Windows 7 Tablets: Now or Never

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As I watch the Tablet Revolution, 2011 Edition unfold, I'm struck by the similarities to the first go-round of tablets a decade ago. As before, PC manufacturers are largely focusing on vertical markets in enterprise applications for Windows-based tablets. But this time, in doing so, the industry may be missing the point of why Windows tablets may be desirable outside the business realm.

We've heard a lot of chatter about putting Windows 7 on a tablet--including a headline-grabbing keynote at the 2010 CES--but we've seen very little movement to make it happen. Last month at CES, Fujitsu and MSI showed Windows 7 tablets, and both companies clearly indicated that their Windows tablet strategies were aimed at vertical markets, such as medical, finance, manufacturing, and education.

That strategy follows HP's shift of its HP Slate 500 strategy late last fall, moving from a consumer product to a vertical business product with an $800 price tag. Similarly Dell announced today that it would field a Windows 7 tablet later this year that would target vertical markets (with customized software to optimize integration with other Dell business system offerings). The only companies that have talked about running Windows 7 on a tablet and not merged it with a discussion of vertical markets are Asus, which announced at CES that its Eee Slate EP121 would ship for $999 this quarter; and ViewSonic, a company that by no means focuses on PCs.

HP's Slate.

But the interest in vertical markets is not a new direction for tablet PCs. Consider this piece from the year 2001: "Prototype Tablet PCs Take Spotlight." Back then, the focus was on tablets running Windows XP, on a device that measured about 1 inch thick. As the story reports, Fujitsu was already designing Tablet PCs for the medical, insurance, and manufacturing industries. Sound familiar?

The 2001 article goes on to note "Tablet PC vendors say they hope the design goes mainstream and is eventually commonplace at office meetings, used by workers away from their desktop PCs." But today, the PC makers that are getting into the tablet game aren't even mentioning the prospect of positioning a Windows 7 tablet for consumers.

So much for progress. One vibe I'm getting from conversations with vendors is that component costs remain an issue; vendors seem to think that they can't deliver a Windows 7 tablet at a price that consumers will deem acceptable (today, Apple's $499 price tag for an entry-level device is the golden starting point). Ditto for the size: While consumers clamor for thinner and lighter tablets (witness all of the rumors surrounding Apple iPad 2), Windows-based tablets have constraints because of their components' requirements. Fujitsu, for example, expects its slate to weigh about 1.7 pounds, which puts it somewhere between the HP Slate 500 (starts at 1.5 pounds) and the announced-but-not-yet-shipping ViewSonic ViewPad 10 (1.9 pounds).

Another issue, of course, is that a decade after Microsoft's first attempt to get a tablet-optimized version of Windows off the ground, the Windows 7 operating system is not especially finger-friendly. This persistent shortcoming explains why PC makers have had to come up with innovative (and proprietary) work-arounds to optimize touchscreen PCs for finger navigation (see HP's TouchSmart software on its TouchSmart PCs, Acer's cool Iconia software on its dual-touchscreen laptop, and Dell's basic Stage overlay for accessing frequently used data). It's also one reason why many Windows 7 tablets may continue to support a stylus, as did previous generations of tablet and so-called convertible PCs (laptops with a flip-around screen that turns it into a tablet).

What does this mean for consumers who might want Windows on their tablet? And why would we want Windows, anyway?

For all its faults, Windows holds the appeal of potential interoperability with apps and interfaces that you already use on your laptop or desktop. Google's Android 3.0 has come a long way, but it still represents a very different approach to computing. For the same reasons that enterprises might want Windows-based tablets, so might small businesses and even individual consumers. The idea of file-system compatibility, of using a hard drive or a flash drive in the USB port of a tablet and then taking that same drive to a PC to work on later, with no compatibility issues to worry about, is certainly enticing.Ultimately it raises the prospect of a slate orientation offering an alternative design to complement the larger laptop you may already carry, or the desktop back at your home base.

That said, in light of the avowed intentions of PC makers, Windows 7 seems unlikely to offer a viable alternative to the bevy of non-Windows tablets coming to market in the coming months. Apple's iOS tablet is clearly capable of selling at a significantly lower price than any Windows tablets we've seen so far; ditto for Google's Android 2.2-based 7-inch models available today. And if a leaked Office Depot advertisement is correct, RIM's Playbook will come it at $500--matching the larger-screened iPad.

Not clear yet is how attractive the pricing will be for Google 3.0 Honeycomb tablets. At launch, the Motorola Xoom runs $800, not counting the service contract. That's a high number for post-recession consumers and businesses to swallow. At today's WebOS event, the HP TouchPad was unveiled, but the company did not provide price or carrier details.

Microsoft needs to take action now with an OS that offers at least some optimization for tablets; if the company waits any longer, it will miss the boat while tablets are all the rage. And if PC makers sit by idly and don't court consumers with competitively priced and aesthetically designed Windows tablets, they, too, may miss their window of opportunity to compete with the mobile OS upstarts. As time goes on, more consumers will jump ship and increasingly rely on their mobile OS devices instead of on Windows.

And once consumers shift to a more visual, finger-friendly operating system, Windows could lose eyeballs permanently--interoperability be damned.

Melissa Perenson is a Senior Editor at PCWorld.

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