The rise of consumer tablet PCs presents a potential threat to Microsoft, should manufacturers begin to put streamlined mobile operating systems, such as the Palm WebOS or Android, on the devices instead of Windows. However, according to one analyst, Microsoft has a history of responding well to such industrywide shifts and may very well come up with a strategy to counter.
"In the consumer world, we're talking about trying a lighter operating system and potentially, for applications, a bigger developer world," IDC analyst David Daoud told eWEEK in a June 17 interview. Those parameters, he added, could perhaps have led to a bit of soul-searching on the part of manufacturers. "In the initial discussions, the direction has been challenged by themselves, by their internal people-it remains to be seen what they're doing."
In addition to the Apple iPad, Microsoft also faces tablet competition from Google, which is collaborating with manufacturers to bring a modified version of its Android operating system to the devices. Hewlett-Packard's recent $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm will also likely see the Palm WebOS on a tablet-an unwelcome development for Microsoft, considering that Windows was being touted as the operating system for HP's upcoming tablet PC during January's Consumer Electronics Show.
Despite the setbacks implied by HP's likely use of the Palm WebOS and other manufacturers gravitating toward Android, Daoud said he believes that Microsoft continues to have an opportunity in the space.
"I'm not convinced Microsoft will completely drop it," Daoud said. "They're going to do what they've always done very well, which is respond with all the resources they have to a competitive threat.
"Recall Netscape and the browser wars," he added. "Microsoft waited a little bit, and then they came out. But now it's a little complicated because they're dealing with Apple, which has a first-mover advantage. But it's not over yet."
During a June 3 talk at the D8 conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer suggested that a sufficiently customized version of Windows would indeed run on tablets, and hinted that the stylus-although derided in some circles as an outdated input method for touch screens-would be a major factor in the technology's growth.
"Do we think people want to take notes and draw? What's the best way to do that? Well, there are different ways to do that and we'll support them all," Ballmer told the audience, according to a live blog of the event. "Today, we offer devices that do use a stylus. I certainly believe that people do want to take the things that they do today with pencil and paper and do them with new technologies."
Accompanying Ballmer onstage, Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie theorized that tablets and screens were still in their relative infancy. "I think there's going to be success in a number of form factors-in the pad form factor, in the tablet mode. I think there will be appliancelike screens that will be in our living rooms," Ozzie said. "There are certain fundamental differences in productivity in the consumption and creation experiences, though. Both must exist on these devices."
But a number of analysts have said Windows 7 can only succeed on a tablet if Microsoft follows a few key steps. According to Forrester analysts J.P. Gownder and Sarah Rotman Epps, in a May 27 report on the topic, a modified version of Windows 7 must present "a simple, streamlined, guided experience" for users.
"Microsoft and its partners must develop UX shell(s) appropriate to the tablet format to compete with Apple's excellent iPad experience," the analysts wrote. In addition, Microsoft and its partners must arrive at an appropriate price point: "If a sub-$499 tablet offers a bad consumer experience, it will fail. Prices above $750 would almost certainly be too high for a complementary device that acts as a second, third or fourth PC in the home."
The analysts also suggested that Microsoft integrate its ecosystem. A tablet that "syncs with the Xbox 360-with all the implied benefits, including the 'Natal' interface-would be a killer hub for the digital home, enabling back-and-forth streaming of videos and games that one-ups the capabilities of the iPad." Natal was the code name for Microsoft's newly unveiled Kinect hands-free game controller.
But ultimately, the analysts also opined that Microsoft would need partners in the endeavor. "Microsoft must keep HP-the largest player in the U.S. consumer market-in the game and tap into HP's TouchSmart lessons and assets," the report stated. "Dell, too, is a critical player for the consumer market. Dell will need more hand-holding than HP, as it lacks the TouchSmart experience."
Those partners, however, are likely debating their own futures in the tablet space.