Where is the Microsoft tablet?

Microsoft's tablet computer strategy may delay debut of a Windows-based device until late 2012

Less than a year after deploying the original iPad tablet, Apple will make a second iteration available in stores at the end of this week: the sleeker, internally beefier iPad 2. Meanwhile, Google and its original equipment manufacturer partners will be flooding the tablet market this year with Honeycomb devices using the Android 3.0 operating system And Research In Motion will release the BlackBerry PlayBook in the next month or so and even Palm has been resurrected via Hewlett-Packard’s webOS TouchPad, coming this summer.

Who's missing?

Most federal employees seem to be waiting for Microsoft to release a tablet to compete with Apple and Google. Feds trust Microsoft and they like the  interoperability it can offer across the enterprise. In contrast, Apple is not focused on the business enterprise per se, and Android still represents the Wild West of mobile operating systems, a problem (for now) in risk-averse federal IT departments.

Even so, a true Microsoft tablet does not appear to be coming any time soon. Rumors about a debut have floated in the last month or so from various analysts, including reports from Bloomberg and ZDNet that the Windows 8 road map called for tablets in 2012, around the back-to-school season.

The tablet is apparently not going to be Windows Phone 7 based but rather an iteration of Windows 7 or 8 that would mix features from Windows Phone and Windows 7 to run on ARM-based systems-on-a-chip (SOC) processors. Microsoft said during the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show that the SOCs would be supported in the next version of Windows.

Microsoft’s tablet strategy seems to be the opposite of Apple’s plan, a form of bottom-up development. During the iPad 2 announcement Apple CEO Steve Jobs referred to the iPad as “post-PC.” On the other hand, Microsoft appears to see tablets as an extension of the PC, just in a different form factor. That’s why all of the slate devices that Microsoft and its OEM partners have produced thus far have been based on Windows 7, not Windows Phone 7.

Tablets are not a different category for Microsoft, as Jeff McKee, senior director of OEM product management, said at recent Microsoft Public Sector CIO Summit.

“We view slates as another PC and so we have netbooks and slates,” McKee said. “We don’t view this as a separate category for Microsoft. So we are putting the full version of Windows 7 on these products. It is not a reduced version. Part of our strategy is to take this client operating system with all the benefits of app and device compatibility and have it come down to smaller screen size . That’s one of the reasons we announced the system-on-a-chip in ARM.”

So while Microsoft remains standing on the foundation of Windows 7, all the other players in the tablet space are going the other way, taking smart phone operating systems and rebuilding them to the tablet form factor.

What it really comes down to for Microsoft is a goal to keep from fragmenting its operating systems more than necessary and to keep up the profit margins for Windows on PCs. Microsoft can also roll out its Microsoft Embedded Compact product that was announced on March 1 that can function in tablet environments but will be more focused on niche OEM partner services such as healthcare.

While there are devices running Windows 7 on a tablet form factor, none do it very well, including offerings from ASUS and Hewlett-Packard such as the HP Slate 500 tablet. Windows 7 incorporates multi-touch capabilities and runs on x86 processors from Intel and AMD. In doing so, it lacks the appeal of multi-touch at the core with ARM processors capable of using up to 95 percent less battery energy.

Then there was the Microsoft Courier, a book like dual-tablet device that had two seven-inch touch screens hinged together that could supposedly support both finger and stylus inputs. The Courier, after much hype and expectation, was eventually taken out of development and retired before coming to market.

Tablets are breaking into the PC market, a trend that is reflected by market analyst Gartner to downgrade its PC forecast last week to reflect the declining market.

Even with the slower pace of new technology adoption at the federal level, Microsoft has put itself well behind in the tablet market in such as way that it may find it difficult to catch up.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.

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