Can Microsoft close the app gap with Apple's iPad?

Can Microsoft close the app gap with Apple's iPad?

Summary: Microsoft and its partners have been shipping Tablet PCs for nearly a decade. And yet when the Apple iPad ships in a few months it 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. Here's what Microsoft has to do to catch up.

Update 1-Feb, 3:30PM PST: This post has been revised since its initial publication. See the note at the end of the post for details. I've owned a succession of Tablet PCs over the past roughly seven years, nearly as long as they've been around. In fact, I'm composing this post on a Dell Latitude XT2 running Windows 7. That hardware/software combo supports multi-touch in addition to accepting input from a pen. So when Apple announced the iPad last week, I looked at it from a slightly different perspective than most. 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. Nearly eight years after its introduction, the Tablet and touch technology in Windows is nothing short of spectacular, especially the parts that recognize handwritten input. And yet it's still nearly impossible to assemble a full suite of Windows apps that were designed to work well on a touch-enabled PC. In a few months, when iPads are actually shipping, we'll all be able to compare the two platforms for ourselves. Meanwhile, we can look at what Apple has announced and what it has already accomplished with the iPod Touch and iPhone and make some pretty easy projections. I certainly hope that Microsoft and its partners are already doing exactly that. On its iPad Features page, Apple goes to great pains not to refer to Tablet PCs at all. The introductory text is circumspect, in fact, immodestly asserting that "you can do things with these apps that you can’t do on any other device." But if you look at the metadata for that page, you see a more pointed comparison: "With its revolutionary Multi-Touch screen, and its ability to run thousands of apps, iPad can do thousands of things a tablet PC or e-reader can’t." Like I said, apps matter. Tablet and touch features in Windows 7 are secondary to the underlying OS, and developers have been consistently ignoring them for years. Even today, apps that are built on the latest Microsoft technology, like the Seesmic Look client for Twitter, are blissfully unaware of touch features. On my Tablet PC, I can call on a handful of apps that work reasonably well with touch gestures. Internet Explorer 8 is exemplary, with support for two-finger panning, scrolling with simple flick gestures, and resizing of photos and web pages with the now-familiar pinch gesture. The Office 2010 beta is also fully touch- and ink-aware, especially OneNote, which could be the centerpiece of any slate PC. Amazon's beta release of the Kindle for PC app allows you to turn pages easily with gestures, although it doesn't allow for ink annotations.

Windows Media Center, with its large buttons and simple full-screen interface, is a showcase app on a PC that uses a slate form factor. You can scroll through its main menu with the swipe gesture and navigate with gestures through your media library.

Those exceptions aside, most built-in Windows programs are inadequate on a touch-enabled platform. Many third-party apps don't work well on a touch-enabled PC either. Google Chrome, for example, has no support for any touch features, even though its minimalist interface would be ideal. Firefox and Safari do a much better job of recognizing gestures. The popular TweetDeck client for Twitter is also frustrating to use on a Tablet or touch-enabled PC. The only way to navigate through columns is using tiny scroll bars that are nearly impossible to hit accurately with a normal-sized finger. So what Apple is doing right with the iPad is insisting that the only apps you'll be able to install will be those that are designed from Day 1 with full multi-touch support, either for the iPad itself, as Apple is doing with its base software package, or for the iPhone and iPod Touch. On the PC platform, companies like HP and Dell are trying to cope with the app gap by including their own touch-enabled software for new consumer PCs. I've been using an HP TouchSmart and a Dell Studio One for several months now and will have more to say about both companies' approaches later this month. But they shouldn't have to do that. Microsoft should already have a full suite of touch-enabled apps for work and play. 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.
  • An e-reader that works with multiple book formats.
  • A great media player. Again, Windows Media Center already has just about everything a slate PC needs.
  • 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?
  • An easy connector for digital cameras and Bluetooth devices.
  • 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.
The killer feature that Tablet PCs have for me is the ability to enter handwritten notes in programs like OneNote and to use handwriting as an alternative to input from a virtual keyboard. What I'd really love to see for the next generation of Windows PCs is a set of universal navigation tools that make it easy to start and switch between programs. The Windows 7 taskbar works great on a PC with a wide screen and a mouse, but it's not so fun in portrait mode when program icons spill over into a second or third row. And I hope Microsoft is working on these improvements now, because you know that Apple is already working on their second-generation iPad.

Update: This post has been revised since its initial publication, in which I erroneously criticized Windows Media Center for its lack of touch-screen support. You can indeed use gestures with Windows Media Center in Windows 7, as I have ascertained with additional testing. It didn't work when I tried previously, which might have been an issue with the drivers or the hardware. But as Microsoft's Charlie Owen noted in the comments below, the Media Center team invested a great deal of effort in making touch features work with Media Center and they deserve credit for that effort and the excellent results. My apologies for the original error.

Topics: Windows, Tablets, Software, Operating Systems, Mobility, Microsoft, Laptops, Hardware, Apps, Apple

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  • M$ is braindead anyway

    Only Linux & OSS can make the right apps for the tablets.
    Since Gate$ left M$ they can't even come up with a good evil ideea.
    Linux Geek
    • ...

      [i]Only Linux & OSS can make the right apps for the tablets.[/i]

      Have they yet?
    • The only gap out there

      ... is M$' ability to hype sth out of nothing. iPad is junk, just like every other overpriced iJunk. Apple's market will diminish as the depression deepens in the coming quarters and more and more consumers stop over-consuming as they should. The faster these companies adjust to such reality, the more likely they will survive this GREATER depression.
    • Not if you are a photographer

      If you want to use the tablet with your digital photography and you use RAW for your images, Linux is braindead. Since I use Photoshop and Lightroom, I would need either OSX or Windows. If I use the software on Windows, I would need to buy a second version to also work on OSX. The tablet is for field work. The desktop is for serious photoediting.
      • Message has been deleted.

      • Actually.....

        If you do have a interest there are Raw viewer/editors for Linux.

        Lightzone & Picasa come to mind


        While you may prefer PS &/or LR for your editing workstation. In the field a netbook/notebook or even tablet would lessen the load one carries. In this case the iPad may not be that good of a choice as it does not have native SD/USB ports, although I would bet there will be a special cable/device for it soon after it comes out.

        Still even photographers can use Linux if they want too.

        I also forgot..... Bibble
        • Message has been deleted.

  • RE: Can Microsoft close the app gap with Apple's iPad?

    I wouldn't be as harsh as our friendly Linux Geek, but he
    does have a point. Microsoft has spent untold millions on
    various technologies coming up with 'solutions' to
    'problems' rather than establishing vision as a corporate
    The ABA folk in these hallowed pages are constantly
    sniping that Apple doesn't 'innovate' yet history and victory
    goes to Apple thus far. Not because they invented a cure
    for cancer, but because they have invented the proverbial
    better mouse trap. They didn't invent the mouse trap, just
    a better one. That better mouse trap is a holistic
    environment that has a very striking balance between
    being tightly controlled and yet open to every Tom, Dick
    and Harry.
    The controlled part of it means that the consumer
    experience is nearly uniformly good. The open part allows,
    even encourages, the app makers to be creative and flood
    the App store with more apps than even Apple could have
    Microsoft continues it's lumbering business model of being
    an 800lb gorilla and throwing its weight around. That
    business model has for decades included squashing any
    developers who MS thought might impinge on anything MS
    might make a buck on. Being a Windows developer has
    always been dicey. Early on being an Apple developer was
    as well, as I can personally attest. However, when the SDK
    for the iPhone costs just $99 and you have access to
    enormous open source libraries and all you have to do to
    sell it on Apple's heavily trafficked App store is run it by
    Apple to make sure you are up to family standards, well,
    Microsoft just hasn't a clue.
    Good story Ed. You hit the nail on the head, but I'm afraid
    your advice will fall on deaf ears in Redmond.
  • Win7 Convergence Helps

    I think the convergence of Media Center and Tablet PC OS Distros, started with Windows Vista, will make a big difference with regard to application convergence.

    There are still things to do and I notice the 2003 "Building Tablet PC Applications" book has gathered a lot of dust on my bookshelf -- though I still have it.

    I saw, with interest, how you found some applications to be quite awkward when used on a Tablet PC. Is this mostly around their not being ink-enabled or is the use of gestures not handled adequately by the GUI without requiring application cooperation?

    I wonder how much of this is the degree to which apps are using older Windows API features that don't allow graceful introduction of Tablet functionality along with accessibility, programmability, and other modern requirements. This may require tightening of the "Designed for ... " versus "Works on ... " logo arrangements.
  • Can we say microsoft courier?

    If that is not a piece of vaporware then Apple may well
    be doom as well as Windows 7 tablets. The video alone of
    that thing is revolutionary and should cause more
    excitement than the so so iPad.
    • But it doesn't do the same thing.

      The Courier doesn't do what the iPad does. The iPad is about content
      delivery, and probably games. It does email, and appointments. It's
      small and light.

      The Courier as depicted in those videos isn't this at all. Courier would
      suck as a video player - two screens that can't fold backward.

      However what Courier does it seems to do REALLY well. As a notebook
      (small "n") it's fantastic - unlimited storage (uses the cloud) and rich
      user experience, seems niche - but actually a lot of people would
      really enjoy such a system.

      In my life, there is plenty of room for an iPad and Courier - as long as
      Courier isn't vapour. Price could be a killer for Courier - once with
      what I did, I'd have been very price insensitive for this, now my role
      has changed it'd need to be no more than ?1200 (tops). The iPad's
      price is absorbable (of course I'd like it to be cheaper - but I'd like free
      food too!).

      So I'll be getting the iPad - fits exactly with what I'm doing. If
      Microsoft ever ship a product that resembles the one in the Courier
      video then I'll take a very serious look at it.
  • RE: Can Microsoft close the app gap with Apple's iPad?

    Unfortunately, Microsoft isn't promoting their WPF platform enough. It's a great platform for developing touch-sensitive applications (although VisualStudio 2010 will help tremendously). Seesmic Look is developed in WPF, but only shows you can still create apps that don't work well with touch, if it isn't a part of the application's design from the beginning.

    FWIW, I use a HP TouchSmart. Additionally, the Zune Software is much more touch friendly than Windows Media player (which should be retired).
  • RE: Can Microsoft close the app gap with Apple's iPad?

    important observation for the slate pc world!
    and, yes, one would think smart people have been working on these issues...
    jmb codewriter
  • What's superior about touch-screen tablets?

    Be it iPad or a Windows Tablet, in what ways are touch screen tablets superior to current netbook/laptop computers?

    More than anything, they stike me as being just fashion statements.
    • What's superior about touch-screen tablets?

      You could have asked the same about smart phones before the iphone came out and a lot of people did. Even after the iphone came out there was a huge wave of comments showing that the iphone didn't have as many features of smart phones that came out before it.

      Now look at the smart phone landscape today. Almost every single one pays homage to the iphone. It changed what smart phones could and should do.

      So when asking a question like you just asked, history has an answer for you there, but that doesn't necessarily mean history will repeat itself.
      • And the Answer Is???

        • He just gave you one

          Personally, I think it would be good for seniors who's eyesight isn't good enough for the iPod touch, and who also don't want to be tied to a keyboard, either.
    • Touch is for TOUCHING your data OR for doing without a keyboard.

      Multitouch means that you can reach over to the screen and grab hold of your data and content and manipulate it by hand. I haven't tried it, it doesn't attract me, maybe once you do try it it sells.

      If your digital experience includes a lot of text input, you need an alternative to keyboard, or if you use keyboard then you may as well use mouse. Due to RSI-like disability, I use FITALY onscreen, or you can have a multitouch QWERTY keyboard under the glass now. You also can use speech recognition, which should be fastest of all - I reckon Fitaly is about half the speed of typing. Other tricks such as cellphone text exist but are they available in PC form?
      Robert Carnegie 2009
  • If Apps Matter, buy a good netbook.

    What can iPad do that a good netbook computer can't?

    The latter can run zillions of different Windows applications.
    • And that's soo exciting

      Same old crap!