Did Microsoft stifle tablets and leave the iPad the market?

Dick Brass says so and he thinks he should know; he was the vice president of emerging technologies and launched the Tablet PC in 2002. What does he think went wrong?
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor and  Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Dick Brass says so and he thinks he should know; he was the vice president of emerging technologies and launched the Tablet PC in 2002. What does he think went wrong? He blames infighting, he blames PC manufacturers, he blames other divisions for not doing enough to support him so he could make the tablet PC successful - though he doesn't go into what he did or didn't do to deal with the endemic internal politics (that's hardly exclusive to Microsoft; every company that's not run by a dictator has this to a greater or lesser degree). Certainly Tablet PCs are still a curiosity. Simon and I have had tablets as our main notebooks since they came out; I reviewed every single tablet in the 2001 launch, we both bought the HP TC1000 as soon as it was available and since then we've toted tablets from Motion, IBM/Lenovo, Toshiba and - most often - HP. But every time I use one with a pen, someone asks me what it is and how it works. I sometimes feel like the only marketing there is for tablet PC! So do I agree with Dick Brass? No, but...

Microsoft's Frank Shaw points at OneNote to say that the tablet was given lots of love. Yes, but...

I am a huge OneNote fan; I use it every day, it's one of the reasons I'm still chained to Windows Mobile as my main phone (I'm thinking a lot about this as I move from one WinMo phone to another - I have to have a full keyboard, a OneNote client, a real browser that does all Web sites and full Exchange sync and WinMo is the only platform with *all* of those (if you know of another, tell me!)), I have 7 years of notes in there, and while I'm sure I still don't know all the features, I've been nagging the OneNote team for the last few years to bring the spell checking and autocorrect features up to the level Word was at 5 years ago (and Replace All is a 20-year-old feature that's missing, for heavens sake!). Plus I can routinely refer to OneNote as Office's hidden treasure and not have anyone ever disagree with me.

OneNote was written from scratch, driven not from Microsoft Research - although their research on handwriting recognition underpins it - but by one product manager, Chris Pratley (formerly Mr Word, now at Office Labs and behind Ribbon Hero and other interesting training ideas). I backed him into a corner in my enthusiasm, asking for more features and changes - some of them made it in to the first and second release, but OneNote has never had the resources to do everything the team and the users want. Suggest a feature that every OneNote fan says yes to and the team will say 'lovely idea, if only we had the resources'. That's because OneNote hasn't taken over the world - possibly because it's hard to explain to people just how useful it is, probably because for a long time you only got it on a tablet PC or in an expensive version of Office. This time it's in everything so sometime around June the world can look at a product I've been living in for 7 years and either embrace it or wonder why Microsoft didn't do this 7 years ago...

The tablet did get support at Microsoft - internally, for developing the OS and the superb and only-getting-better handwriting recognition (stop me at a conference and try it before you dismiss it), and externally for getting the OEMs on board (and it probably got that support because Bill Gates was such a tablet proponent). But that didn't translate into sales, because of the price of the tablet PCs - or because the marketplace wasn't ready for tablets because the balance of what you did on a PC 7 years ago was more about typing stuff than about looking at stuff. Microsoft didn't stifle tablets; everyone stifled tablets…

Does that mean Brass is wrong? Yes, but... He has identified a huge frustration with Microsoft; all of these smart people, all of these smart ideas - and how many of them ever make a difference to what we do on computers? Adoption is part of the problem (we could all have been using the Remove What I Don't Want In This Photo tool for years if Microsoft Picture It! had sold well enough not to get cancelled). But Microsoft's inability to take those ideas and make them into products in the first place has frustrated those of us who've seen research products that never get into products and researchers who've given up and left Microsoft. The ideas that get picked to become products are sponsored by someone high enough up inside Microsoft to be able to push through the support they need. I don't think that's any different from any other company; I think there are just so many good ideas at Microsoft that there aren't enough visionaries in management to support them - and yes, powerful internal teams do get to say 'we make a substantial proportion of the company profits and we don't want to change things for this unproven upstart'.

Over the last four years I've met half a dozen people who've said their job is to take those great ideas and make them actual products; and more ideas are getting out. Remove background in Office 2010, the Sidewinder x4 keyboard - they're both original Microsoft ideas and successful developments (and you can hear the frustration when the Microsoft hardware team says they announced their home-grown capacitive mouse a month before Apple's). Surface isn't a mainstream product, but it's creeping into commercial environments.

That's only a handful of ideas-made-real and neither are on the scale expected of the iPad. And as Frank Shaw says; "what matters is innovation at scale, not just innovation at speed". Yes, but...

Yes, innovating at scale is important; but people expect innovation at speed as well now - they expect a new Facebook, a new Twitter, the next big thing every 18-24 months. Internet time is 6 months, not 3 years. It may not be feasible for one company to do, and both Brass and Shaw ignore major Microsoft developments like SharePoint, the in-house development of the technologies bought in as FAST and Dynamics and other not-so-shiny business tools that won't make headlines in a mainstream paper. This argument is specifically a question of mainstream, mass-market innovation. And yes, there is a large proportion of that audience that doesn't always like innovation; witness the cries to go back to toolbars in Office or the XP interface in Vista (although I notice that there are far fewer complaints about the Windows 7 interface, so it may be less not liking change and more not liking change until what you get is done well) and the way umpteen enterprises still can't wean themselves off IE6.

Microsoft has to deal with the way internal politics holds it back without running after every bright idea anyone has. Turning Courier from a concept video to a prototype would be a start. Getting the Office Web apps out and updating the Windows Live apps. Delivering on Windows Mobile while the three screens plus cloud promise still resonates for people. And yes, I'd like better tablet hardware and better tablet apps for Windows 7 - but it's the hardware manufacturers, the developers and ultimately the market that makes those happen. What Apple can do that Microsoft has never managed is to make the market in the first place.


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