Microsoft was one of the first companies to deliver tablet PCs back in the 1990s, but those early Stylus-based devices never caught on.
Nearly 20 years later, Apple's touch-enabled iPad has won the hearts and minds of gadget freaks and Microsoft wants to get in on that action. And yet, the company's timing and technology may still not be right.
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Microsoft is reportedly working to adapt Windows for today's version of tablets – lightweight, finger-touch enabled devices based on low-power ARM processors – but an appropriate version of Windows won't be available for a few years, according to a recent Bloomberg report.
With Apple iOS, you can integrate data and apps across all Apple platforms. It is a seamless experience for the user that Microsoft doesn't offer.
Gartner Inc. Analyst
Microsoft is expected to discuss plans for a Windows tablet at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2011 this week, where Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will give a pre-show keynote address Wednesday evening. There will be a handful of sessions on smartphones and tablets during CES, but descriptions of those sessions on the event website do not mention Windows. In the past, Ballmer used the CES keynote pulpit to launch major products including Xbox and Windows Vista.
Microsoft's trouble with tablets
Microsoft has introduced various forms of tablet PCs since the 1990s. In 2002 it launched the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, a "Stylus" pen based device that let users write on the screen and download content to Word or to email. In recent year, the company has also reportedly worked on a pen and touch-screen booklet called the Microsoft Courier, but it killed that device before it was ever released.
Microsoft's tablet PCs never took off the way Apple's iPad has, probably because it provided limited capabilities and didn't offer the Web-browsing and applications available on the iPad.
David Reynolds, a systems manager with the Rhode Island Blood Center in Providence, R.I., said one of the non-profit organization's executives used the Windows XP tablet and currently uses the IBM Lenovo tablet PC running Windows 7 for a laptop and the Apple iPad.
What differentiates Microsoft's tablets from Apple's iPad is size, ease of use, and the ability to provide "fast and immediate gratification," Reynolds said.
"Those [old Windows] tablets were bigger; basically a laptop with a touch screen, and they were far less responsive than the iPad," Reynolds said. "You had to sit there and wait for Windows to boot up, versus the iPad…[which] turns on right away. A quick swipe of the finger and you read your email and surf the web."
Microsoft has to come up with a similar ARM/ tablet-friendly version of Windows because that's the way the PC market is going, said Leslie Fiering, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, Inc.
"The thing Apple made blindingly obvious with iPad is that there is a place for a simple OS and lightweight apps, but Microsoft is not in a position to meet that demand right now," Fiering said. "Windows as it exists today is a very heavy OS, in terms of cost, in terms of the power it draws, in terms of the expensive components it requires and complexity."
Windows on ARM, touch screen tablets
News that Microsoft is working on an ARM-version of Windows surprises many because Microsoft has been loyal to Intel and x86 chips. But smartphones and tablets such as the iPad are based on ARM chip technology since those chips consume less power, so Microsoft has to work with ARM.
But putting Windows on an ARM-based tablet could be described as putting an elephant on a Segway. Microsoft has to remove the Windows features that tablet users won't need so that Windows will be able to run fast and smooth on the latest slim tablets.
"Microsoft wants to have a lot of features in everything, but people aren't using those features. They focus on things that don't really matter to people that much, but they are weak with power management, and that matters to people," said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft. "They are trying to come up with a version of Windows that won't suck the power out of the device it runs on."
That said, Microsoft already has Windows Embedded CE for ARM-based phones: Windows Phone 7 is built on that, so it won't be a stretch to come up with a new version of Windows for ARM-based tablets, Cherry said. Microsoft could also adapt its Windows mobile operating system for tablets, the way Apple adapted iOS for iPads, and that could reduce its time to market, Cherry said.
But even if Microsoft adapted its mobile OS for a tablet, the lack of synergy between different Windows devices could remain a problem for Microsoft, Gartner's Fiering said.
"We have Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7, and they are two different worlds. Windows Phone 7 doesn't communicate with other version of Windows, and that leaves a big hole that Microsoft has to fill," she said. "With Apple iOS, you can integrate data and apps across all Apple platforms. It is a seamless experience for the user that Microsoft doesn't offer."
In addition to offering a similar, across platform experience, Microsoft also has to do a significant amount of testing to run existing programs on new versions of Windows, and it will also take time to untangle the interdependencies built into Windows. In fact, Microsoft has been working on a modularized version of Windows, called MinWin, for many years. There has been speculation that MinWin will be available with a client hypervisor in Windows 8, which is due out sometime in 2012, but Microsoft hasn't confirmed that information.
Can Microsoft compete?
It's going to be difficult for Microsoft to enter a market that has mature and popular products. For example, Google's Android OS for tablets version 3.0 is due out this March, and Android-based tablets similar to iPad will come from Toshiba and Motorola. And when the 1.0 version of Microsoft's tablet OS appears in two years, the Apple iOS for iPad will be far ahead.
Coming to the party late is nothing new for Microsoft -- they do it all the time and they also undercut existing products with lower prices. The company's huge installed base will surely help it gain access to customers.
While the odds may be against Microsoft in the tablet market, can the software company afford to not come out with a product? Directions' Cherry said Microsoft would be better served by simply providing Windows and Microsoft applications for existing tablets such as iPad, which can easily serve as virtual desktop access devices.
"If I were them, I would make an RDP client for the iPad, or make it so users could use Office 365 with Safari, or SharePoint through Safari, so that people could be using Microsoft Windows on Apple devices," Cherry said.
Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment earlier this week.