Microsoft's misguided tablet strategy is the apotheosis of the company

Microsoft's misguided tablet strategy is the apotheosis of the company

Summary: Microsoft has promised Windows 7 tablets to compete with the iPad. See why that strategy is misguided and how it is indicative of the larger struggles at Microsoft.


Let's be clear: Microsoft doesn't have a tablet.

In fact, the company barely has a tablet strategy, despite what Steve Ballmer urgently told investors last week about Windows tablets that will soon compete with the iPad.

We've heard it all before. I sat in the front row at Ballmer's CES 2010 keynote in January, on the eve of Apple's iPad announcement, when Ballmer tried to preempt Steve Jobs by announcing Windows 7 "Slate PCs" that would be released during 2010.

While the iPad has turned into an international phenomenon, Ballmer's promise turned out to be little more than vaporware. No Windows 7 tablets have hit the market, or even been officially announced.

Ballmer showing off an old pen-based Tablet PC. Photo credit: CNET

The flagship slate PC from Hewlett-Packard that Ballmer showed off at CES got cancelled by HP because Windows 7 was reportedly too much of a power hog. ASUS, which had been planning to power its Eee Pad with Windows, switched horses and went with Android instead. And, one of Microsoft's most reliable partners, Dell, also spurned Windows for Android on its tablet -- the Dell Streak.

You can't blame these traditional Microsoft partners for balking at Windows 7 on their tablets. After all, Microsoft has treated these devices as just another form factor of the PC, and Microsoft saw the biggest advantage of Windows 7 tablets being that they had all the power and capabilities of a full PC. That was a fundamentally misguided approach.

The iPad and the forthcoming Android tablets are much more like smartphones than PCs, and users tend to like these devices for two reasons:

  1. The touch-based interface is far more self-evident than a traditional PC or Mac
  2. The app experience provides single-task immersion that makes it easy to do things

You simply can't recreate those two factors in a tablet with a full PC operating system. It's too complicated. A few people inside Microsoft recognized that and they trumpeted Windows Embedded Compact 7 (based on the old Windows CE) as an answer for a Microsoft-powered tablet computer that could match the capabilities and user experience of Android and iPhone.

But, that naturally confused everyone. After all, Ballmer had already declared the full Windows 7 as Microsoft's tablet platform in January. And, in February, Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 7 as the company's next smartphone platform, setting off speculation that it could also become the natural candidate for a Microsoft tablet.

Microsoft did little to help clear up the confusion. In fact, the company said that it would "continue to support, ship and sell [Windows Mobile] 6.5" even after the incompatible Windows Phone 7 devices arrived. And, this spring the company also released the ill-fated Kin smartphone, which was based on an entirely different mobile platform altogether and which was so poorly received in the market place that Microsoft and Verizon killed it less than two months after launching it.

So Microsoft has talked about five different mobile platforms in 2010: Windows Mobile 6.5, Windows Embedded Compact 7, Windows Phone 7, Kin, and Windows 7, with very little explanation about how these platforms relate to each other and which ones Microsoft wants to use in which settings. Is it any surprise then that Microsoft is flailing so badly in the mobile space and has no coherent tablet strategy?

And I think it's fair to say that Microsoft's tablet troubles are indicative of the larger problems that are haunting today's Microsoft -- similar teams competing for resources, minimal collaboration between similar projects, and not enough vision from the top to get everyone pushing in the same direction.

What's puzzling is that Ballmer and the Microsoft board of directors haven't come under greater fire for this lack of product focus, and for the misguided strategies that have led to Microsoft falling so far behind in the mobile computing race, which will likely end up spreading to far more people around the globe than the PC revolution.

This failure is a direct consequence of Microsoft putting an accountant in the CEO position to succeed Bill Gates. Steve Ballmer has done an excellent job of maximizing Microsoft's profits and milking as much money as possible out of consumers and businesses for Microsoft products -- primarily Windows and Office. But, Ballmer has done little to propel the company forward technologically or strategically.

That's why Wall Street has continued to bet against Microsoft. The stock market is a barometer of the expectations of a company's future success. Microsoft's stock price has hovered in virtually the same place for a decade because Ballmer's leadership has given the market no reason to bet on Microsoft's future.

When you hear Ballmer speak, the stuff he gets most excited is things like explaining that Microsoft now has eight separate billion dollar businesses. Ballmer would make a great CFO or COO/President of Microsoft. He'd also be a great CEO of a mature public company trying to maximize its profits in order to produce a dividend for its shareholders.

However, Microsoft's top dog needs to be a product leader. If you look at all of today's successful tech companies, they almost all have a product visionary at or near the top of the org chart.

Microsoft still has plenty of strong assets and a ton of smart engineers in Redmond. But, where's the leadership? What's the company's vision of the future of computing? At a time when mobility is about to power the next great wave of expansion in the technology industry and bring the benefits of computing to hundreds of millions of new people, Microsoft is standing on the sidelines still trying to figure out which play to run.

This article was originally published on TechRepublic.

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

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  • Don't knock it if it works.

    <blockquote><i>While the iPad has turned into an international phenomenon, Ballmer?s promise turned out to be little more than vaporware.</i></blockquote>

    The vaporware play has been extremely successful in the past. On several occasions existing, shipping MS competitors have seen their sales dry up as soon as MS announces a bigger, better, brighter MS competitor. Which, alas, turned out to be late. OK, later. Well maybe it never shipped at all, but it didn't matter since the market didn't want one anyway as shown by the fact that the company that was shipping something like the MS vaporware went under from lack of sales.

    It's not Ballmer's fault that it didn't work this time.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Yes, if only that would continue to work in the mobile space!!

      But, from the sales figures for iPhone, Android phones, and iPad, not looking very good for Microsoft.
    • RE: Microsoft's misguided tablet strategy is the apotheosis of the company

      @Yagotta B. Kidding: That strategy worked in 1995, 1998, and even as late as 2004.

      It isn't working anymore, if the massive explosion in iPhone, Android, and iPad sales are any indication at all. I'd be surprised if MSFT's vaporware strategy even blunted those sales by any significant margin.

      Sure, it might sway a couple of not-so-bright CIOs and CEOs of various companies, but the public at large isn't going to sit around waiting on an empty promise while their friends are enjoying actual (and more often than not better) products right now.
    • RE: Microsoft's misguided tablet strategy is the apotheosis of the company

      @Yagotta B. Kidding <br><br>A very big reason why it's not working now is consumers are not as bound to Windows today as they've been in the past.
    • RE: Microsoft's misguided tablet strategy is the apotheosis of the company

      @Yagotta B. Kidding
      [i]It's not Ballmer's fault that it didn't work this time. [/i]

      As I wrote in Perlow's 'Microsoft Mitosis' opus, when you want to be all things to all people, failure follows.

      A company has got to know its limitations.
    • RE: Microsoft's misguided tablet strategy is the apotheosis of the company

      @Yagotta B. Kidding

      Quote "It's not Ballmer's fault that it didn't work this time." Well who's fault is it? ..... Isn't he the head honcho there? when things go right, the head honcho gets the glory and when thing go bad the head honcho has to suck it up like a man and admit he blew it wouldn't you say?
      Over and Out
  • RE: Microsoft's misguided tablet strategy is the apotheosis of the company

    It is sad to view a great American multinational corporation flounder in recent times. However, its not exactly like Microsoft is seeking a Government Bailout either.

    If you recall, Ford Motor Corporation CEO (at the time), Edsel Ford II, chose to hire another person from outside the corporation, to run the Company full time. Under Alan Mulally's leadership, Ford has increased its profits and market share significantly. Perhaps Ballmer and MS should pursue a similar Corporate leadership strategy.
    • RE: Microsoft's misguided tablet strategy is the apotheosis of the company

      @kenosha7777 What have you got? Corporate religion? This situation is pure Darwinism. There's nothing sad about it at all. In fact it's hilarious and just in a very satisfying way.

      Ford is a totally different story. There may be an outside solution eventually forced on the fools at Redmond, but not before we suffer some more fud from Al Bundy.
      Graham Ellison
      • Agreed, I'm enjoying

        @Graham Ellison ... watching Microsoft fail like this. They'll probably roll on for another decade coasting off the success of Windows and Office. When the end comes it will be very abrupt, and people will say 'it happened so suddenly.'
        I just wish it would happen on Ballmer's watch. He is the single biggest reason they're failing and should be there to take the blame.
  • The question really is, how long will MS continue to try and push Windows7

    on tablets. The longer that goes on, the less likely that MS can recover in the tablet market.
    • RE: Microsoft's misguided tablet strategy is the apotheosis of the company

      @DonnieBoy A business man and not an innovator like Ballmer will always favor Windows 7. They have it so hard coded to steal your data, push advertising, and police what you do legally that if an engineer says, "We have a great product that works but you can't keep your spy ware in place reliably." They'll nix it.

      Microsoft has turned Windows into a security joke, walking the line between giving themselves full access to your system and keeping everyone else out. They can't continue to have it both ways, and shouldn't!
  • Misguided is your commentary

    "Touch" is not good for everything. In fact, based on the iPhone apps, Touch is pretty much only good for quick information display. We can call it the Twitterization of information display.

    You wouldn't compose a research paper on a touch-only tablet, and you sure can't run complicated graphical apps with a big fat finger.

    I know the stylus is somehow unpopular by the Apple fanboys, but Microsoft has terrific recognition (you could actually use a tablet for meaningful data input).

    But it is self-evident that it's two different markets: people who want to do only information recall, and people who want to do information input. I'm not sure why the former are constantly giving the middle finger to the latter.
    • MS has been trying to make tablets that run "complicated applications" for

      years now, and nobody wants them. They want applications that are simple to use for a mobile platform like a tablet. Now, that is not to say that tablets could not be augmented with folding keyboards, mice or even stylus. But, MS needs to figure out the basics first. Apple is killing them right now.
      • Donnie... Put the crack pipe down...

        Nobody in their right (or left) mind would spend 3 to 5 times MORE for a product that doesn't deliver much more than the less expensive one. Why spend $1500+ for a laptop if the $500 laptop will do everything except transform itself into a tablet? Unless you've got a real burning NEED for such a feature, you get by with the LESS EXPENSIVE OPTION. Especially when the economy's in a recession.

        For what it's worth, Windows Vista and 7 both have had tablet features BAKED INTO THE OS. People want applications they are familiar with and can get the most out of.

        That's something Apple completely forgot to deliver with their craptastic iPad versions of the iWorks suite - the one that truncates your documents, removing all of your hard work by removing footnotes, speaker notes and such. And then has the BAD taste to sync them back to your Mac, overwriting the original files. Whoops. Hope that Time Machine is working properly.

        At least with a full verision of Windows on a laptop, running the same exact version of Office, that kinda thing is NOT going to be a problem. Ever.
      • RE: Microsoft's misguided tablet strategy is the apotheosis of the company

        @Wolfie2K3 <br><br>Why does it seem like all the proponents of Tablet PC does all day is use Microsoft Office, and jot down notes in some meeting. The productivity side of the iPad will surely improve, but that's not why they're selling like crazy now. They're selling because of Facebook and all the social Apps, all types of gaming Apps people are already familiarized with, reading books, pdfs, email, web browsing, quick access to references, instant on, movies, simplicity........Microsoft needs an answer to the iPad and full Windows is not it.
      • Full windoze is all they know

        If the hardware isn't designed around it, it epically fails.<br><br>Windoze is like a dinosaur. Mass-produced, modern touch-centric GUI designs (beyond their primitive 2002 swivel laptop band-aid model) just isn't in their vocabulary.
    • Kudos for keen insight

      you're spot on.
    • Actually ...

      @croberts I agree with a lot of that. I'm a content creator and so tablets have pretty limited use for me. However, there are a lot more lurkers and content consumers in the world than content creators. <br><br>It's like the 90-9-1 rule on websites like this one. 90% of people just read or lurk. 9% contribute occasionally. 1% are super-active contributors. For the 90%, a tablet is great most of the time. For the rest of us, we need the more powerful (and complex) tools most of the time.<br><br>For the most part, the PC world has been thrusting the complicated tools on everyone. Now, that's changing.
      • Yes, and when...

        @Jason Hiner

        the 90% have discovered that all they really need is an ARM based tablet or two, MS as we know it will be finished.

        The other 10% will not be large enough to support MS. Apple and open source will share it and MS will be finished.
    • It doesn't need to be either/or

      @croberts Some tasks, and modes of working, work beautifully on a touchscreen, whether a phone or a tablet. Browsing, reading, interacting with apps and information in a non-intensive way... many of these things are better, easier, more satisfying on a touchscreen, without the distance and hardware between you and the information.

      Other tasks, like intensive data manipulation, long-form writing and editing, coding, etc. will never work well on an all-touch device, for reasons you already understand. The thing is, pretty much everyone (or at least a huge segment of the audience) does both of those things at different times.

      The problem with Microsoft's approach, and it has plenty of support from tech blog readers, is that they see this as an either/or proposition. If you need to do "real" work, the thinking goes, you couldn't possibly have a use for a tablet, or that tablet must be able to do everything your laptop does. But even Apple doesn't expect anyone to rely solely on a tablet for all their computer-related tasks... rather, they are proposing the tablet as a different type of computer, to be used in different ways. You work at your desk, for instance... you curl up on the couch, or in bed, or on the deck, with a tablet.

      Obviously that's just one way of looking at it, but I think expecting a tablet to be able to do all the things a desktop or laptop does and do them well is the problem. Rather than try to find a way to shoehorn Windows 7 onto a tablet, Microsoft should be figuring out what a tablet is really good for, and making tools that deliver the best experience for that medium. Apple is doing that; there's no reason why Microsoft can't offer a viable (and possibly superior) alternative.