Microsoft's Killer Tablet Opportunity

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Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you run a company that isn't Apple and want to make money selling tablets. How might you go about it?

What you wouldn't try to do: Out-Apple Apple.

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There's no point trying to outslick the company that's perfected slick user interfaces. First of all, you won't succeed. By the time you get close to matching iOS, Apple will have moved on to the next level of fashionable semi-functionality. Apple's software is somewhat like the Kardashians: It always looks good if your tastes run that way. Its capabilities are quite a different matter.

Nor does acknowledging second-best status on the slickness front have to translate to lack of competitiveness. Recall that, give or take a year or two, Microsoft Windows has looked like what you might get if Apple sold Macintoshes in kit form to hobbyists -- sorta like it, only clunkier and with rough edges. And yet, Windows have outsold Macs everywhere except in homes, schools, and marketing departments by maybe a 20:1 margin. The user interface matters, but it isn't the whole ball game. Heck, it isn't even an inning.

No, the game isn't beating Apple at its own game. The magic buzzword is to "differentiate" and show what your technology will do that Apple won't even care about, let alone beat you at. One possible answer: Help individual employees be more effective at their jobs.

Here are three features the iPad lacks -- and almost certainly will continue to lack for quite some time -- that fit the bill. I should be charging Steve Ballmer for these ideas, but I'll settle for a freebie if Microsoft, or any other tablet maker, ends up making a gadget that incorporates them.

Killer tablet feature No. 1: Have a file system
No, I'm not the first person to point this out. This isn't even the first (or second, or third) time I've said it myself. Nonetheless, helping users stay organized is central to a computer's purpose, and file management is central to that goal.

Killer tablet feature No. 2: The file system is the CMS is the PIM is the email client
Have something to remember? In the iOS world, different kinds of information go into different apps, never to see each other again. When the best you can do for the miscellaneous stuff is the notebook-oriented Evernote PIM (personal information manager), there's plenty of room for improvement, even within iOS's self-imposed limitations.

The Windows world is better: Different kinds of information go into different file types, databases, or applications. On top of that, for any particular thought that needs remembering, users can choose where they stash information. Sometimes they:

  • Save a short Word document on their hard disk or network share.
  • Save a short Word document in SharePoint or some other CMS.
  • Add another tidbit to one long document they put it all into.
  • Send themselves an email.
  • Add a Note or Task to Outlook or third-party PIM.

Here's the new rule, which is the same as the old rule that preceded computers by centuries: The way to organize thinking is an outline. Evernote? It's on the path to the dark side. Organized thinking takes an outline, not lots of separate ones.

Instead, imagine Windows Explorer. You have a thought. You enter it as a line item in whatever folder it fits into -- no need to create a whole file to hold a single thought.

Have another thought that supports the first one? Enter it as a next-level item below the thought you just entered. Have a PowerPoint presentation that supports it? Stash that in the same place.

Want to make it even more useful? Make it easy for me to stash the same file in more than one logical spot. It is, after all, the same document whether I'm thinking of it as, for example, part of the 2013 planning folder or the folder that holds all product plans.

Treat Outlook email messages the same. There's nothing special about 'em. Emails are just more information, not an entirely different kind of creature -- so no more separate Outlook folder trees and, probably, no more Outlook. Give us the one tree that looks so much like Windows Explorer. One tree structure, everything goes into it, and if you want to share it you publish it to SharePoint. Why make work any harder than this?

Killer tablet feature No. 3: Handwriting and speech recognition everywhere
Not everyone works at a desk. Important people work standing up, walking around, checking things out, and evaluating them. No, not managers who have read the Book -- I'm talking about doctors, nurses, appraisers, roofers, factory foremen, reporters (the few that are left). It's time to support vertical-industry workers by embedding handwriting recognition and speech recognition as core OS services so that they're seamless alternatives to the keyboard for all uses.

That's right. Any place you can use a keyboard you should be able to write on the screen with a stylus or speak into the microphone. The OS can figure it out from there, while keeping the original content, of course, for just-in-case situations. (Computers are very useful for "just in case.")

Bonus killer table feature: Triple UI
As for the user interface, we seem to have reached the point of outsmarting ourselves. We've become so good at hiding the complexity that we've made reaching the complexity when we need it hard.

Give us three interfaces instead. The first protects people from themselves. This is what iOS does for us. The second level opens things up for people who want to learn more than just the basics.

That leaves level three. It's the one for users who are serious about wanting to use their tablets for actual work, and about being innovative in how they go about it.

What will that interface look like? I'm guessing it won't be slick at all. Most likely, it will take the form of an outline.

This story, "Microsoft's killer tablet opportunity," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

This story, "Microsoft's Killer Tablet Opportunity" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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