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

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, Microsoft Surface

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  • The article is a good tablet history lesson...

    As a tablet for work and play, Surface will have tremendous success in the coming years...
    • Probably not

      Established companies with markets and products/profits to protect, rarely do well dealing with industry inflection points and disruptive technologies/products.

      MS products do not readily lend themselves to this new paradigm and MS cannot easily abandon its past.
      • Windows RT...

        ...suggests that you're wrong, and while it's often misunderstood as limited, I do believe it's the direction Microsoft would ultimately like Windows to go long term. It solves a LOT of the problems of the old Windows era (no more malware, curated marketplace, and no -- or at least easily removed -- pre-loaded crapware). It also allows them to be much more modular in their development efforts. Apps can now be updated individually rather than over the course of OS updates.

        Besides, classic Windows can be run by advanced users as a virtualized environment or remote desktop and as apps mature for business, we can eventually reduce our dependency on the desktop environment.

        I'm quite excited about the possibilities of dumping all the old-school Windows history. How many companies do you know that are both able AND willing to do so? Not many.
        • Windows RT

          ...suggests that DT Long is right. Surface RT has been a failure, shipping (not selling) only 1 million units in the last quarter coming in well below MSFT's expectations. MSFT had to cut in half their orders from factory. Samsung has announced they will not release their Windows RT tablet for lack of demand. Nobody's interested in the Surface RT.

          Apps can be updated individually? What apps? Android and Apple have the app stores. Wake me up when MSFT finally has something worth looking at.
          • Maha888 .. I you haven't noticed Owlll1net, GoodThings2Life and Loverock

            Davidson, Ye, toddbottom3, etc are all part of the same Microsoft "Clogedbottoms" fan club. They only know how to spin anything one way and thatt's towards Microsoft..................oh well what else is new
            Over and Out
    • Wow

      Love my job, since I've been bringing in $5600… I sit at home, music playing while I work in front of my new iMac that I got now that I'm making it online(Click on menu Home)

      Happy New Year!
    • That's for the market place to determine

      it is a new product, so we don't have any idea whether it flies or fails.

      Microsoft has had big hardware successes (xbox) and big hardware failures (Zune), so it really could go either way. As much as some people malign the Zune, it was a nice device with some good capabilities... and yet it failed anyway.

      So, like I said - we'll see. It isn't up to us, but the market.
    • wrong

      The very problem is the so called tablet for work and play - you and MS can keep looking at it that way to your grave. They are for play, and niche business purposes only, not general purpose PC replacement work. Any compromises that attempt to make it do work as well as play are exactly what has kept MS out of the game and will continue to until nobody even cares about 'tablets' anymore.
      • It's not a tablet - MSFT doesn't do tablets

        Surface Pro isn't a tablet. MSFT still doesn't get it. They are still trying the old adage: put the desktop OS onto the tablet and add a stylus too. Surface Pro is a laptop with a touch interface. Surface Pro runs on Intel chips (just like laptops), Surface Pro is designed to be used in landscape mode (just like laptops), Surface Pro has a battery life of 4 1/2 hours (just like laptops).

        If all MSFT had to do was make a nice laptop, that they could do! History tells us they are incapable of making a good tablet.
    • Agreed. Sure the same old naysayers will will say/pray otherwise

      but then some don't see/won't see what is happening.

      MS made Windows that runs on ARM, something the same old people said they could NEVER do.

      They where so wrong on that, and now their only argument is that "Windows RT isn't running X86 hardware which is bad? So now they have Pro, too.

      They're ahead of everyone else in that respect, so you're right, it will be sucessful going forward.
      William Farrel
    • Very good they cancelled Courier

      Anyone who thinks Courier would've been a success is a moron. A tablet with two touch screens in 2010 would've been extremely expensive, poor battery life, and either heavy or underpowered. There also would've been no app store or developer support without the backing of the Windows userbase. If Courier was such a promising product why hasn't anyone copied the idea and had a big hit?

      What Courier represents is Microsoft's maturity and the realization that they needed to stop building one-off products (Zune, Kin, WebTV, ultimateTV, Xbox) that didn't tie into the Windows ecosystem and developers. Instead Microsoft decided if they were going to build their own tablet (Surface) that it had to be a part of the greater ecosystem, not something separate from it. I imagine if Zune and Plays For Sure MP3 players had worked the same that things would've turned out better in that space for MS and it's partners.
      • Re: would've been extremely expensive, poor battery life, and either heavy

        Sounds like every single tablet device Microsoft has released since then.
  • But Microsoft STILL has not learned it's lesson.

    Bolting on a half finished Touch interface to some nice Hardware isn't enough. You still have to drop down to "Legacy Mode" to do basic houskeeping and file managment. Win7 (which is what it is at it's heart is still not a touch based OS. and that becomes readily apparent when you start dickin' around with your fingers. No, COURIER was the right direction, now that Sinofsky's gone Maybe they could bring that bad boy back- (and make a more Tablet /Courier Centric OS without the flaws of RT.
    • That may be true

      but most of what you do in the desktop you simply can't do with an iPad or android tablet without plugging it into a computer and moving things around that way. That is why they have usb and most of them have keyboard docks. When you need to do those maintenance tasks you use the dock or some sort of bluetooth or usb keyboard/mouse. I do have to say that I don't have a problem using the desktop interface with touch on the smart pc that I bought though.
      Sam Wagner
      • Here here!

        I totally agree with Sam Wagner. I have a Smart Pc Pro with 200dpi screen (1080p 11.6") and I have no problem interacting with the desktop with touch, or pen.

        But I would also add that a full Windows 8 hybrid (especially with Haswell) is every bit a tablet as the Surface RT, except that when I want it to it is also a full computer. I think people with limited Tablets don't want to admit that they are limited. So that when they look at Slate PCs or Hybrids they want to find fault in them that doesn't exist.
  • the description of the UMPC

    "Clunky interface, high price, an idea in search of a purpose", perfectly describes the Surface. MS had it right with Courier but chose to kill it.
    • You just described Android, krossbow

      to a tee, no less.
      William Farrel
      • Android - "an idea in search of a purpose"?

        Android has more than 50% share of the mobile market and growing.

        Do you pride yourself on saying stupid things?
      • Ha - ridiculous.

        You are just a hater out of jealousy as your beloved MS is going down the crapper, and android is now the finest mobile OS platform for decades to come. At least I hate MS for good reasons after 20 years of watching their shenanigans and not just randomly claim they make crap.
        • Android is poorly designed OS

          Android gets the slowest and worst sunspider scores despite having the most advanced quad core processors. The performance of Android is poor compared to competitors. Isn't it embarrassing that it takes more than double the hardware power to get half the performance of Windows Phone? Android also consistently has the lowest user satisfaction scores.