Surface tension: The long, strange history of the Windows tablet

Summary:The launch of Surface Pro is Microsoft's most important attempt to build a tablet device. But the company has been trying to get this right for a long, long time.

...this time with something that actually looked good.

A video of a concept device known as Courier leaked showing a dual 7-inch screen booklet device with pen and multi-touch capabilities. On the back cover was a camera, with the device charged through an inductive pad.

Unlike the many other Windows tablet devices that were released and shouldn't have been, the Courier really should have made it into shops. However, its development appears to have stopped at the concept stage, despite the considerable excitement it generated as a result of its unusual form and slick design.

The dawn of the Slate PC... and the iPad

At CES in 2010, it was CEO Steve Ballmer's chance to reboot the Microsoft tablet PC once again, this time talking up a "Slate PC" form factor. Ballmer showed off three prototypes--none of which, alas, were the Courier--but rather devices from HP, Archos, and Pegatron.

Ballmer used his CES keynote to give the new hardware a boost: "We're talking about something that's almost as portable as a phone and as powerful as a PC running Windows 7. This emerging category of PCs really should take advantage of the touch and mobility and capabilities of Windows 7, and are perfect for reading, for surfing the web, and for taking entertainment on the go," he said.

But industry watchers were less impressed. "These slate devices were basically just full Windows 7 PCs in a small form factor with touchscreen functionality and no hardware keyboard. There wasn't anything particularly innovative about them, even though the hardware designs were very attractive," said Jason Hiner at the time

And then everything changed.

In early April 2010, Apple unveiled its iPad. The device became such a runaway success that for several years afterwards there was no tablet market--just an iPad market. Other hardware manufacturers looked on enviously.

After the iPad launch, Gates fielded a question from The Boston Globe about the iPad, responding: "Tablet computing is an innovation where Microsoft has been ahead every step of the way. So, you want to look at tablets and touchscreen and how students use those, that's a Windows phenomena."

Few would agree that the momentum was with Redmond, however--despite Microsoft's long heritage in tablet computing, it was Apple's tablet that grabbed the popular imagination and ran away with the market, helping tablet sales to outstrip those of laptops (see chart the chart from NPD DisplaySearch below).

tablet chart
The growth in tablet sales, via NPD DisplaySearch

Windows tablets had never managed to break out of their business niche. And now, what was worse--not only was the iPad being bought by consumers, it was also being bought by businesses.

Where did Microsoft go wrong?

Part of the problem for Microsoft was timing. A decade ago, even the most up-to-date hardware and components made tablets heavy to hold and clunky to use--tablet makers' aspirations were hobbled by the technology that was available to build them.

Hardware, combined with pricing, made it hard for tablets to succeed--they would be a tough sell for any company. But much of the problem was one of approach--an approach that Apple neatly swept away with the iPad: "Microsoft was trying to build a tablet touch or pen interface onto an operating system that was not designed to be used that way and with applications that are not designed to be used that way. Apple didn't take Mac OSX and add tablet features to it, they brought out a totally new operating system with totally new applications," Gartner research director Michael Silver says.

"Rather than think about these devices as PCs and the Swiss army knife approach the PC represented... what Apple did was think of this as a scaling up of the smartphone and the user experience paradigm used there," Tony Cripps, devices and platforms analyst at researchers Ovum, adds.

In other words, Microsoft's mistake was to assume that all tablets are PCs, and thus needed a PC operating system; an assumption at the heart of its insistence on using desktop Windows software to run tablets. After all, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Windows 8--a new era for Windows tablets?

The success of the iPad (and the iPhone), plus the Android devices at the lower end, has finally forced a much more audacious response from Microsoft.

It has turned to building its own devices, the Surface RT and Surface Pro--a change of pace for what has traditionally been a software company that left device making to others. That Microsoft has felt the need to build its own hardware is a reflection of how underwhelmed the company has been by the efforts of its partners--and how important the tablet market has become.

"There was a lot of scepticism around the idea of Microsoft getting into the hardware business. I think they needed to shake up their licensees as far as design and what was possible," said Cripps.

"When you look at the products they've created, they are reasonably innovative--in a time when it's very hard to distinguish one from another there is some genuine new thinking around Surface."

But the biggest change is inside. Windows 8 has placed the touch interface (previously known as Metro) at the heart of the OS for all devices, not just tablets.

That's a big change, and one that could make all the difference to the success of Surface. After a decade of trying to squeeze desktop software onto tablets, it's now software built with tablets in mind that is taking over the PC.

Topics: Tablets, iPad, Microsoft, Mobility, Windows


Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of

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