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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