Turns out Microsoft does have a plan for Windows 7 powered tablet PCs after all.
In a keynote speech Monday at the opening of Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, D.C., CEO Steve Ballmer said Windows 7 powered "slate" devices are coming in "the next several months," from partners including Asus, Dell, Sony, Samsung and Toshiba.
It's one of the few times we've heard the term "slate" used since Ballmer briefly showed off a prototype slate from HP at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. HP was reportedly unhappy with how Windows 7 performed on that particular slate, and HP's subsequent acquisition of Palm was seen as a possible death knell for the device.
A Microsoft spokesperson confirmed that Ballmer was referring to Windows 7 and not Windows Embedded 7. "We expect some slates to be available before the end of the year," the spokesperson said in an e-mail.
This, incidentally, is the same timeframe Microsoft has provided for the arrival of Windows Phone 7 devices and suggests that Ballmer will have plenty to show off when he keynotes at CES next year.
Windows 7 slates will come in a variety of form factors and price points, and some will have keyboards while others won't, Ballmer told the roughly 8800 partners in attendance. One thing all slates will be able to do is run Windows 7 and Office applications, making them ideal for knowledge workers, Ballmer noted.
Partners don't doubt Microsoft's ability to develop slates for business scenarios, but some believe that Microsoft will have to alter its traditional partner model if the slates are to be competitive on the consumer side.
Dave Meeker, director of emerging technology and co-director of Roundarch Labs, a Chicago-based Web development firm, says Microsoft needs to take a page from the Apple playbook and exert more control over the hardware and the software. He's also unsure if unmodified Windows 7 is the best OS for slates.
"If Microsoft tries to attack the tablet market without really making a hardware-savvy and tablet-specific operating system, these slates might follow the path of Kin," said Meeker. "You can't just push products out the door in today's market without absolute focus and perfection."
Andrew Brust, chief of new technology for twentysix New York, a Microsoft partner in New York City, thinks the key to slate's fate in the market will hinge on whether Microsoft pays careful attention to developing a flawless user interface.
"To compete effectively with the iPad, there needs to be a touch-optimized user interface that's built by Microsoft, rather than the OEM," he said.
At this point there are more questions than answers about Microsoft's slate plans. But with a single declaration, Ballmer has people once again wondering what Microsoft may have up its sleeve.