at the moment, but a phone isn’t a tablet PC and thus isn’t part of this discussion.

My prediction is that if we wait another 10 years, we will find pretty much the same dispersion in the market in terms of computer types as we do now. Tablet PCs may very well grow market share, though their past performance might suggest otherwise. And Microsoft will still be very much around and anyone who says otherwise is either fooling themselves or doesn’t have a real grasp of the short but interesting history of the computer industry, which we are likely doomed to repeat. 


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Wed, Dec 22, 2010

Tablets will not be the end to Microsoft’s reign but they will certainly be a contributing factor. But tablets are only a temporary step to the evolutionarily melding of the desktop/laptop computer and mobile device. The mobile environment created by Droids and Iphones, combined with introduction of cloud computing are the signs of a new era that may signal the end of Microsoft’s dominance.
The next logical steps for the mobile world’s evolution is access to cloud computing environments, accessories/innovations that enhance and speed the user interface, and sufficient onboard storage and computing power. With these innovations, the desktop and laptop are rendered obsolete and will virtually eliminate the market for Microsoft products.
Those hackers now so proficient in unlocking their Iphones and writing/loading unauthorized apps are the darwinistic descendents of the ‘80s and ‘90s computer hacker/programmer. Their proficiency will be embraced by the technological world as the basis of programming and development in the new computing world. Theses facts, combined with Microsoft’s clear inability to gain a foothold in the mobile world marketplace, are the signs of the end of Microsoft’s dominance in the computing community. Just like when the end of the mainframe computing era created a near death experience for IBM, Unisys, and Honeywell, the end of the desktop computing era will generate a like experience for Microsoft.

Wed, Dec 22, 2010 Doug Mid-Atlantic

The Reason that Apple has a significant lead on the Tablet market is that they found a niche in people's need - a balance in Design, speed, weight, and usability all with a focus on getting the right functionality into people's hands at the right cost. How people would get that functionality and use it came first and later married the hardware - Apple Style to it. Drive the right apps -easily and within means and the platform will get used. PC's and corporate america had this same business driver. Apple gets this and has built an empire on this business model. Microsoft needs to change but dont count them out - they have brilliant agility and ability to respond. If they dont - we will see a new king in the market - remember DEC and Compaq ? January is the launch of Appstore for MAC OS ...it will be interesting to see the story unfold.

Wed, Dec 22, 2010

"Patience! ... Microsoft's Tablet PC and O/S was ahead of it's time ... the Apple Tablet just cannot do all those things.." Pluhleeze! The "Apple Tablet" (AKA iPad) does all those things and more simply. For example, try "iAnnotatePDF", which I use to, um, annote PDFs in every way imaginable (highlight, annotate, draw on, etc) using my finger and pop-up keyboard. Spreadsheets and documents are easily edited. Hopefully newer tablets/slates/pads with *dedicated* OSs (iOS, Linux flavors, WM7, etc) will provide even more, but the iPad is a breakthrough for function.

Mon, Dec 20, 2010 Joe Gurley DC

I am a new owner and user of the Hp TouchSmart tm2 tablet pc. I've previouly own tablet computer and didn't like them. They were very frustrating and limited in operation and functionality. My new Hp TouchSmart tablet however while a little heavy is a dream to operate with the power of a full blown laptop. I use it for inventory using the Ms Excel program to develope and to accurately maintain a spradsheet type databse. I use it in tablet form with a barcode reader and so far it has improved my accuracy and job performance 100%. It is a beautiful thing and I could not keep this job without it! Thanks for listening

Fri, Dec 17, 2010 Baldlars Pacific Northwest

7 years before Bill's tablet announcement, there was another failed product that sort-of fell in the tablet/PDA realm ... it was the Apple Newton MessagePad (MP). At the time, Bill took a real interest in the Newton ... remember, Bill and MS have never been very innovated ... they usually take existing products, make them better and marketed the hell out of them - that includes products like DOS, Windows, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and just to name a few. There's good chance that Flight Sim actually originated from MS.

Anyway, the Newton was in production for 6 years. It sported a reflective black and white touchscreen with a resolution of 336 x 240, PCMCIA card slot for expansion and Infrared port for communication between MP's. The main capabilities of the device was its communications and organizational features. It could fax messages, send e-mail, had applications to organize names, dates, phone numbers, etc, printing, wireless paging and perhaps the most important of all it could supposedly read and recognize handwritten words on the screen via a program called Graffiti.

Unfortunately for Apple, many of these "apps" didn't work very well. After the product was killed, some members of the Apple Newton project team went on and started a company called Palm.

Last comment - I think the netbooks will go the same way as the Newton - example: my employer will no longer allow employees (there are some 14,000 employees) the purchase of a netbook. But they do allow iPhones and iPads.

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