Can Microsoft pull its tablet technology together?

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.

TOPICS: Tablets

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.

Topic: Tablets

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  • With Ed Bott and Apple showing and telling Microsoft how tablets should

    be done right, how can Steve Ballmer and company possibly fail?

    I know MS fanboys will think that comment above is being sarcastic. It is not. I fully expect any Microsoft Win 8 RT tablet to be a worthy addition to the tablet ecosystem and especially complement the Windows ecosystem.

    BTW, those that have been reading my posts about future Win 8 RT tablets know that I have consistently praised the Metro Interface in a tablet form factor and even went so far as to predict that my next tablet would be such a device.

    That didn't occur because of two things. The new iPad with a retina display was introduced first and secondly, the Win 8 RT tablet was just a wee bit too late to the party.

    However, I fully intend to purchase such a device in the future. I have sampled how a Win 8 tablet would work on my iPad (via Parallels iOS app in conjunction with my desktop installation of the current Win 8 RP software and my original comments are still valid.)

    The Windows RT tablet will be a success. There is only one thing that will prevent Win 8 RT tablets from being a huge success and that is the availability of apps for this ecosystem. Apps are everything and I wish the Windows developers all the success in the world because I, for one, would benefit immensely from that possible success.
    • Thanks

      I suspect my 2010 list aligned pretty well with what Redmond was working on. It's put-up-or-shut-up time for them. We'll see if they've managed to focus all those technologies in a cohesive, usable package, where product+services+apps+ecosystem=experience.
      Ed Bott
      • but they have no apps...

        NO APPS == FAIL!

        it's as simple as that... and the iPad phenomena is a BYO phenomena i.e. iPad is a consumer device first that crossed over.. an enterprise focused device will fail.. and fail miserably... consumers don't give a rat's behind about Office.. iPad has a tonne of Office alternatives.. they've realized they don't even need Office anymore.. this is likely why MS is considering putting a version of Office on iPad.. to stem to tide of people realizing they really just don't need Office.. MS is just leaving money on the table by not putting office on iPad and forcing more and more people to realize that Office is unnecessary..

        I predict WindowsRT will be a colossal failure.. no apps = no buy..
    • It's not like they've failed following the same path before

      Oh wait Zune;-)

      A MS tablet is a product looking for a market. I can't see how it can complete against low end Android tablets on price, or the higher end unless they deferentiate enough to convince people to not go with the market leader?

      MS needs a tablet, just as they need a competitive phone. Both markets are huge and growing, MS has been left behind which is embarrassing. However nothing we've seen in Win8 is going to shift the market.

      The only hardware market MS has ever had success with is XBox. I not sure they've made as much out of it as they put into it.
      Richard Flude
      • MS needs a time machine...

        MS needs a time machine to go back 10 years and undo all the mistakes it did. It had a lock on the mobile OS (WinME) and blew it, it had a tablet but it was a stylus operated Windows, which sucked.

        Prediction: MS tablet may have a limited success in the enterprise, but that is it...
  • Speaking of that eReader

    It would be a nice bone to throw to us folks who bought a whole .lit library to go along with Microsoft Reader, if the new eReader would open them.
    • Yes ...

      ... that would be great.
      P. Douglas
  • Guesses about anouncement

    Given the announcement's location is in LA, it could be that MS is announcing an SDK for creating entertainment apps on Windows 8, the Xbox, and Windows Phone. Entertainment apps on the Xbox is causing significant growth of non-video game entertainment consumption on the platform. If MS would like Xbox Live to have a lot of pull on Windows 8, it will probably be important that MS allow developers to develop these kinds of apps for the platform as well. I believe if MS can grow its ecosystem of entertainment apps, the company can significantly disrupt entertainment.

    I seriously doubt MS is going to be releasing its own tablet. The company had a greater imperative to address the smartphone market, yet resisted coming out with hardware products of its own. MS probably has PC hardware designs it licenses out to OEMs. It is possible that OEMs will show devices with these designs during MS' announcement.
    P. Douglas
    • The invite says otherwise

      This is billed as "a major announcement" by invitation only, with a Jobsian level of secrecy. If it were APIs, it would be announced in a press release. No one tells major media types to fly to LA for a personal announcement and then says "We have a new SDK." They wouldn't make it back to the airport alive.
      Ed Bott
      • Maybe my second ...

        ... guess is right? Like everyone else, all I have are guesses.
        P. Douglas
    • Huh, Microsoft did try phones...

      "The company had a greater imperative to address the smartphone market, yet resisted coming out with hardware products of its own."

      I guess, since it failed miserably, the Kin phones don't count? How about the zune media players? those were the basis for WP 7.
      Jumpin Jack Flash
      • The Kin ...

        ... wasn't a smartphone. Also the Kin effort was more like a side project that didn't pan out. It was not a major MS initiative, which simply had to work for the company.
        P. Douglas
      • Kin was not a major MS initiative?

        Only after it failed do we come to this conclusion?

        If the Kin was considered a side project, then in that case we could say the XBox was also a side project.
    • MS is buying OnLive...

      offering Windows as in a virtual online environment anywhere on any platform.. that would be a huge shift in MS strategy..
  • Partners & Channels

    One part of this puzzle that hardly anyone is talking about is the distribution channel shifts that have occurred as a result of "phones" becoming "little computers."

    One of Microsoft's difficulties in the tablet market is that none of its friends are all that well connected with the new ways of doing business. Seen any HP gear in the Verizon store? Dell stuff at AT&T? Computer guys didn't used to have to worry about phone companies being competitors. But now they do. And this has serious implications for Microsoft's best friends, because both they and the phone companies have large major-accounts sales forces, and that's going to lead to some territorial disputes. Disputes that the phone companies can avoid by simply not carrying wares from manufacturers who have major-accounts sales forces. You knows, guys like Apple.

    Some of the other channels, like online retail, the manufacturers' own web sites, the Big Box stores, etc., will be level playing fields for tablets, but not at all for phones in the U.S. because of the carrier-subsidy method of selling phones. A manufacturer either enjoys favor with the top two carriers, or he's relegated to noise-level sales in the U.S. So for phones, Microsoft either has to hope Nokia cracks the code, or talk Samsung or LG into making Windows phones. Microsoft's current friends like HP, Dell, and Lenovo will be no help with the phone market.
    Robert Hahn
    • @Robert Hahn

      What you wrote is the problem of the phone's carrier ecosystem versus the pc's retail/oem ecosystem. Carriers make or break manufacturers in phone market. Just look at Nokia. Their real decline is due to carrier shunning. Carriers see more money coming in the ARPU way on mobile data from iPhones and then Androids and last come RIM and Nokia. That is only one reason though. A second real unknown reason is that carriers made Nokia untouchable especially in America.

      In the PC OEM market, the growth of one software standardized platform made the actual hardware platform irrelevant so long as it met requirements. No one goes and buys a Dell machine specifically for a Dell machine. They buy it due to Windows licensing arrangements even unknowingly and then comes the Dell contract for maintenance and support and price etc.

      Microsoft's problem is that carriers hate them. But they have Skype. Which is why if a peabrain up in Microsoft knows the future, they will introduce an unlocked industrial Lumia like phone for $199 with any carrier with unlimited data with no voice and all with Skype platform and apps only.

      And no - LG or especially the giant Samsung will not help Microsoft - with or without WP8 or Win8 on phones.

      Whether they realize it or not, Microsoft has lost the smartphone and even feature phone market completely and completely. WP8 is a waste of money.

      But what they can achieve is something else - use of Win8 or WinRT tablets with Android/iPhones in a homogeneous manner. So long as they make Verizon or ATT realize that Win8 tablets or WinRT tablets will increase mobile data usage and hence ARPU and with preloaded Xbox like game apps, Office apps, social apps etc etc, then carriers will push Win8/WinRT tablets.

      May be they realize this after all since they have a separate OS for phone.

      And by the way, sell Nokia as it will go bankrupt by June 2013 - no later than that.
  • There will be no low end Tablet from Microsoft

    If Microsoft produces their own brand tablet it will have to be a high end device. To introduce a low end RT device to compete with Kindle Fire would just be shooting themselves in the foot. Virtually all of their profit comes from software sales. Why would a hardware company (Like Acer or Asus or Samsung) want develop a Win 8 tablet and pay MS $80-$90 for the OS if Microsoft is going to undercut them in price with their own branded device.
  • It is Tablet...XTab!

    The invitation says limited photo/video and all, so, must be showing some HW. I don't think there is any software that is worth taking pictures or video, after Microsoft has showed off Win 8.

    So, it must be HW and that too Xbox branded one...probably named, Xtab! :)
    • Or it could simply be

      Microsoft moved up the Window 8 launch date. Knowing Mountain Liuon is due in a few weeks, Microsoft wants to be in the spotlight, so they've moved the Window 8 launch date from October, to June?
      Jumpin Jack Flash
    • Or

      And what if it is a new XBox what is integrated to Windows 8?
      It would be something as well because it could be the strike for Apple TV and Google TV as home media center. Then Windows 8 PC to be a content maker and later Windows RT for tablet.