Why the Fate of Windows 7 'Slate' Tablet Is Sealed
Remember all the buzz around Hewlett-Packard's Slate, a Windows 7-based tablet that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer featured in a keynote presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in January? It was Microsoft's shot across Apple's bow, meant to show Microsoft wasn't ceding the tablet market to the then-unreleased iPad. HP kept the Slate in the blogosphere's eye through occasional posts and carefully vague videos of the device at its Website.
But quietly, the Slate went away, and now the buzz around HP is that it will use Palm's WebOS as the foundation for iPad rivals, once it's completed its buyout of Palm. (On Friday, Digitimes quoted an HP Taiwan exec saying the Slate would use WebOS instead of Windows 7.)
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All the tablet buzz now centers around the iPad, various Android devices said to be in development at Dell and other manufacturers, and HP's future WebOS tablet. What happened to Windows 7?
A Tablet Is Not a Laptop Whose Screen Is Always Visible
The answer: The iPad proved a tablet shouldn't be a portable computer that happened to have its screen always exposed. Instead, a tablet should be something else. Apple got a lot of criticism early on for not making the iPad essentially a Mac OS X tablet computer, in the vein of the Windows tablet computers available -- but hardly used -- for the last decade.
Apple -- followed by Dell, HP, and the rest of the industry -- has realized a tablet is something different, and force-fitting a desktop OS into it simply won't work. Remember the splash Microsoft and HP made on touchscreen PCs last fall? That chatter has gone quiet too outside the nichy kiosk space, and for the same reason: Windows 7 is not designed for a touch-oriented interaction. Microsoft's touch extensions to Windows 7 are awkward to use and don't get around the problem that all the apps and the OS itself assumes the use of mouse or other pointing device. A finger isn't as accurate as a mouse, and UI elements designed for a mouse-and-keyboard interface don't translate to the touch world, even with UI extensions that support finger-based input.
Lessons from Apple's Touch-Native Enforcement
Microsoft needs a UI designed for touch -- rich gestures for input and a fundamental UI design that doesn't involve lots of elements such as tabbed panes, radio buttons, check boxes, and dialog boxes. But it doesn't have one. Plus, for applications to really support touch and gestures, they need to do more than map mouse actions to finger ones; the interface and operational design needs to be touch-native as well. No mapping layer for libraries will take care of that for you, as you can quickly see if you use a Windows 7 touchscreen PC.
I believe Microsoft recognizes that fact, which is why its forthcoming Windows Phone 7 mobile platform uses a separate, largely new OS designed at the ground level for gestures and touch.
Could Microsoft retrofit Windows 7 to support touch natively through and through, making it appropriate for a tablet? Maybe. After all, the iPhone OS is based on Apple's Mac OS X, a desktop operating system that supports the same UI expectations and complexity as Windows 7. A lot of the underlying code is the same between the Mac OS and the iPhone OS.
Yet you can't run Mac OS apps on an iPhone or vice versa. Sure, some UI elements are the same across the two operating systems, but they have more to do with a consistent Apple style than with fundamental operations. Look no further than Apple's iWork productivity suite for Mac OS X and iPhone OS: Beyond a compatible file format and name, they share little in common in terms of how they actually operate. (I'd argue that iWork for iPhone OS is a disappointment and harder to use than it should be, though that's due to a murky interface, not to a usage of the desktop paradigm.)
The bottom line is that even though technical components are shared between the Mac OS and the iPhone OS, the irrelevant Mac OS functions aren't gumming up the iPhone OS, and Apple's development environment doesn't let you pull through desktop approaches into your mobile applications. You're forced to go touch-native.
Apple gets some advantage in both its internal development and its ability to cross-train Mac OS and iPhone OS developers by having that common core, even though the UI and app results are very different. Theoretically, Microsoft could do the same with Windows 7 and a tablet version of Windows Phone 7 by giving them a common core that doesn't impose itself on the user in ill-fitting ways, as is the case with Windows 7's touch extensions.
So far, Microsoft has chosen not to do so; instead, it is keeping the desktop and mobile OSes separate. It did the same with Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7 and Windows CE/Mobile, but foolishly imposed the desktop UI onto the separate mobile OS, so its developers ended up applying the same application approaches to two separate operating systems, creating the UI disconnect in the mobile environment. HTC and others tried to mask that with UI overlays, but you quickly found your way back to the desktop Windows interface as you used applications.
By comparison, Apple rightfully had its developers focus on creating different types of native applications for two related operating systems, with user-pleasing results.
Microsoft seems to have switched to Apple's strategy
Microsoft seems to have learned that lesson by providing developers tools for Windows Phone 7 that work in its .Net and XNA development environments, which are familiar to desktop developers. That's smart, as it leverages what Microsoft developers know but doesn't impose desktop assumptions on the mobile environment -- with a likely result similar to what Apple achieved for its Mac OS X/iPhone OS developers.
But Windows Phone 7 is about smartphones, not about tablets. It's not at all clear if Microsoft still harbors hopes of Windows 7-based tablets -- as Ballmer did so publicly in January -- or if it will change gears and evolve the Windows Phone 7 OS to support tablets. In other words, will it stop trying to force-fit Windows onto tablets and adopt Apple's approach of evolving a mobile OS for tablets? Google and Palm/HP are taking Apple's approach for tablets, evolving Android OS and WebOS for tablets.
I'm betting that Microsoft will do the same thing.
Sure, a few Windows 7 slate-style tablets will ship -- Asus and MSI are said to have models shipping later this year. But those products will go nowhere, because Windows 7 is simply not the right operating system for a slate. (These companies also made a lot of noise around Android slates at the CES show in January, but now seem to have cooled to the idea, a reflection of their short-term market strategies.) And that's why you won't see Windows 7 Slate or WinPad or whatever outside tech blog photos.
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This article, "Why Windows 7 'slate' tablets won't happen," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.