Does Windows need more padding to fend off Apple's iPad?

Some of Microsoft critics -- but also some of its backers -- think Windows 7, as it currently exists, isn't enough of a response to Apple's newly introduced iPad. But few seem to believe the iPad was a death knell for the Windows ecosystem.

As the author of a blog that's "All About Microsoft," I watched yesterday's Apple iPad unveiling with interest -- as many Microsoft employees, partners and customers did, given that Apple is Microsoft's only viable competitor in the PC operating space.

Most interesting to me, after all the Twitter and live blogging dust settled, were the various calls for Microsoft's response. I read a few blog posts and tweets claiming Apple's move really boxed in Microsoft and its partners. More than a few Tweeters called for Microsoft to rush out its rumored next-generation slate, codenamed Courier, to blunt the iPad's impact. And then there was Nick Carr's "The PC Officially Died Today." (An odd way to look at things, given that the iPad is being billed as an addition to Apple's PC line-up, not a replacement for Macs.)

Microsoft "response" to the iPad is Windows 7. Windows 7 on slates, tablets and other small form factors created by various PC makers. Like the iPad, many of these devices provide touch capabilities, access to productivity apps and the ability to consume music, photos, video, ebooks and other kinds of content. Unlike iPads, many also include tools for creating content, too, plus various social-networking tools and built-in keyboards. Even netbooks -- supposedly beneath Apple, but as of yesterday, acknowledged by CEO Steve Jobs as an iPad competitor -- can do what the iPad can (and more), though not as "elegantly" or quickly.

Some of Microsoft critics -- but also some of its backers -- think Windows 7, as it currently exists, isn't enough of a response. It doesn't really matter whether CE, Windows or Windows Mobile inside (the iPad runs the iPhone OS), they argue. What matters more is the fact that Windows 7 isn't optimized for slate-like devices. Touch is enabled, but as a curiosity, not as the primary way a user would interact with the device, they say. Microsoft -- or some vendor -- needs to create a shell/user interface that sits on top of Windows 7 that turns it into a slate-centric machine, some claim.

I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft has a team somewhere working on that very task. (I asked recently and was told the Softies had nothing to say there.) Or maybe Windows 8's UI will be NUIfied (natural-user-interfaced) so that it makes touch more of a first-class input citizen. Or perhaps if and when the Windows Mobile team delivers a touch experience that people actually like (hello, Zune), some of that technology/influence could make its way into Windows...

Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, said he doesn't expect any major shifts from Redmond because of the iPad.

"As to what Microsoft will do, I suspect that they will continue to push their tools and languages, and that whether it is Windows 7 or Windows CE it is still Windows, even though for devices, I think that downplaying Windows elements such as the start button, menus, and other Windows UI components is the way to go," Cherry said. "When I look at an iPhone or an iPad, even I, an OS junkie, never say 'Wow, I want that phone it runs Apple OS X.' I have never bought a TiVo because it runs whatever OS it runs, I buy it because it really makes it easier to record the programs I want to watch.  I have looked at a Windows Mobile device and rejected it because I don’t want to begin navigation of the features from a start menu. What an unnecessary hassle particularly with touch."

I've written before that I'm not a fan of device convergence, as I'd rather have several different devices that  do one or two things well than one that does a bunch of things in an OK way. Will an iPad replace a PC? Not in its current incarnation. A mobile phone? Nope -- too bulky. An ebook reader? Unless it can beat Amazon's prices and offer a non-back-lit reading experience with better battery life, not in my book (or one New York Times writer's, either). It's a device without a compelling purpose.

In spite of those calls for Microsoft to retaliate, I'm sure the biggest response from yesterday's unveiling among Microsoft's execs and partners was a sigh of relief.... especially given that Microsoft is due to report its second quarter fiscal 2010 earnings later today.


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