Microsoft’s Windows Addiction Could Cripple Tablet Strategy

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Microsoft seems determined to port Windows onto tablets, but with the tablet market growing rapidly, the company needs a stronger game plan, says Nicholas Kolakowski

The news out of last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona illustrated, for the nth time, just how quickly the tablet market is evolving into something considerable – and it’s evolving quickly. Within the next few quarters, we can expect tablets powered by quad-core processors and running Android 3.0, competing head-to-head against next-generation devices from Apple and Hewlett-Packard.

Increasingly, it seems that Microsoft is willing to sit this battle out in the near-term. The next version of Windows will support SoC (System-on-a-chip) architecture, including ARM-based systems. Considering how ARM chip designs currently dominate much of the mobile space, that suggests Microsoft’s “Windows 8” will at least partially target the tablet market – whenever it finally comes out. In the meantime, a handful of manufacturers (Dell and HP in particular) are manufacturing limited-run Windows 7 tablets for the enterprise. Emphasis on the word “limited.”

Where are all the Windows tablets?

Throughout the latter half of 2010, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer pledged that consumer tablets running Windows 7 were in the works. “You’ll see new slates with Windows on them. You’ll see them this Christmas,” he told an audience on 5 October at the London School of Economics. “Certainly we have done work around the tablet as both a productivity device and a consumption device.” He offered similar comments during his keynote speech at July’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, and to The Seattle Times in September.

Then came January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Ballmer used his keynote to … not mention tablets at all. Instead, he chose to focus on Kinect, Windows 7 on laptops, and Windows Phone 7. Microsoft’s CES booth featured a handful of tablets, tucked away among the PCs and Xboxes, and they all seemed aimed at the Asian market – in marked contrast to companies like Samsung, which seemed uniformly determined to turn their respective CES areas into Tablets ‘R Us.

Windows has earned Microsoft untold billions of dollars over the past few decades. A product like that exerts its own special type of gravity on a company. But Redmond’s seeming determination to port Windows onto tablets, a form-factor seemingly more suited to lighter operating systems like iOS and Android, seems to me a recipe for disaster: trying to graft that user interface – built for larger screens, physical keyboards, and mice – onto a tablet is the tech-world equivalent of trying to make an elephant ride a unicycle. That’s not what it’s meant for, and nobody ends up happy.

Windows Phone OS a better bet?

Maybe the next version of Windows will offer something radically different and tablet-centric. In the meantime, I feel it wouldn’t be out of the question for Microsoft to consider porting a modified version of Windows Phone 7 onto the tablet form-factor. And why not? Windows Phone 7 is built for touch-screens, and its emphasis on side-scrolling suggests it could adjust to larger screen real estate. Certainly those developers working on Windows Phone apps would appreciate the chance to sell to more than one device type.

But Microsoft won’t do that, because of Windows’ continued grip on their corporate culture. And so we wait – or not – for the company to make its big consumer tablet play.

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