What Microsoft isn't saying about its iPad compete strategy

Summary:Some believe Microsoft is being coy about its slate plans. Others simply think the company is being clueless. I think the Redmondians are planting decoys, hoping they'll provide cover for missteps.

Some believe Microsoft is being coy about its slate plans. Others simply think the company is being clueless. I think the Redmondians are planting decoys, hoping they'll provide cover for missteps.

Here's my latest theory as to what's going on, regarding Microsoft and its solution for slates (or lack thereof). Over the past couple of months, Microsoft execs have gone from saying Apple's iPad is nothing but a crippled PC, to claiming that Microsoft and its partners have myriad iPad competitors ready to launch any day now. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said there'd be Windows 7 slates out in time for holiday 2010. And at the recent Computex conference, Microsoft execs crowed about the many Windows slates due to launch this fall.

If any of these slates were actually true iPad competitors, Microsoft would be only somewhat late to the slate party. This isn't the case (making me happier by the day that I decided to buy an iPad to use as my on-the-go mobile device, rather than waiting for my longed-for "WinPad.")

The "Windows slates" Microsoft showed at Computex aren't running Windows 7; they're running Windows Embedded Compact. That means they aren't going to be able to run Windows 7 apps and won't sport the Windows 7 user interface. Instead, each of these Embedded Compact slates will feature its own custom interface.

Meanwhile, the Windows 7 slates coming in time for this holiday season are going to be business-focused products. (HP execs admitted this recently, noting their coming Slate 500 device will be for business users. If there are other Windows 7 slates ready to launch this fall, I'd expect they also will be business-focused devices. These models will be PCs without lids; tablets without the stylus. They won't have the long battery life, touch-centric user interfaces or built-in app store capabilities that have made the iPad a success.

Microsoft's real iPad competitors aren't going to debut until 2011 -- I'd guess mid-2011 at best. Ballmer didn't state this plainly at last week's Microsoft Finanacial Analyst Meeting, but he dropped some hefty hints. Ballmer touted Intel's Oak Trail processors as being key to Microsoft's iPad alaternatives. The problem is Oak Trail chips aren't going to be ready until "early 2011." Once PC makers get them in hand, it will take them at a couple of quarters to build and test slates that use them.

I'm curious as to whether Microsoft will continue to try to steer its partners to use Windows 7 as the operating system powering these slates. My guess, as I told TechFlash's Todd Bishop last week, is Microsoft may relent and allow slate makers to use the touch-centric Windows Phone OS 7 on these devices. (Microsoft could still claim that these slates were running "Windows," since it is making sure to brand all of its operating systems as "Windows.")

Bottom line: "WinPads" are still about a year away, I'm predicting. Expect Microsoft execs to downplay the coming Windows Embedded Compact slates and start acknowledging that this year's Windows 7 slates are business-centric devices. Instead of risking another Kin debaucle (launching then pulling a misguided product at great cost), Microsoft is rethinking its answer to the iPad. Better late than lame....

Topics: Microsoft, iPad, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

About

Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

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