Microsoft Scrambles to Catch up with the iPad

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Remember back in early June when Steve Ballmer said the Apple iPad was "just another PC"? He'd like to amend that slightly to "just another PC that's now kicking our a**."

In a meeting with analysts yesterday, Ballmer spent a fair amount of time talking about Apple's iPad and trying to explain why there are no Microsoft-based devices that remotely compare to it.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Cringely is nothing if not an equal-opportunity satirist, as he proves in "Apple's Steve Jobs: He's no Old Spice Guy" | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Fortune's Philip Elmer-Dewitt distills the Ballmer discussion of the iPad into 11 words: "We'll talk about slates and tablets and blah, blah, blah, blah." (Apparently, Ballmer is also adopting the Steve Jobs 11-word rule.)

The "blah blah blah" part included a) an admission that the iPad has sold "more than I'd like them to sell," b) "we're coming full guns" to the slate market, and c) they'll be "coming when they're ready" -- so don't bother camping in line outside any Microsoft stores just yet. (Greg Packer, this means you.)

Meanwhile, the one Windows-based slate Ballmer could dig up to demo at last January's CES -- and got virtually heckled off the stage by the blogosphere afterward -- may end up not being a Windows device after all. Now that HP has gobbled up Palm, its Slate PC may run Palm's WebOS, a much more attractive tablet interface than Windows 7. Given how badly HP got jobbed by Microsoft during the whole "Vista ready" labeling debacle, I imagine this would be sweet revenge.

So, once again, Microsoft finds itself in the position of needing to imitate Apple to stay relevant.

Of course, imitation is part of Microsoft's DNA. Copy something successful, then ram it down people's throats. CP/M becomes MS-DOS, the Mac GUI gets reborn as Windows, though maybe "stillborn" is closer -- it took Redmond 11 years to come up with an interface that approached the Mac's features and simplicity. Intuit's Quicken begets Microsoft Money. The iPod spawns the Zune. And so on down the line.

I'm not saying Microsoft has not come up with some innovations over the last 35 years. I still think Excel is the best software Redmond ever made. The Xbox, Microsoft Surface, Project Natal -- er, Kinect -- are all first rate. But its bread-and-butter strategy continues to be "imitate, then destroy." And that strategy has grown less successful over time.

Now Microsoft has to play catchup to the iPad, as well as the 3,247 Android-based tablets we'll be seeing over the next 12 months. Given how long it's taking Redmond to catch up on cell phones, it may be two years before we see any tablets worth talking about. By then, it will be too late.

Still, this could explain Microsoft's new slogan, unveiled at its annual Microsoft Global Exchange confab last week: Be What's Next. In this case, what's "next" is Apple, a company it seems Microsoft now desperately needs to become.

If you had to create a new slogan for Microsoft, what would it be? E-mail me:

This story, "Microsoft Scrambles to Catch up with the iPad" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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