Microsoft had planned to enter the tablet market, but recently pulled the plug on its Courier prototype. Now, critics are claiming that Microsoft must develop something to challenge the Apple iPad and stake a claim in the tablet arena, or else. On the contrary, Microsoft should avoid the tablet frenzy and focus on its core strengths.
According to a blog post by Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, "Forrester estimates that tablets will outsell netbooks in the US starting in 2013, and tablets will constitute 20 percent of all PC sales in the US in 2015. Microsoft needs its operating system on those tablets."
Epps focuses on arguments for why Microsoft needs to develop a Windows 7 tablet to capitalize both on the current tablet hype, as well as on its dominant position as the de facto operating system for 90 plus percent of the population. The arguments make sense on some levels, but miss the critical distinction that a tablet is different than a computer.
Culture vs. Form
The tablet--as defined by the Apple iPad--is a new type of device, not just a new shape for a computer. It is a culture shift, not just a new form factor. Netbooks, and notebooks may just be portable variations on a desktop theme, but the tablet fills a unique niche.
There is some crossover, so the confusion is understandable. An iPad can surf the Web, check e-mail, or create documents and spreadsheets like a PC, but at its heart it is more media consumption device than mobile computing platform, and it delivers a completely different experience.
Don't Build the Car, Supply the Fuel
Which company made more money last year--General Motors or Exxon-Mobil? General Motors only sells the car once, but Exxon-Mobil keeps putting the gas in it week after week, and year after year. Not only that, but Exxon-Mobil isn't locked in to General Motors, so Exxon-Mobil continues to sell fuel and make money no matter which car you purchase.
Microsoft should adopt a similar strategy. Microsoft should be focused on developing the fuel that users rely on no matter what operating system platform or device form factor is used. Instead of spinning its wheels trying to out-tablet Apple, Microsoft should be dedicating its vast resources to developing innovative cross-platform applications that users rely on no matter which device they choose.
It's All About Mobility
The rise of smartphones, app stores, and tablets illustrate that we live in an increasingly mobile world. When I am working, sitting at my desk, I absolutely want my "real" computer and I wouldn't dream of giving up my Windows 7 Ultimate operating system. The PC is still a necessity, and will be for most users for the foreseeable future.
But, when I leave my desk, I still want to be able to check my e-mail, and surf the Web. I want access to my music collection on a device that is light and portable. I want to be able to create, view, and edit files, or add items to my to-do list, and events to my calendar, and I want all of those things to sync seamlessly between my "real" computer, my tablet, and my smartphone.
Windows 7 is great at what it does on my PC, but it is too cumbersome and simply not suited for the tablet world. You might note that the iPad is built on Apple's iPhone mobile OS. The Dell Streak is built on Google's Android mobile OS. HP pulled the plug on the Windows-7 based Slate so it could reengineer it and build it on Palm's WebOS mobile operating system. See the trend?
Tablets and smartphones are more about mobility than computing. That is why tablets and smartphones are built on mobile operating systems rather than just operating systems.
So, Microsoft--give me Microsoft Word, and Outlook, and OneNote, and Communicator for the iPhone, and the iPad, and Android devices, and WebOS devices, and on BlackBerries, and every other way imaginable. But, don't bother building a whole new device or platform to muddy the waters.
If you must enter the tablet platform fray, have the humility to realize that Windows 7--for all its PC glory--is not the way to go. Feel free to adapt the Zune HD, or Windows Phone 7 OS to the tablet market, but recognize that a tablet is more than squeezing a PC into a flat-panel touchscreen form factor.
The name recognition and marketing clout of Microsoft would enable it to capture some chunk of market share regardless, but the odds of Microsoft dominating tablets are slim, and the odds of it completely monopolizing tablets are non-existent. Why not avoid the head on battle and simply focus on solutions that can be sold to customers no matter what device they use?