How Microsoft Can Attack the Tablet Problem
I have no idea what Microsoft's tablet plans are, but I can tell you what it shouldn't do, and offer some suggestions. To begin with, Microsoft should absolutely not simply put Windows 7 on a tablet...effectively a netbook with no keyboard. That makes for a tablet that is too large, too expensive, too short on battery life, slow to boot up, and so on. Also, as I discussed earlier, the fundamentals of a mouse-driven interface make for a poor touch-driven interface.
Microsoft might put some sort of standardized front-end for touch on top of Windows 7, as a way to get you to your media or apps more easily. I hate that idea, too. If you've ever used HP's TouchSmart PCs, you know these front-ends are often clunky and slow, and once you get into the application, you're back to an interface designed for a mouse. You can, of course, make a series of touch-centric apps, but then you're throwing out one of the key benefits of running Windows in the first place; the ability to use the millions of Windows apps out there.
To my mind, there are three courses of action Microsoft can take that have a real chance of producing tablets that are actually a joy to use:
1. Build a whole new tablet OS. This obviously lets them make an interface and rely on applications optimized for touch and for the tablet form factor, but it's a huge undertaking that would simply take too much time and money to do right. By the time a hypothetical new tablet OS ships, Apple and Android tablets will have completely dominated the market.
2. Scale up Windows Phone 7 to a tablet version of the OS. This could be a great idea. It's already got a slick touch-based interface, and if we assume that some updates in early 2011 will address missing features like copy-and-paste, missing browser features, and multitasking, it could easily be competitive with other tablet operating systems. It runs on those energy-efficient and cost-conscious ARM based processors, and it has great tools for building touch-centric applications already in the hands of thousands of developers. If I was Microsoft, I would throw huge resources at making this happen post-haste.
3. Take the Windows Media Center route with a Tablet interface for Windows 8. Media Center is a sort of alternate "mode" of Windows designed to do the things you want to do from your couch (watch TV and internet video, listen to music, stuff like that). It's made to be operated with a remote control, never touching a mouse or keyboard. It's got an API of sorts, a framework, for developers to build Media Center apps that run only in the Media Center interface and work with a remote. If you've used it lately, you'll know it's actually a pretty great set-top box experience. In a similar vein, Microsoft could build as a standard part of Windows an alternate front-end for touch based devices like tablets, with its own application framework and completely different UI. It's still Windows underneath, but you wouldn't know it (just as you don't see anything Windows-like in Media Center, beyond the logos). This could be very successful, but the timing is poor. It still relies to tablets running x86 processors from Intel or AMD, and we're still at least a year from that sort of hardware being inexpensive and energy-efficient enough to make a great tablet.
Call me a cynic, but I don't expect to see an announcement in the near future of Microsoft pursuing any of those three options. I'd love to be wrong, but I expect to see thick, heavy tablets with inferior battery life based on hardware that would make for a disappointing netbook, running basic Windows 7, with various disparate touch front-end interfaces designed by the hardware vendors, putting a thin veneer over the fact that the whole system is really built for a mouse and keyboard it doesn't have.