Microsoft is gearing up to launch Windows 7 powered "slates" this holiday season and is working with hardware OEMs on a range of different devices. But some channel partners say they don't expect this foray into tablet PCs to be any different from Microsoft's previous attempt nearly a decade ago.
The primary concern solution providers have is that Windows 7 isn't built for tablet PCs, even though Microsoft says it's suitable for smaller form factors. Apple has sold over three million iPads so far using the same OS it developed for the iPhone, and the simplicity of the iPad user experience has caused customers to overlook the device's shortcomings. By using Windows 7 in its slates, Microsoft is going in a different direction.
But given the head start Apple has achieved with the iPad, Microsoft doesn't have the luxury of trial and error, according to Clinton Fitch, a Dallas-based Microsoft Windows Mobile MVP (Most Valuable Professional).
"For Microsoft to be successful, they need to forgo the idea of trying to force Windows 7 to be touch-driven," Fitch said. "Windows 7 isn’t designed to do it, and anything they bolt on top of it will feel clunky. Microsoft has been there and tried that already."
To be truly competitive with Apple and Google, Microsoft needs to scale down from Windows 7 and design a flavor of operating system that's designed specifically for touch computing and the tablet form factor, says Dave Meeker, director of emerging technology and co-director of Roundarch Labs, a Chicago-based Web development firm.
However, Meeker doesn't believe this is part of Microsoft's plan. "It just seems that Microsoft is once again leading a consumer product strategy with a sales and engineering mentality, not the mentality of design," said Meeker.
Brad Kowerchuk, president of Bralin Technology Solutions, based in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, says the key to tablet PC success hinges on providing users with information as quickly as looking at their wristwatch. "Apple was the first to take this premise and apply it to a tablet, and they did so by realizing that the smartphone OS was the key," he said.
Of course, Microsoft doesn't have the option of using Windows Phone 7 on tablets because the OS isn't expected to arrive on devices until the holiday season. In any event, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said the company has no plans to put Windows Phone 7 into slates.
For now, Microsoft isn't offering much insight into slates. In a Q&A Thursday after Microsoft's fourth-quarter earnings call, CFO Peter Klein was asked to comment on the impact tablets will have on the PC market and how they might affect Microsoft's business.
Klein dodged the question, saying only that OEM partners are working on multiple tablet usage scenarios, form factors and price points. "Tablets, I think, are interesting and great, because I think they enlarge the overall opportunity. I think they are additive to the opportunity," he said.
Given the lack of buzz about Microsoft's slates, it's not surprising that partners are having a tough time getting excited about selling them.
"Microsoft once again will be late to the party, release something that is not quite as slick or friendly as the Apple product, and struggle with defining their place in the category," said Larry Piland, president of Datel Systems, a San Diego, Calif.-based solution provider.
Added Piland: "Microsoft needs to be very forthcoming about what the slates will do to build up excitement without giving away their secrets."