My first review of a Tablet PC was posted this morning at Tablet PC Magazine. I looked at the Dell Inspiron Duo. The hardware was solid, but was missing a few key features (like video out). The real problem was Windows 7. Windows 7 is not designed for touch on a high resolution screen. You just can’t get your finger to the right place consistently enough. Windows 7 is a fine tablet OS for pen-based systems, and those with mice and touchpads, but any vendor who puts it on a high resolution tablet will be disappointed. (Note: I keep saying "high resolution" because as the pixels get smaller, so do the targets. On a really big screen, Windows 7 is adequate, though not optimal, for touch).
So what should Microsoft do:
- Abandon Windows 7 desktop OS as the tablet platform outside of pen-computing. The market in general has an issue I don’t see discussed very often, and no one has an answer: precision and feel over touch. The Apple iPad is the ultimate example of touch for now, but it doesn’t do well as a pressure-sensitive drawing tool. Pen-based tablets with Wacom technology are great for sketching because you can lay your hand on them and it isn’t considered a gesture. They can mimic the precision of pencils and pens, including capturing the subtle differences in pressure that make a line darker or wider.
- Differentiate. The pen/touch issue is an example of Microsoft strategy at its worst: they have a really good story that differentiates Windows 7 tablets with pens from the touch market, but they go into the touch market with the same OS. Strategy is about differentiation. And come on market, Microsoft, Google, etc. the big differentiation isn’t that your device can run Adobe Flash. Really? Apple is driving HTML 5 and will continue waving from the front of the line. Pick something else. Find some conflicting feature value and drive a dialog. Windows 7 and its enterprise features and single OS mantra isn’t the differentiator Microsoft needs (not in the consumer market). Unfortunately for Microsoft, time-to-market isn’t on their side anymore. If Microsoft were to be radical, it would abandon the consumer market for tablets and go after the enterprise market. One way to differentiate is to make everyone else look bad in the C-Suite, but that isn’t about complexity, its about passive and seamless security and Enterprise app capabilities. The consumer market is forcing the simplicity issue in Enterprises so Microsoft needs to pick that up, but market differentiation is a potentially valid strategy. Another thought, if Microsoft takes up pen again, front-and-center, they could go after the creatives, Apple’s core, by putting thin, cool tablets out that are connected directly to the creative experience (e.g., no USB tablet, just draw on the screen). If it also browses (what Chrome MS, you are touting "The Cloud" in commercials, but look at Chrome OS to see what a "Cloud" OS could look like.
- Adopt the Windows 7 smartphone OS for Tablet PCs. Apple led the way, and HP is following with WebOS (formerly PalmOS). It looks like the combination of the new OS with the Zune entertainment platform might be both viable and credible. Build on this strength.
- Create an ecosystem. The market doesn’t believe in Windows 7 as a touch input OS and that is most evident from the nearly total lack of applications that support, let alone, show off touch. Microsoft’s Touch Pack for Windows 7 is pretty useless and non-inspired. All that software talent and this is what ships? Let’s get some reference apps based on things like Office and SharePoint integration. Take drag-and-drop to the next level and show some coordinated, better-together value. Go strong-arm (e.g., pay) some developers to do something interesting with touch and Windows 7 (if, for now, you insist on keeping the Windows 7 course).
- Go solid-state or go home. Microsoft needs to get to an instant-on OS and that means driving vendors to solid-state devices. Windows 7 sleep and recovery is just too slow for the tablet market, really any market, but especially the tablet PC market. Microsoft creates reference specs and works with hardware vendors to drive design. Where is the MacBook Air equivalent PC, let alone the iPad-like device. And what about a Windows 7 app store, why is that coming from Intel?
- DO NOT RESKIN WINDOWS 7. The poorly performing DellStage and Microsoft’s attempt to skin Windows Vista on the Ultra-Mobile PC with Origami1 just don’t cut it. The experience needs to be visceral and deep, not just window-dressing.
- DO MAKE A SERIOUS MARKET STATEMENT. No one knows what a tablet is for or to Microsoft. As with many things Microsoft, it appears to be all things to all people as long as it runs Windows 7. That is a strategy, but a loosing strategy. Define. Differentiate and Deliver. Steve, go for the three Ds and don’t overhype or pontificate. You only get to do that as a market leader. When you’re serious (like HP appears to be, but we will really know when they ship) then come back to us and we (the market) will decide just how serious you are.
It may be that Microsoft has made its last venture into touch and tablets, but I doubt it. Perhaps like an old boxer, Microsoft believes swinging wildly may eventually land a blow. I think they should retreat, go back into training, and come out with something that rocks the market. If they can’t do that, then they should concentrate on their strengths and not embarrass themselves.
1. Please note that the Microsoft Origami website (under software) still states: Origami Experience 2.0 is scheduled to be available in mid 2008.