Microsoft is busy at work on a new tablet computer design, a product that may arrive from one or more of its hardware partners in "not a heck of a long time," CEO Steve Ballmer told analysts on Thursday.
With the early success of the Apple iPad--more than 3 million sales and counting--and a batch of Android tablets scheduled to arrive by the end of the year, Microsoft is coming to the party late. True, Redmond has toyed with tablet PCs for years, including long-forgotten experiments such as the Toshiba Portege M205-S810 laptop/slate hybrid, but it's still a no-show in the iPad era. This will soon change, however.
Desktop to Tablet
Unfortunately, Microsoft plans to retrofit Windows 7 to run on slates. While Win 7 is a fine operating system for conventional PCs, it was never designed for touch input, a shortcoming that makes it inherently clunky for the new breed of touchscreen tablets.
To be fair, Windows 7 does include Windows Touch, an interface overlay that allows you to use multitouch finger gestures--the flicks and taps familiar to smartphone users--on a Win 7 tablet. But touch input isn't a particularly efficient way to navigate the Windows UI, which was designed for mice and keyboards.
The Windows Start button, desktop icons, and application menus were designed for the mouse and cursor, not the less-precise movements of the finger. I'm writing this blog post in Office 2007, and the ribbon interface above the text window is packed with feature options that are spaced too closely together for touch input, particularly on the relatively small (e.g. 10-inch) screens we're likely to see on most Windows 7 tablets. Similarly, how well would touch work with a complex spreadsheet in Excel? Again, touch's lack of precision isn't a good match for much of today's business software.
There's always the option of an external keyboard for Windows 7 tablets, something akin to what iPad users have for iWork and other productivity apps. And Microsoft may very well introduce a modified version of Office exclusively for tablets.
But wouldn't a mobile OS be a better fit for slates? Apple went that route with the iPad, which uses the iOS (iPhone OS)--built from the ground up for touch--rather than the Mac's desktop-bound OS X. Google took a similar route: Android OS is designed especially for finger-friendly mobile devices.
There's also the question of Windows 7's power consumption on a tablet. Could a Windows tablet running a power-hungry desktop OS match the iPad's 10-hour battery life? The verdict's still out, but I suspect the answer isn't pretty.
And then there's speculation that last week's agreement between Microsoft and chipmaker ARM may mean that Redmond still intends to build a tablet OS based on its Windows Phone 7 mobile software, a seemingly logical move that would mimic Apple's and Google's approach to slates.
Could that be Microsoft's ultimate goal? Is Windows 7 an interim tablet OS, soon to be replaced by Windows Phone 7? I suspect that's the case. After all, the desktop version of Windows has failed before in the tablet market. It's likely to fail again.