Hey, Microsoft: What's Your Tablet Strategy?

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It was a holiday weekend in the U.S., but in Taipei, it was time for the start of Computex-the show that serves as an excellent freeze-frame of what the PC industry is excited about at the moment. Judging from the news so far, what it's excited about is the iPad.

As Engadget is reporting, Asus is showing off something called the Eee Pad at the show-a vaguely iPad-esque looking device that runs Windows 7, packs an Intel ultra-low voltage CPU, and (like the iPad) claims ten hours of battery life on a charge. It's safe to say that Asus still has heavy lifting to do to make the Eee Pad a reality: It isn't planning to ship it until next year. By then, it'll face competition from other Windows 7 tablets, such as this Computex debutante from MSI, not to mention Android tablets (MSI is showing one of those, too)

Both the Asus and the MSI look pretty much like Windows subnotebooks that have had their keyboards chopped off. Assuming that Windows-based tablets have a future, though, they've got to amount to something more than that. And they've got to amount to something which neither Microsoft nor any of its hardware partners have articulated so far.

Steve Ballmer's CES keynote was only five months ago, but it's already something out of an era that feels ancient. He showed off upcoming "Slate PCs," including a much-hyped HP model which is now mysteriously missing. At the show, a Microsoft executive told me that Microsoft had no plans to customize Windows 7 any further for touch-screen devices. Meanwhile, the Microsoft "Courier" concept tablet which a lot of people loved turned out to be destined for the dustbin of concept PC history.

Even though Microsoft hasn't had much to say about tablets lately, it would be stunning if its tablet strategy hadn't evolved a lot since early January. Actually, given its track record in recent months, it's probably just as well if it stays mum until it can show products which will definitely ship in our lifetimes.

So what's Microsoft thinking? I see three possibilities:

  • It could continue with its current strategy of putting full-blown Windows 7 on tablets;
  • It could mimic Apple's approach by building a version of the Windows Phone OS designed for bigger screens;
  • It could do both, by offering both full-blown Windows and mobile Windows for use on tablets-a little like the duality of Google's Chrome OS/Android gameplan.

(There are probably other strategies Microsoft could pursue, such as building a new OS utterly from scratch or hoping that the iPad is a fad; those seem unlikely, though.)

Trouble is, there are major gotchas with all three of the likely scenarios:

  • Even if the new Windows 7 tablets are solid from a hardware standpoint, they're doomed to be unsatisfying compromises unless both the operating system and the apps that run on it are designed with touch in mind-not as an afterthought, but as the primary interface;
  • Microsoft clearly has its hands full just getting Windows Phone 7 out there as a phone OS;
  • Two mobile versions of Windows is a recipe for confusion.

If I were forced at gunpoint to guess what Microsoft will do, I'd venture that it'll try possibility #3 and offer multiple Windows variants for tablets. This is a company that's more comfortable placing multiple bets than letting everything ride on one gigantic gamble. I also think it's going to be 2011 before Microsoft's strategy is clear and products based upon it are widely available.

So what would get you excited about Windows tablets?

This story, "Hey, Microsoft: What's Your Tablet Strategy?" was originally published by Technologizer.

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