Can Microsoft pull its tablet technology together?

Summary:Will Microsoft take the wraps off a new line of ARM-based tablets next week? I have no inside information, but I sure hope so, because all of the pieces are in place for a device that can elbow the Kindle Fire aside and give the iPad a run for its money.

It is mind-boggling to consider that in February 2010, just a little over two years ago, the iPad was newly announced but had not yet shipped.

Today it's a juggernaut, seemingly unstoppable.

At the time of the iPad announcement, I predicted that it would succeed and anticipated the depth of the hole into which Apple was about to push Microsoft:

It’s clear that Apple has also been looking carefully at the technologies that Microsoft has been refining for the past decade, and I can confidently predict that Apple will do a much better job of implementing those features than any of Microsoft’s partners have done so far.

Why? Because Apple understands something that Microsoft has yet to figure out: Apps matter.

At Microsoft as at Apple, these big platform shifts take a long time. Apple was well along on the engineering work for its shift to Intel chips in 2000. The move wasn't announced for five more years. The iPad was envisioned in 2000, before the iPhone. It took a full decade to reach market.

So I'm as curious as anyone to see how far Microsoft can come with its new, bet-the-company tablet strategy, which may or may not be unveiled on Monday at a mysterious event in an undisclosed Los Angeles location.

Back in 2010, before the iPad had appeared outside of Cupertino and Walt Mossberg's office, I laid out what I thought Microsoft needed to do to create a worthy iPad competitor. Here's that two-plus-year-old list, with a few updates (in italics):

If I were making a list of what should be in any new slate PC powered by Windows, it would include the following:

  • A touch-optimized browser. IE8 is a good start. Now get rid of the unnecessary window frames and add some navigation features that make sense for someone who doesn’t have a mouse handy. Metro IE10 fits that bill perfectly and is a centerpiece app in Windows 8 and Windows RT .
  • An e-reader that works with multiple book formats. That partnership with B&N Nook seems like a pretty big deal in retrospect. With a native Metro-style Kindle app, that would cover a lot of book-buying/reading scenarios
  • A great media player. Again, Windows Media Center already has just about everything a slate PC needs. The new Music, Videos, and Photos apps still need work, but they are greatly improved in the Release Preview and have the potential for another great leap forward in performance and usability for RTM.
  • A touch interface for Windows Live. Windows Live Mail and Windows Live Photo Gallery are both excellent programs. What if you could select an alternate interface, with larger buttons, less window dressing, and a pop-up toolbar for editing tasks? See the Metro style unified Mail-Calendar-People-Messaging app, which does a great job with Exchange, Hotmail, and Gmail.
  • An easy connector for digital cameras and Bluetooth devices. Done. USB connectors and flash drive slots are mandatory in the new tablet form factors.
  • A file sync utility that allows you to copy and move files (especially digital music and photos) to and from other PCs and mobile devices. SkyDrive has grown far less complex, more usable, and has excellent hooks into the Windows 8 apps. It satisfies this criteria.

In short, the current elements that have publicly demoed on ARM-based Windows RT (and Windows 8) tablets match that core feature set nearly perfectly.

In that list, two things I didn't include are a connection to a fully stocked digital media store, which Windows tablets will have via Xbox Music and Video (R.I.P., Zune), and speech recognition ("Siri, is that feature important?").

My colleague Mary Jo Foley thinks that Microsoft's mysterious product announcement Monday in Los Angeles will be an ARM-based tablet, possibly Microsoft-branded. More importantly, she sees it as a competitor to the Kindle Fire.

I think she has a great idea, even if the timing is incorrect and Microsoft intros something completely different in Los Angeles on Monday.

I have both a Kindle Fire and a B&N Nook. Both have some thoroughly delightful features, and some that are frustratingly close to unusable. But here's the big difference between either of these devices and the iPad, in my opinion.

Both the Nook and the Fire are great e-readers. Having color is super important for reading magazines, how-to books (like my own Windows 8 Head Start), and any book that is primarily visual. None of those categories of content work well at all on a black-and-white e-reader.

I've sampled dozens of apps on the Android Kindle Fire and the Nook. Most of them feel like they came out of a clearance bin at the Dollar Store. They range from ghastly to meh in terms of usability, and so I wind up using almost none of them--even Angry Birds--on a regular basis.

I have yet to find a competent Exchange client on either platform. That makes email near worthless for me. (I can connect to Hotmail and Gmail, both of which are secondary accounts for my purposes).

In short, both of those products feel like fancy e-readers with color screens, reasonable (but not great) battery life, and the option to use the device as a tablet in a pinch. But I don't use either one when I want access to email, Twitter, or weather forecasts. I'm far more likely to open a notebook PC or just check my smartphone.

The built-in suite of Metro style apps for Windows 8 is what both Kindle Fire and Nook wish they had. I'm certain that the new Windows RT ARM-based tablets will get great battery life, and that the included apps will just work. If the ebook-reader software is of similar quality and can sync my Kindle and Nook purchases, the Windows device will become my full-time traveling companion.

Oh, and those tablets will include a full copy of Office 2013, too, fully touch-enabled.

I expect these devices to be companions to PCs, not replacements. That's the same role most iPads play today, and it seems to be working for Apple. Except iPads don't really work that well with PCs, and a Windows 8/RT tablet would.

The final measure of success, of course, is that the devices have to be as reliable and smooth as the iPad. That's a tall order for version 1 of a product as important as this one. But you can argue that Microsoft has been playing the long game (maybe the way-too-long game) with all this technology.

The touch support has been under steady development since 2000. The cloud-based services have more than a decade of often painfully won experience behind them. Microsoft has been shipping very solid speech recognition capabilities in Windows for nearly seven years.

What they seem to have now is a focus on delivering products that maximize the value of those technologies, with no hedging and few usability-crushing compromises.

I have no idea whether Microsoft will unveil a tablet that meets those criteria on Monday. I'll be paying close attention to the announcement and will report on them as soon as I can, in as much depth as possible.

Topics: Tablets

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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